Member Chronicles: Motorsports Shows on TV; From Whence They Sprang

It was early 1977, and I was in the Riverside International Raceway’s media room chatting with Robert E. “Pete” Petersen, head of the Petersen Publishing empire.

I said, “Pete, how about motorsports on TV? I think I started the whole thing in Chicago, 1966.” He countered with, “No way. We at the magazine were televising hot rods, putting on car shows in the alley behind KTLA in Beverly Hills in the late 1950s.”

I told him it wasn’t the same thing. “I’m talking about a real weekly show, scripted, ongoing. My Chicago 1966-7 show was on the tube for 150 weeks.”

Pete replied, “Since when isn’t L.A. a major market?”

I replied, “Apples and oranges” as he headed for his stretch limo.

Here’s the skinny on my 150-week Motorsports International television show, which I believe was the very first one of its genre. I created it, wrote it, produced it, hosted it and did the marketing…and I didn’t know there were any ground rules.

It was 5:30 PM, and I was having a libation at Hobsons Oyster Bar on Chicago’s Rush Street around the corner from the Wrigley Building, talking cars with a few buddies before we headed home to the suburbs. Jack Morgan, ad salesman for local TV station WCIU–TV channel 26, popped in and said, “Bill, the new James Garner movie, Grand Prix, is going to have its premiere at the Chicago theater next week, and they want to do a special promotion.” He told me the producer, John Frankenheimer, created a really exciting eight-minute promotion video of the highlights of the show and was offering it to the major TV stations in town so they can run it and hype the new movie. “Can you put a half-hour together and host it live next week on Ch 26?” he asked. I had tons of TV production experience, and as I was actively racing in SCCA and writing for Competition Press, I told Jack “yes” —  I would do it, even though there was no money involved (ego).

I put a loose format together to interview my friend Al Ross about racing in Europe, racing in the U.S., and the different forms of racing as we led up to the very exciting eight-minute Grand Prix movie trailer. It was amateur, but it went smoothly. In this barn-like studio was a desk and a black-and-white camera focusing on the two of us.

The next day, the station manager called me and said he thought it was pretty cool and they had a lot of phone calls from people requesting more auto racing information. “Would you like to do this weekly?” he asked. “One hour, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM and it’s all yours.” I said, “Let’s go” and as a result, Motorsports International was on WCIU-TV Chicago every week for 150 weeks.

We had no facilities for showing slides, so I scoured newspapers, magazines and car company PR departments for photographs of all the drivers, which we mounted on 8 x 10 flip cards, and a studio helper actually flipped these when we would mention that “Mario Andretti won at Milwaukee yesterday…” flip pic

The station did have a film chain, and a highlight of the Motorsports International Tuesday evening hour was our showing great race films from Champion Spark Plug, Shell Oil’s History of Racing. To screen and edit these 16mm films, I borrowed a 16mm film projector, set it up in my kitchen and projected pictures on my wall. High tech?

All of a sudden, my picture appeared on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times TV Guide. One million readers. Then, we found we were in contention for a regional Emmy award. We were up against six Chicago-land TV shows, including powerhouse WGN-TV Chicago Cubs telecasts, and the awards were to take place at the Marriott Hotel, black tie, with Sammy Davis Junior as MC.

WCIU-TV was ecstatic. They had never ever come close to being nominated for any type of award. I pissed everybody off by saying I was not going to go to the event because the TV show was really a hobby. My main job was with an ad agency. The TV station reserved a table of 10, and my wife threatened to leave me if I did not make the event. I held out until the evening of the banquet, dug up a tuxedo and attended. Motorsports International came in second to the mighty Chicago Cubs. Unreal.

As far as I know, Motorsports International, in 1966‒1967, was then the only weekly motorsports TV show on the air anywhere in the US. Today there must be 20 weekly shows.

I sure didn’t make any money from the program, and as it became more and more popular it took more and more time to produce. I’m fairly certain this is how HP came to TV.

Currently Bill produces/hosts 76 Motorsports Roundup radio weekly, NBC sports and ESPN sports radio Hawaii and carried on American Forces Network (AFN) worldwide in 188 countries.

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