CAFE CHAT: Leigh Diffey on the honour of calling the Indy 500
Australian broadcaster Leigh Diffey will carve out his own piece of history this weekend when he becomes the first international to call the live play-by-play for the Indianapolis 500.
It has certainly been a journey from the old wooden officials ‘tower’ at the Ipswich Motorcycle Club to the famous Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In his 23-year career, Diffey has called some of the greatest races at many of the world’s most famous venues, but his impressive CV also includes the Olympics Games, The Masters of golf and a host of other sports and events.
There is no doubt that Diffey is one of Australia’s great motorsport exports and has nominated this weekend’s Indy 500 as the highlight of his career.
Speedcafe.com owner Brett ‘Crusher’ Murray, who entered his own car in the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 under the banner of PIRTEK Team Murray, sat down with Diffey for a one-on-one chat on the eve of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: Leigh, we’re sitting here having a chat in the NBC Booth at the top of the Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Is this surreal?
LEIGH DIFFEY: It is 100 percent surreal. The fact that just you and I are sitting here, considering where we come from, is quite surreal, even at this stage when we are a couple of days away from the race and we’ve done endless practice sessions, had a highly-entertaining Indy GP and a drama-filled qualifying weekend; I have to pinch myself.
Through all that, I’ve done hours and hours and hours on air from this position where we are sitting, but it still doesn’t feel real. I think it’ll probably all come into perspective as the field is coming through Turns 3 and 4 toward the green (flag) for the first time on Sunday.
I think that’s when it will be, ‘Right, it’s game time’. The rest of the stuff will be over and there will be the reality that this is the real deal.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: Do you think this is the highlight of your career to date?
DIFFEY: For sure, and I say that with no disrespect to any of the other sports that I’ve done or any of the other events that I’ve done, including the Olympic Games.
When you think about it, lots of people have done the Olympic Games and lots of people have done rugby, golf or track and field or whatever, but very few people have called the Indianapolis 500. That’s why it’s very easy for me to say this is the top of the tree for me.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: In fact, just so people will understand, since the race went live in 1986, there have only been six other people who have called the play-by-play for this event.
There have been some legendary names before you including the great Paul Page. How do you feel about having your name sit beside some of those guys, who I guess were professional heroes to you and who are motorsport royalty in the US?
DIFFEY: It’s pretty crazy when you look at names like Paul Page and Sam Posey that are legends at this place. Just over the qualifying weekend I got a really lovely message from Gary Gerould, the former pit reporter who I grew up watching and just thought and still do think that he’s marvellous.
I have had wonderfully encouraging words from Paul (Page) before and then to get that last weekend from Gary, it feels really special. Their messages were genuine and I feel extremely privileged to be in this position and I’m not going to let that go. I will give it and have given it every ounce of respect that it deserves.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway means a lot to a lot of different people, for a host of reasons, what does it mean to you?
DIFFEY: When you get to do your job at a place that is just so steeped in history and where all the greats have performed, it means everything.
Keeping it motorsport-specific, I think about being here and I think about Bathurst and Le Mans and the other legendary venues where I have been fortunate enough to do my job. To commentate here means everything.
In a way, I’ll almost get to complete the set this weekend because I’ve commentated here on sportscars, MotoGP, and I will now get to call my first 500, so this place is incredibly special. The significance and the beauty of the opportunity is I never thought that it would happen, and that’s why I still pinch myself every day, even though it feels like I have been in Indianapolis forever. It’s incredibly special.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: The reality check will come a little while down the track when you go to the record books and your name will be there as the commentator for the 103rd Indy 500.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: They can’t take that away from you.
DIFFEY: No, no, that’s right. You know all about that.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: I guess with McLaren and (Fernando) Alonso not qualifying for this weekend’s race we have again seen just how tough this place can be. We have also seen the debate rise again about whether full-time teams should be guaranteed a start in the race despite their qualifying result.
DIFFEY: I was talking with a good friend of mine, Brian Till, who drove one Indy 500 and who I have worked in broadcasting with for more than a decade.
We were discussing qualifying here and the debate about whether full-time drivers should be locked into the show or the field extended to cater for everyone who goes into qualifying.
Brian put it the right way. He said, “33 is not only the historical starting number, it’s more than that. People have lost their lives trying to qualify for the 33”.
When he put it like that, I thought ‘Whoa, he is right’. This place has changed people’s lives for good and bad.
It’s a race track; there are lots of race tracks but there’s only one like this.
It is interesting to see the new guys, especially the young rookies and watch their reactions to this place.
It again underscores the significance and why this place is honoured and why this place has its position in motorsports history.
