The NTT IndyCar Series is facing a pivotal time. Along with a new title sponsor, IndyCar has an exclusive media rights deal with NBC Sports, which includes the Indianapolis 500. After Indy Car ended a relationship with ABC that started in 1965, NBC has taken over broadcasting The Greatest Spectacle in Racing and they have been on it.
Personally, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the Indy 500 being advertised like this, but NBC has made sure everyone is aware the Indy 500 is now on NBC. From advertising during other sporting events like the NFL playoffs and other highly rated primetime shows, to moving The Today Show from New York City to Indianapolis and bringing Tom Hanks and Sheryl Crow to the speedway, to adding Mike Tirico as host, NBC is hoping this pays off in terms of added viewership and bringing in both new and casual fans and turning them into diehard fans.
On the call will be Leigh Diffey. Born in Australia, Diffey became an American citizen in 2011 and has been the voice of NBC’s IndyCar coverage since 2013. Originally hired to do IndyCar and Formula 1, Diffey’s role has greatly expanded at NBC and now includes NASCAR, IMSA, Premiership Rugby, the Penn Relays, and both Summer and Winter Olympics.
This will be Diffey’s first time doing play-by-play for the Indianapolis 500, and he’ll be just the 11th person to do that for a U.S. broadcast. Diffey joins one of the most exclusive and legendary clubs in sports broadcasting, which includes legends such as Chris Schenkel, Jim McKay, Keith Jackson, Jim Lampley, Paul Page, Bob Jenkins, and Allen Bestwick.
Diffey spoke to Awful Announcing, and we talked about doing play-by-play at Indy for the first time, NBC’s film Drive Like Andretti, and the network’s commitment to IndyCar and the 500. Diffey will be joined by analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy for Carb Day starting Friday at 11 AM ET and will call the 103rd Indy 500 this Sunday starting at noon ET on NBC, with prerace coverage starting at 9 AM ET on NBCSN and 11 AM ET on NBC.
[NOTE: Interview was edited for clarity]
Phillip Bupp: How was the Indy 500 viewed in Australia when you were growing up? What was your earliest connection to the race?
Leigh Diffey: Well, it definitely is viewed the same way as it is here, as far as the enormity of the event. I honestly can’t remember my first memory. [laughter] That’s a little bit embarrassing isn’t it?
But, you know, I would not say that there is a rich or a long history of Australian involvement in the event. There’s certainly is involvement in the event. Vern Schuppan was Rookie of the Year (1976) back in the day, and Jack Brabham ran here, and various others. I think the global reach of the race meant that as a kid, growing up in Australia, I was very aware of it. But finding it on television (when the race is shown in the middle of the night) back then was a little more challenging for me. But, definitely, it is The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The Australian sporting public are definitely well aware of it.
PB: How about your first experience [at Indy] as a broadcaster?
Diffey: Yeah, so, I mean, I came here in the early 2000s, a couple of times where I was working for Sky Sports, in the UK, and also Network Ten, in Australia. Just gathering interviews and doing some minor hosting type things. Some pre-recorded hosting pieces, and features, and things like that.
I’ll never forget those moments. Seeing my first start and standing in pit lane, and watching the field take the green and walking on the yard of bricks for the first time, etc. All of those key and iconic things to do. And back then, which is some 15, maybe more, years ago, I would never have thought that I’d have the opportunity to do play-by-play. Just being here in that much reduced role of doing interviews and gathering things, it’s a start. It’s obviously, very different to what we’re doing now. Worlds apart, but still the same level of excitement to be here and to be involved.
PB: Since this is your first time doing play-by-play for the 500, what is that feeling like to have that opportunity and putting your name with some legendary people in the industry?
Diffey: Oh it’s fantastic. It’s amazing. I feel I’ve seen my name in so many different places and press releases, etc., but I think it won’t quite become real until race day. When I joined NBC Sports seven years ago, I got to do a qualifying weekend and we did a Carb Day once, I think. Or maybe I was in Monaco.
