It’s all very surreal, even more than two weeks after the season opener.
I’m talking about the privilege of becoming just the sixth chief announcer in 64 years of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network – what for years was known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. My debut in the “big chair” was March 13 for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
I’ve had the honor of working with three of the previous chief announcers: Paul Page, Bob Jenkins and Mike King. All had the unenviable task of following a legend. While each was at the helm, he made pretty significant changes to the scope and structure but continued to put the event front and center, along with the enjoyment of the listener.
Page served two stints as chief announcer. The first came in 1977 after the passing of his close friend and mentor, longtime chief announcer Sid Collins (at left in above photo). There would be little time to mourn Sid’s passing, and Page had to guide the network through uncharted waters: A.J. Foyt becoming the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Page did so flawlessly in a manner that would have made Collins proud.
There were other notable moments during Page’s tenure. Gordon Johncock’s narrow win over Rick Mears in 1982 and Danny Sullivan’s “spin and win” in 1985.
More importantly, Page moved the show from “past tense to present tense.” No longer would pit reporters and turn announcers have to contact an engineer off the air, who would then pass a card to the anchor with a story idea. Page established direct, off-air contact with all of the other announcers to be able to get their story on the air as it happened. If not for that change, the “spin and win” likely would not have been called live.
Local broadcaster Jenkins was added to the radio network in 1977, but didn’t become chief announcer until 1990. Immediately, he created an opportunity for the fans to get closer to their favorite drivers, as the “Indy Live” show went on the air from the Speedway Motel in 1990 and aired during May in preparation for the race.
Affiliates nationwide carried the show featuring drivers fielding questions from Jenkins and fans in attendance. Jenkins also changed the structure of the race-day broadcast, adding a pit producer who worked on a separate channel with pit reporters to “sell” their stories. It freed Jenkins to focus attention on play-by-play with the four turn announcers. The change was noticeable to all but the listener.
Two notable staff additions were made during Bob’s tenure. Both came from WTHI in Terre Haute, Ind. One was Mike King. The other was me.
King joined the network in 1995. A year later, the Verizon IndyCar Series was formed (then called the Indy Racing League) and the radio network began broadcasting all events throughout the season. King would serve as a pit reporter, turn announcer and co-anchor until Jenkins left the chief announcer post for television after the 1998 season.
Early in King’s tenure, the network realized unprecedented growth, adding a weekly show dedicated to all forms of open-wheel racing. Later, the world would become much smaller thanks to the World Wide Web. The radio network added coverage of practice and qualifying throughout each race weekend via the Internet and complete coverage of practice, qualifying and races for Indy Lights.
While the world was getting smaller, the pace was moving faster. King added experienced play-by-play announcers from other sports to the turns and added pit reporters with a connection to motorsports.
Page returned to the chief announcer post in 2014. Long before, he established himself as a legend in motorsports broadcasting. While most of that notoriety came through his work on television, he was quick to remind, “I was, am and will always be a radio guy.”
Paul didn’t make radical changes upon his return. He was appreciative of the talents of those in place and perhaps most appreciative of the fact that many parts of his earlier influence still existed.
Now, back to the surreal part of this year’s St Pete race. I kept waiting for Paul, Bob or Mike to pop into the booth just before we went on air and say, “Hang on a minute,” and I would have understood.
While that didn’t happen, all three were most assuredly there with me. The eloquence of Paul, the calm confidence of Bob, the energy and enthusiasm of Mike. At least that’s what I hope was there. More than that, I hope their passion for this sport, the fans and this network was front and center.
While all three offered a distinctive style, that passion is the tie that binds them. It binds all of us.