You know, just seeing Marcus Ericsson and (Felix) Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward and these young guys who are really talented, but they come here, and they are alerted immediately as to the challenge of this place, and they’re like, “Wow, okay so this is Indy.”
SPEEDCAFE.COM: What’s it mean to be a kid from the western suburbs of Brisbane walking in here and having the position you’ve got and what you’re about to experience on Sunday?
DIFFEY: Pretty crazy. I really appreciate you asking that because I was thinking about it today. You know, I grew up in Carole Park in Brisbane’s Western Suburbs; I did my first commentary at the Ipswich Motorcycle Club in Tivoli.
It was in a wooden tower, and I had one microphone and a transistor radio to use to put the microphone up to in breaks and they paid me $60 and I was about 20. I had to call about 90 races that day.
Obviously they were really short races, they were only four-lap dirt track motorcycle races, but to think that… and especially now that you and I are sitting here in the Pagoda, and I’m thinking about that wooden tower, that single level wooden tower where the lap scorers used to sit and I used to sit out on the front verandah which was very small. It was nothing grand and here you and I are sitting in the most glamorous of race buildings anywhere in the world. It means the world to me.
I think about my Dad who’s no longer here. He would have loved to have seen this day.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: That was my next question. Your dad Pedro (Peter) was a big supporter of yours and he went to several of your events. I know he went to Bathurst with you a couple times…
DIFFEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
SPEEDCAFE.COM: …and you lost him a couple years ago, but your mum Jude is going to be here this weekend with Michaela (wife) and the boys. They get to share in the moment with you.
DIFFEY: Yeah, it’s going to be special. I think from where you and I are sitting now, I’m pretty sure that Mum and Michaela and the boys are going to be sitting in those Tower Terraces just there. So if the motor racing gods are looking out for me I might be able to look down there and see my family and that would be pretty cool.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: What’s it going to mean to have your mum here? I know she is a big support and obviously very proud of you.
DIFFEY: Oh, yeah.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: I mean, Jude’s about to get the shock of her life. I remember bringing my parents here for the first time which was our race in 2016. You can’t describe this place and you can never oversell it. You can’t tell someone how good this event is and for them to be disappointed. They can’t say, “Oh no, that’s was bullshit.”
DIFFEY: Yeah, yeah. I’m excited on a number of levels for Mum and my wife and my sons to see.
Firstly, the crowd. So you come for the race but you know they call it the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for a reason because just the day, just everything about it as you know and you’ve been right in the centre of it.
I’m excited for that. My mum never grew up having any interest in motor racing, until she met my dad, and then we would race motorcycles as kids and so Mum became a motorsport wife and mother. It then went to a whole new level because it was all very singular focused and all about motorcycles.
But growing up in Australia, everyone had an interest in touring car racing and we were a Ford Family so we were Dick Johnson fans. We knew everything about Bathurst and et cetera, but that’s about where it stopped.
We knew about the headline people like Alan Jones and Sir Jack Brabham and people like that of course, but we were really just focused on motorcycles.
When I got into broadcasting and started doing more car racing and varied things, Mum, not that Dad didn’t as well, but Mum would follow me and she became so well versed in all kinds of motorsport and I’m so proud of her for that.
This is my 23rd year in television and, as you know, I’ve lived and worked all over the world, and on all different kinds of categories and she’s never missed a single broadcast. She sends me a text. She either rings me, writes me an email, or sends me a text with the words, “Break a leg darling”.
This weekend she doesn’t have to write a text. She’ll be here with me.
SPEEDCAFE.COM: You have seen everything unfold here over the last few weeks, including the controversy of Alonso. How do you see everything unfolding on Sunday?
DIFFEY: I think it’s going to be a good race. I say that with confidence after what we saw in Monday practice. Of course, we have Carb Day coming up, but the cars seem to be able to be relatively close. Last year I don’t think we saw a great race, in particular.
It was a terrific result for Will Power obviously, but I don’t think it was a great race. It wasn’t as good as the year before.
Last year was the first with this new car and its aero package. There have been some changes made with the Firestone tyres which are allowing the cars from an aerodynamic standpoint to get a little bit closer.
In that Monday practice myself and Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy were all really excited. We enjoyed calling that practice session purely because there was a lot of group running, and if they can do that group running in practice, they can do it in the race and I think as Scott Dixon told me, you might be able to execute passes pretty well.
To use a cycling analogy, it’s kind of like if there’s a breakaway in the Tour de France and you know the peloton is left behind, they eventually catch that guy out in front. Scott was saying to me he feels that’s going to happen here so therefore that leads me to think we’re going to have a lot of passes for the lead and a pretty mixed up race, so I think that’s going to be great.