Gary Gerould signing off after 37 years covering ‘magical’ motor sports
Gary Gerould isn’t one for dates, times or details.
There’s only so many one can remember from 37 years of covering motorsports, from NASCAR to IndyCar and finally in the NHRA.
But there’s one detail, or rather a feeling, the 75-year-old sports broadcaster still recalls years later, just weeks before his retirement from the pits.
Twice, as part of ABC’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500, Gerould rode shotgun in the pace car as it led the field of 33 cars around Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he gave “flying reports” prior to the start of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
What a spectacle it was.
“Being on the track in front of at that time mega crowds, no one had accurate numbers, but the popular number was 400,000 people,” Gerould told MotorSports Talk in a phone interview. “I don’t care if it was 300 or 400 or 425. Whatever it was, it was massive and to be in a pace car in front of that field in front of that crowd it raises the hair on my arms right now when I think about it. Just magical. Absolutely magical.
“I could recall that before I could recall any specific race.”
Gerould answers the phone from his home in Sacramento, Calif., on a “routine” Wednesday.
But a week before, on Oct. 14, it was anything but.
Gerould wasn’t prepared for the response that awaited him when he sent a 137-character tweet out to his more than 10,500 followers on Twitter.
After 37 yr covering network TV motorsports, have decided this season will be last. Tough decision. An amazing ride! Incredible memories!!— Gary Gerould (@ggerould) October 14, 2015
“The impact of social media absolutely blows me away,” Gerould says. “I didn’t know if it would generate any kind of response or if anybody would really care.”
The tweet generated 184 retweets and 447 favorites. Names like Allen Bestwick, Mike Massaro, Dario Franchitti and Eddie Cheever responded. But those names came up short to the hundreds of everyday racing fans that let Gerould know he would be missed from their televisions every Sunday.
“It was kind of mind-boggling in a sense,” Gerould says. “It’s really nice that people would take the time to express support or sentiment.”
Gerould made the announcement, one he had mulled over for about a year, a month before the NHRA season finale in Pomona, Calif., with the Auto Club Finals.
Among the variables weighing into his decision to hang up his ESPN microphone was the NHRA television package making the move to Fox Sports 1, where the production will be done in-house by NHRA.
“Those kind of things have been rattling around in my brain for the last couple of months. I just thought for a variety of reasons, this would be a good time to kind of dial it back,” Gerould says, 11 years after he joined ESPN’s coverage of drag racing. “As much as I’m going to miss it, it’s going to be difficult, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a variety of reasons why this is just a good time. Ok, let’s put a wrap on this at this point on what’s been an amazing ride.”
The ride began in Midland, Michigan.
And with Michigan came Michigan winters.
That’s when a young Gerould would trudge through the snow, house-to-house, fulfilling the duties of his afternoon paper route.
During that route, which lasted seven years during his time in junior high and high school, Gerould kept his mind busy.
“I’d call basketball games in my head while I was delivering papers,” Gerould says.
Growing up in Midland, a town of about 15,000 in 1950, Gerould was exposed to the exploits of the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers, carried over the airwaves by the voice Van Patrick. The NBA, which would be a central part of his life for the last 30 years as the radio announcer for the Sacramento Kings, was in its infancy.
His love of sports broadcasting evolved out of unfortunate circumstances.
“My father died when I was very young, had no siblings, my mom was ill much of my life,” Gerould says. “The radio station became a second home.”
The radio station, which Gerould began working at part-time at 14 and got his crash course in sports reporting, was WMDN-Radio, which had begun operation in 1948.
“This was at a time when colleges and universities, there were only a bare handful around the country that had broadcasting curriculum,” Gerould says. “As it turned out, the small town I lived in in Michigan, the hometown radio station became my second home. I was there virtually every day.”
The part-time job became full-time in the summer when he wasn’t attending Anderson University in Indiana, about an hour northeast of Indianapolis and the track Gerould would witness one of the most “magical” scenes of his career. While he visited the track during those college years, he wouldn’t get his first real taste of IMS for years.
But in 1963, a year after graduating, a 23-year-old Gerould and his wife Marlene got a change of scenery. They made the move to Chico, Calif., where he began his first television job at KHSL-TV, covering high school and junior college football and basketball.