I think we did a pole day one year, which was very cool. But, then again you know, it’s removed, it’s different. It’s different to being able to do race day. Race day will still be race day because obviously almost every weekend I’m doing something different. But, this is going to be so special and I’ll have a little bit of time when Mike Tirico and Danica [Patrick] and Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. is doing the pre-race show, I’ll actually have a little bit of extra time, as opposed to normal race weekends where I’m hosting and calling. I’ll be able to have that extra time to take it in a little bit more, and I’m really looking forward to that.
Just to be somewhat more relaxed and laid back, because when Paul [Tracy], Townsend [Bell], and myself, all the broadcast team, we’re always involved in the pre-race show, rush to the booth to make it to do the call. It won’t be that same frantic pace so I’m going to well and truly take in some moments to soak them all in.
PB: You’ve done so many high profile races in addition to the Olympics, whether in the US or around the world. I imagine Indy’s gonna be another one of those bucket list events you’re crossing off. Is there a race, or even another sport, that you haven’t done yet that you someday wanna try?
Diffey: I’d love to do the Daytona 500. I’m not sure that’s ever gonna be possible but never say never. I never thought I’d do the Indianapolis 500. That would be one of those marquee events. I think the really interesting thing about the marquee events is that, you just used the phrase and I use it as well, we all do, we check it off your list. But when it comes time to do the first one, maybe whether it was my first Bathurst 1000 or my first 24 Hours of Le Mans or my first Monaco Grand Prix or whatever it may have been. You don’t actually feel like checking them off the list because you’re so everything, you’re so excited, you’re so proud, you’re so engaged that you actually have the opportunity to do it. You don’t feel like you’ve checked it off the list until, not even once you completed it, maybe until several years later. I’m looking forward to enjoying that feeling about Indy just because of what it is.
— Leigh Diffey (@leighdiffey) May 16, 2019
PB: I’m right there. The only time I’ve been to Indy was 2016, I was there as a fan. Even now, still, it’s still fresh in my mind and my memories that I was there for the 100th [Indy 500].
Diffey: Yeah, our producers have been generous enough to give several of us a few days off in between last week’s pretty hectic and really exciting Indy GP and now. But I go back into full work mode tomorrow [May 17] because we have seven hours of practice on NBC Sports Gold and then enter qualifying weekend, practice on Monday and then of course race week. But I arrived and just the cars going round, the sound of the cars, as I was coming down 16th Street I thought, ‘I’m gonna grab a little lunch,’ and I went into Main Street [in] Speedway and I had lunch in a little diner there just by myself. Race fans were coming in and as I was walking past they were saying, ‘Thanks for being here,’ and looking forward to NBC doing it, which was very gracious of them. I just wanted to soak in all those extra little things.
Once I got here to the track, I grabbed one of our production assistants and we jumped on a golf cart. He’d never been here before and I said, ‘Come on, let me show you something special,’ and it’s something I hadn’t done for a number of years. I went up and outside Turn 1, just as they were exiting Turn 1 getting in the short chute between 1 and 2. Not many people in the grandstands or in that particular area and it was nice, just to almost feel alone and just be there and watching the competitors go past, whether it was Ryan Hunter-Reay or Will Power or whoever else it was that went past, obviously at great speed. You just forget, especially the amount of time that we’ve spent in the broadcast booth, you forget just how thrilling it is. Just that feeling of that raw speed and their commitment. When you’re standing right there, we go as close to the fence as we could and I saw the look on this young guy’s face that I took out there. Even my own feelings, it’s awesome. And that was one car going by, let alone 33.
PB: NBC kicked off their month of Indy with Drive Like Andretti. I loved it and I think the reason why I personally loved it was it focused on Mario’s entire life. A lot of sports documentaries might only focus on the athletic side but you really channeled Mario’s early life, coming here as an immigrant and how that shaped him to become the racer and the legend that we know. How important was NBC to get that full circle of life of Mario’s on the screen?
