Lindsay Czarniak on hosting Indianapolis 500 coverage

Lindsay Czarniak

Courtesy of ESPN

During much of her sports broadcasting career, Lindsay Czarniak has gotten her auto-racing fix on the side. First at WTVJ in Miami, and later at WRC (Channel 4) in Washington, Czarniak served pit reporting stints for the Speed Channel, TNT and NBC Sports, traveling to far-flung race tracks between her full-time sports anchoring duties.

Czarniak is back at a racetrack this weekend, but she’s there for her full-time employer. The Fairfax County native will host ABC’s pre-race coverage of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday at 11 a.m. She will become the first woman to host that race’s broadcast, following legends like Brent Musburger, Jim McKay and Chris Schenkel. And she’ll do so in one of her favorite environments.

“I just love being at racetracks. It makes me feel happy and at home,” she said in a phone conversation from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, as engines roared in the background. “It’s being there. It’s the smell of it. It’s learning how the cars work. It’s all of that. I don’t know, it’s this weird thing for me. When I got here last weekend, I immediately felt the same way, got that same feeling. It felt like I was back home.”

The 35-year-old’s first professional motorsports experience was a one-off gig, interviewing fans at a 2003 Dale Earnhardt tribute concert in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the Speed Channel. That led to a pit reporting job on the minor league ARCA Series for Speed, which turned into sideline reporting opportunities with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and eventually the Sprint Cup.

George Michael — her first boss at WRC — needed some convincing to allow Czarniak to keep covering the sport, but “he loved races and saw the value in it,” she said.

She hasn’t covered much racing since moving to ESPN in the summer of 2011, and sports fans most familiar with her work on the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” might not know about the many nights she spent in fire suits at obscure tracks. But her bosses knew; they called her in a couple months ago and, out of nowhere, asked her to host the race coverage, which she called “a wonderful surprise.”

And she hopes Sunday’s hour-long pre-race broadcast will make it clear to racing fans that she isn’t some outsider, dropped unprepared into their world.

“They’re really giving me an opportunity to be me, and to talk about this stuff from the heart, in a way,” she said. “Obviously we’re scripting it, but I’m hoping the passion, the way I feel about it when I come here, I think that’s what the show’s going to be about: trying to convey that to the audience that’s not here.”

That feeling, she said, is more important than being the first woman to host this telecast — “I sort of feel like we’ve moved beyond that,” she said. Still, this will be one of the largest television audiences she’s been in front of, along with some of her work at the Olympics. And she said the live racing environment, combined with the hundreds of thousands of fans at the track, will give her more than the usual pre-broadcast butterflies.

If she feels nerves, though, it won’t be over trying to convince a racing audience of her bona fides.

“I don’t feel pressure, but I really do want people to come away loving this event and caring more about it,” she said. “I think I put that pressure on myself. Everyone here has been so wonderful, so open, from the drivers to the team owners to the fans. I feel like the only pressure is that now it’s on me to do the best job that I can.”

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