“Television sports at that particular time in that particular locale was just sitting in front of a camera five minutes every night and basically ripping and reading off the wire services what was going on that day in sports,” Gerould remembers. “It gave me an exposure to television and it gave me an opportunity to realize I really enjoyed it.”
Gerould also realized how much he enjoyed racing. On Friday nights, Gerould would take the station’s news car to Silver Dollar Speedway, were he would do race updates from the infield.
He would upgrade his role in motorsports in 1966. After taking a position at KCRA-TV in Sacramento, Calif., where he would work until 1977, he split his time as the track announcer at West Capital Raceway, a dirt track that no longer exists.
“It kind of filled a play-by-play void,” Gerould says. “I was used to doing football, basketball, things like that, on a regular basis. Because I wasn’t having a chance to do it that much in Sacramento.”
Gerould was able to expand his job description in the 70s when he convinced his superiors that the station needed to cover the buildup for the Indianapolis 500.
“I convinced them I needed to be at Indianapolis for the first week of practice and the first weekend of time trials,” Gerould says. “I generated upwards of three reports we would use in our newscast during the Month of May leading up to the Indy 500. That was my first real experience.”
He would do that every year until the opportunity arose to join the IMS Radio Network, made possible by working with announcer Paul Page while covering races on the west coast.
It’s names like Page’s, a giant in the history of auto racing broadcasting, that would have a huge impact on Gerould’s life and career as it forged a unique path over the next 30 years.
Page. Bob Costas. Dick Enberg. Jim McKay. Bob Jenkins. Dr. Jerry Punch. Jack Arute.
Those are just some of the names and figures Gary Gerould has had the distinction to work with from the time he began freelancing for NBC Sports in 1979, to its coverage of the NFL, auto racing and the 1988 summer Olympics and to the last 11 years working the NHRA beat at ESPN.
Those eclectic connections come from Gerould’s ability and willingness to step away from his comfort zone, as when covered Judo at the Olympics or the time he spent one week in Japan with actor Pat Morita doing a story on sumo wrestling.
“Those people impress you somehow, yet they were good people, they were supportive people as well as being a pleasure to listen to,” Gerould says.
Gerould would join Page at ABC Sports in 1990, where he would be a part of it and ESPN’s golden age of motorsports coverage with Punch, Arute, Jenkins and others.
But with the NHRA Finals this Sunday, that golden age will sign off for the last time with the departure of Gerould and the drag racing series’ TV package to FS1.
Page has returned to the IMS Radio Network, Punch traded the pits for the college football sideline, Arute hosts shows on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and Jenkins can still be heard every May as the PA announcer at IMS.
But Gerould has remained the constant in the trenches of auto racing for 37 years, continuing to do what he believes is best for those sitting on their couch or recliner back at home.
“You still have to find a way to build a one-on-one relationship with car owners, with drivers, with crew members,” Gerould insists. “You have to develop a rapport, you have to enlist and earn their trust and I think that’s something that will never change. Anyone that’s going to have success doing that type of a job really has to have some strong, good one-on-one relationships with these people so they feel comfortable with you, so that feel they can trust you.”
But the constant will end on Sunday. Then will come next spring and there won’t be another race for Gerould to cover as the basketball season ends.
“This is what’s going to make stepping away from this business and this sport so damn difficult,” Gerould says. “Because I’ve worked with such wonderful people. Really, you find yourself wondering I am ever going to see these people again in my lifetime? When I think about that I get emotional and I start to second guess am I doing the right thing.”
With each passing week of the NHRA season, from Pomona to Indianapolis and back again, Gerould has taken stock of where he is at and what he might never experience again.
“This might be the last time I get the chance to drive by this on the way to a track. This might be the last chance I get to eat at a hole in the wall restaurant and enjoy something to eat here that I’ve become accustomed to over the years. There will be a lot of that,” Gerould says. “I’m an emotional person and I’m quite frankly scared about that because in a sense I’m going to have to say goodbye to people in one way or another at Pomona.”
But when it’s over, he’ll still have that magical feeling that no one could forget.