Diffey: It was total cooperation between Mario and his people and our folks at NBC. Matt Allen the filmmaker, Mark Levy heads up the department of those special features and the crew that worked with Matt, unbelievable. It was total dedication. Mario told me that he was blown away by the depth that it went to. He said, “In my career, nobody’s ever captured that or lifted up all of the layers and gone that far and taken him back there.” It was actually quite an emotional experience for Mario and not necessarily, when we say emotional you always think sad, I don’t mean that. It evoked lots of a variety of emotions within Mario. I’m really proud that NBC Sports did that. That film is going to stand the test of time because there’s never been anything done like that for Mario.
You’re correct, it goes well beyond a sports film or a sports movie or a sports documentary. The reason is, when I first saw it, and I’ve done some work with Mario and NBC Sports in the lead up to that premiere, when I finished watching it, I wanted to cry. Not because it was upsetting but because it was such a beautiful human story about a wonderful man who just happens to be the guy who was voted Driver of the Century and so diverse and so amazingly skillful and still driving thousands of miles a year in the Honda Two-Seater at [IndyCar races]. It’s just an incredible story.
PB: Has Mario ever taken you in the Two-Seater?
Diffey: Tomorrow morning [May 17].
PB: Nice. [Laughter] That’s gonna be online.
What a morning … what an experience!! Thank you @MarioAndretti & Honda Indy 2-seater Experience for the ride of my life around @IMS … mind blowing! Special to have Mario at the wheel too on the 50th celebration year of his ‘69 500 win ?@IndyCar @IndyCaronNBC pic.twitter.com/HMDrYRhcZD
— Leigh Diffey (@leighdiffey) May 17, 2019
Diffey: Yeah. I mentioned recently, even after all these years of me doing IndyCar, somebody said something about it. I said, ‘You know who’s never been in a Honda Two-Seater?’ They said, ‘Who,’ and I said, ‘Me,’ they were like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever asked.’ So the powers that be have made it happen and so Mario’s gonna take me for a ride tomorrow morning.
PB: Well it will be a learning experience for the broadcast. You gotta know what the drivers for going through.
Diffey: It’ll be something else, I’m sure.
PB: NBC has really turned up the promotion now that you have the rights to the entire season, not only advertising during races but I’ve seen commercials for the Indy 500 during the NFL playoff games. You’ve also brought The Today Show to Indy the Thursday before the race. You’re really making an effort to attract mainstream attention and inviting new fans to come and watch. How big has that been for you guys on the IndyCar side at NBC that the company’s investing so much time and money and showing everyone they’re really getting behind the series?
Diffey: It’s been phenomenal. The difference from where we sit and stand is noticeable and has been from the beginning of the season. It has been from the day that it was announced that NBC Sports had the rights for the entire season. I was at 30 Rock in Manhattan and was interviewing [IndyCar CEO] Mark Miles and James Hinchcliffe about the announcement and there were already billboards and dynamic screens within 30 Rock promoting the Indy 500 next May. This was last year. I just thought, Wow, I’ve never seen that inside the building before.’ So just something as simple as that and as small as that really resonated with me straight away. But then you see the lengths that the company has gone to to make sure that everybody is aware of the fact that The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is on NBC.
We saw it last weekend with the Indy GP, what a difference it’s made with that massive increase in ratings from this year to last on the same event (Ratings were up 37 percent on NBC compared to ABC’s 2018 broadcast). Our ratings all year have been up and it’s been a really positive start to a new contract and a new era for the series with us. For all of us, we couldn’t be more proud. It’s a super hard working team, super dedicated team who are into racing, particularly IndyCar. When you get to see figures like that and know that more people are watching, it’s an increased audience, and more than likely we’re attracting new viewers, that’s a really good feeling. And that comes from the top down at the company. They’re going through all of the departments to make sure that everybody’s aware that we’ve got this great event.
PB: I think for race fans, [Indianapolis] has always been a big can’t miss event, but I think this year, because of NBC, it’s kind of has a different feel to it. I don’t want to make this sound bad for previous years but it almost seems like you bring Today and Mike Tirico, Danica, Dale Jr. is gonna be there, that it kind of has that big event, that mainstream feel that maybe we haven’t had too often since the open wheel split.
