Monday, May 24, 2021

This Day in TV History: Controversy at the Indy 500

It seems like no one can mention the rise of the NBA in the 1980s without mentioning that in the darkest days of the league, the Finals aired on tape delay. Remember that in that era, major sporting events didn't have the perceived God-given right to live broadcasts across the nation. 40 years ago tonight, the venerable Indianapolis 500, aired at 9:00 P.M. on ABC after a repeat of a documentary called Mysteries of the Sea.

The Sunday, May 24, 1981 edition of the race became one of the most memorable in its history due to a controversial finish. The initial declaration of Bobby Unser as winner didn't hold up, and on Monday runner-up Mario Andretti became the official champ. Officials made that call after reviewing an illegal pass by Unser during a pit stop.

ABC took full advantage of the tape delay. During the race coverage, announcers Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart, calling it as if it were live, highlighted the infraction knowing a protest was in the works. Andretti appeared on the telecast after the race in a live segment and talked about his side of it.

According to the great Wikipedia coverage of the event, ABC's production garnered criticism for a slant towards Andretti. A similar infraction by him was ignored while the announcing of the Unser move made it seem like it was obvious at the actual time.

However, on October 9, an appeals board overturned the overturning, making Unser once again the winner. Today the official victor of the 1981 Indy 500 is indeed Bobby Unser. Andretti tried another appeal before giving up.

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