'Rookies' Earnhardt Jr., Tirico excited for NBC's Indy 500 debut

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INDIANAPOLIS – It has been a long time coming, but NBC Sports is less than 24 hours from its inaugural network coverage of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with this year’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

And peacock network is going all out for the crown jewel of the NTT IndyCar Series. The collective effort will feature 140 cameras and 200,000 feet of cable, along with 14 on-air talents, including world-recognized veteran sports anchor and host Mike Tirico.

“It really does remind me of covering a Super Bowl or a Kentucky Derby, where during the week things build and you know what's coming, but you have no idea what it's going to be like until you see it,” Tirico said in the days leading to Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mike Tirico“I'm super excited for that. I will just make one correction. This is not the first live TV broadcast I've done from (IMS). I covered the senior golf event here at Brickyard Crossing twice. So this is not my first Indy live broadcast, but in truth, it is.”

Tirico will be joined by two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. and eight-time Indy 500 starter Danica Patrick atop the “Peacock Pit Box.”

Sunday will mark Earnhardt’s first in-person experience of the May classic, which had him in awe more than anything.

“It's like walking into Disney World for the first time or anywhere else really, really cool,” said Earnhardt. “There's a lot more to it and you just can't wait to go explore it all.”

While the usual trio of play-by-play commentator Leigh Diffey and analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth to call the action, Earnhardt and Patrick will highlight their insights and takeaways from the on-track action. Earnhardt has also been tabbed to drive the Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport pace car to lead the field to the green flag.

“They'll come to us and just get a genuine reaction of what we think about the event and how it's playing out,” Earnhardt said.

“That's a little more tricky because you’ve really got to find things that intrigue you, which isn't hard. But I've been on the pit box before during our summer of NASCAR races, and what we've done there is, you're watching the race and you just pull things from what you're seeing that intrigue you, that surprise you.

“I'm coming as a fan. I would be here whether NBC was working me or not, but NBC just happens to want to capture it while I'm here.”

Tirico has been a part of some incredible moments in sports history, including the NHL Stanley Cup Finals, Olympic Games and “Sunday Night Football.” However, nothing compared to the treat he received Wednesday when he took a two-seat Indy car ride from Indianapolis International Airport to the speedway with 1969 Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti as his chauffer.

“The greatest sports moment of my life.”

We think @miketirico enjoyed his ride from the airport to the Yard of Bricks from @MarioAndretti.#ThisIsMay | #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/IYCIoumSrD

“That was the coolest freaking thing I've ever done in sports,” Tirico said. “My 33rd year of being on TV covering sports – I did star as a kid (laughs) – but, man, that was awesome! I land at the airport and got into an Indy car, street legal, with Mario Andretti 50 years after he won the 500 and we drove on the highway. The greatest part was, as we're driving, we're getting on (Interstate) 70 and I'm looking up at the road signs going, 'Is this really happening? This is so darn cool.'”

It got even cooler when Andretti tried to convince the motorcycle escort to pick up the pace.

“Mario was trying to push the motorcycle police officers to give a little more speed,” Tirico said. “Mario actually ducked to the outside and just kind of looked to see if he could edge them on and they're just like, 'No Mario, you’ve got to get back a little bit.'

“It's so great. And he is a treasure. He's 79 years old. His energy and passion for it, I asked him about the 50th anniversary and what kind of memories it's brought back and he talked to me for 15 minutes about the race in 1969. That's like freaking Mario Andretti!’

“So for me, it was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had.”

If these bricks at @IMS could talk...

They've seen a lot of history in the last 100 years, and are about to see some more Sunday at 11AM ET on @NBC. #MustBeMay #Indy500 pic.twitter.com/COPt9GoPvy

2019 marks the first year with NBC Sports Group as the exclusive domestic media rights holder for NTT IndyCar Series broadcasts. Eight races, including Sunday’s Indy 500, are on NBC, with the remainder on NBCSN.

Coverage of events leading up to Sunday’s race has amplified, with NBC airing the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 11, the thrilling Last Row Shootout and Fast Nine Shootout to conclude Indy 500 qualifying on May 19, a 60-minute documentary “Drive Like Andretti” that traced the life of the 1969 Indy 500 winner, weeknight Indy 500 programming on NBCSN and more.

NBC Sports has wall-to-wall coverage planned for race day. Coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET Sunday with a prerace setup show on NBCSN. Switch to NBC at 11 a.m. for race coverage, with the call for drivers to start their engines shortly after 12:30 p.m. Following the race, NBCSN returns for a postrace show at 4 p.m.

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