Diffey: Well, without being too self-indulgent, if you think about it, it’s the one thing that, or not just the one thing, but it is a thing that NBC Sports and NBC does very well. We do marquee events, whether it be Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Stanley Cup, Olympics. Big events, you name it and we do it and we do it really, really well. We would like to think that we do it better than anybody else. That’s one thing that this company thrives on is getting big events and doing them thoroughly, doing them properly and doing the event justice and the sport justice.
And you’re right, it really does have that feel about it. I am positive and optimistic that we can bring a greater audience to the ‘500 this year and get new fans as well. On a personal point, you meet people and they say, ‘Oh, back to the glory days when Bobby Rahal raced and when Mario raced.’ That’s no disrespect to those drivers because certainly for many of them, Rick Mears, etc. they were household names.
But you know what? The racing that we have now is unbelievable. It’s so close, it’s so tight. A few tenths of a second off the pace, you’re nowhere. We’ve had five races this year and five different winners and multiple nationalities. More important than that, an unbelievably strong American contingent. There’s so much in this championship to stand up and shout from the rooftops about and that’s what I want this Indy 500 audience to get that feeling, see a great race and see how tight it is and the characters, the personalities that we have in this field. It’s an interesting sport and it’s an interesting group of individuals.
PB: I think what NBC does well is overall, fans, diehard fans, already care about what it is they’re gonna watch. What you do is you get, maybe the casuals and the non-fans who are asking, ‘Why should I care about this,’ and getting them to care about it. That’s the key to really making something big.
Diffey: Indeed. And that’s always the juggling act that we have week in, week out, is that you have to keep the diehards happy. There’s an old saying, ‘The diehard fans will watch regardless.’ Well, that’s not necessarily true. You don’t want to turn them off, turn them away, but at the same time, the difficult part is, speaking to the diehards and attracting a new audience as well and new viewers. But we relish that opportunity. We relish that challenge. And that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re doing it.
PB: We’ll get you out of here on this, there’s plenty of great stories this year in terms of the drivers that are really too many to mention, where a win would be a great cap to that story. What would be the best story to come out of the Indy 500 in terms of who wins? What driver, what story do you think that it would benefit IndyCar, NBC, the entire sport the most?
Diffey: I think Marco Andretti winning on his grandad’s 50th anniversary and breaking the so-called “Andretti curse” here at the speedway. Marco’s running a car that has a very similar color scheme to Mario’s 1969 STP car and it looks fantastic, by the way, it’s so noticeable on camera. Marco almost won here on debut as a teenager. If he were to win, I think that would resonate with everybody. That would be a massive story.
I don’t think there’s one particular story that’s going to benefit [NBC], I wouldn’t put it that way. There are lots of feelgood stories, like that one. The other one would be Graham Rahal, if he were to follow his dad’s footsteps and win. Helio Castroneves is not racing in the series full-time, as you know, he races full-time [IMSA], but he’s back again. He’s just as quick as always and could win a fourth, could be the fourth driver to win four. Can Will Power, that emotive – we call him “Crazy Eyes” since – that over the top celebration last year, could he go back-to-back?
There’s some really exciting rookies and then you’ve got Fernando Alonso here. He’s a two-time Formula 1 champion who’s chasing motorsport’s unofficial Triple Crown. He’s won the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix, last year he won the 24 hours of Le Mans and if he could win here, he would be only the second driver in history to win the Triple Crown. The other one being Graham Hill and it just so happens that Graham Hill’s son Damon Hill, the 1996 Formula 1 World Champion is coming to try and watch Fernando equal his father’s record. [NOTE: This interview was conducted before Alonso failed to qualify]
So there’s a lot of cool stories. Wouldn’t it be something if the local driver Ed Carpenter won? He’s had three pole positions, he’s finished runner-up before. If he could win that would be a phenomenal local angle story and a feelgood factor. I think you could point, you could run almost through all 36 cars that are gonna try and qualify. Thirty-three will make the field of course. You could run pretty much all the way down the line and there’s so many good stories.
[Photo: Tim Hiatt/NBC Sports]