"Rick Mears becomes the third four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, winning the diamond jubilee edition, the 75th running of this great speed classic."
-- Bob Jenkins on the IMS Radio Network, May 26, 1991
Those words blared many a time from the speakers of my removable face Pioneer stereo. Rick Mears' fourth win, moments after Jerry Baker's description of the battles with Michael Andretti, served as my co-pilot as I ventured west on I-70, making the drive into uncertainty toward my freshman year at the University of Kansas. I would tape the race each and every year – handing my mom a stack of Maxell tapes, a list of instructions and trusted control of my jam box as I would leave each year to see in person the world's most spectacular sporting event. Those tapes became the soundtrack of my coming of age, reminders of the events of which I'd been witness from the middle of the Southeast Vista.
Mile after mile, I clicked off through the flats of Illinois and the brush of Missouri, all aware of only two certainties: My dream was to someday call the action, the course of which I had no idea. As another race week is upon us, I still know of the blessing I have to again be part of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network; fortunate enough to be part of the radio broadcast for the 11th straight year.
The navigation to the destination is clearer now, certainly more vivid then the recollection of the road that got me here. The alarm clock will again go off shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, interrupting what will inevitably be an hour-long bout with insomnia. It may be May, but how can a 44-year-old kid sleep on a spring time Christmas Eve? By 7:30, I will meet the guide who will lead me and, shortly before 8, I will meet with my partners on Floor 9 of the Panasonic Pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ready to again embark on the greatest honor of our collective careers.
It's a great camaraderie that hangs in the room. All of us on the radio network are aware of the reality: We work for different outlets in competing ways through the course of the year, but collectively converge to share in the same thrills and goal. To the best of our abilities, we will bring to listeners the action of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
If there is a tension among us, it is greatly masked. Our brief morning meeting, led by our anchor Mark Jaynes, consists of equal balance self-deprecation and announcing the tasks at hand. We go over the small details that can loom large only if overlooked. Who throws to commercial break during cautions? Who is covering which area of pit road? Which recorded segments will be sprinkled throughout to add flavor to the show?
It's a drill in which we are all familiar, but familiarity breeds contempt, and while it's virtually impossible to compromise our respect for the job, the risk shall not be taken. After a few minutes, we each thank network director Wally Leavitt for the opportunity, then break away to our own individual rituals. In a few hours, the show will begin.
I'm often asked about what goes into the radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, and the simple answer is this: Simplicity.
Our four pit reporters – Kevin Lee, Michael Young, Dave Furst and Rob Howden – will talk as they put on their wireless headsets and microphones. All under the watchful eye of engineers Norm Birnbaum, Rick Evans and Paul Leavitt. The audio levels are checked by show producer Chris Pollock. Soon, all four will take the nine-floor elevator ride down to enter the buzz of the prerace festivities on the grid below. The electricity carries through their microphones as they partake in one of the greatest traditions in all of sports.
Eventually, I'll know it's time. I will grab a plastic bag that contains a headset and hard wiring labeled as "Turn 3" and begin my journey to the Northeast Vista. High atop it, a small metal platform accompanied only by a few metal chairs and a hard-wired broadcast box awaits my arrival. Once I climb into the perch, I plug my headsets into a small box with an intercom button and announce my arrival. Pollock will confirm I am heard. Then the wait begins.
We spend a few minutes chatting on the intercom about the privilege bestowed upon us. Jerry Baker will chime in from Turn 1, his dulcet tones serving as a reminder to me of all the times they accompanied my drives. Nick Yeoman assumes his spot in Turn 2, keeping warm the seat I left for him a year earlier. I ask Chris Denari if he hears me OK; his confirmation is critical. After all, it is into his grasp that I will pass the baton of illustration as we call the cars when they blur past me into his view at the top of Turn 4's Stand J.
The most common question I'm asked about our broadcast is: "How do you know when it's your turn to talk?" Trust.
There are few things greater than friendship. The adage says if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. I can add, if you're doing it with friends, the same holds true. When we travel on the road, Yeoman, Jaynes and I spend our free time together. When he is on the road as the TV voice of the Indiana Pacers, Denari (aware of my nocturnal lifestyle) will often call on the nights his travel offers red-eye flights. Like many who grew up in Indiana, Baker was my friend long before I met him. I watched and heard historical sports moments of my upbringing from “Bake,” so working with him was not only an honor, but comfortable as well.
As the cars come by, we each have a "drop point" on the oval. In the event I cannot hear Nick – either due to the volume of the ambiance or the chatter on the intercom – I know when the lead cars reach the designated point on the track, it's my turn in the rotation. Likewise, Chris looks for the same from me coming toward Turn 4.
In the occasion where brevity escapes one of us, the next in rotation will know just to "lay out" that lap and not say anything. Mark will then reset the lap and we'll try it again. Such an event may lead to a quick apology on the intercom, but it's a gesture of unnecessary protocol. We all understand it happens.
The Turn 3 perch is "conveniently" located near a six-flight stairwell that ends in proximity to a restroom. It's important to stay hydrated on race day, and that feature is a greater benefit than the arrangement that awaits Nick.
Each turn covers a large area of the track. If you are keeping eyes on the leader, it's tough to also see the back of the field. For that reason, we each have one "spotter" that comes with us. Each race, I tell my spotter the same thing: "Just hit my arm if you see something."
It's a welcome assistance and one I never wish to do without. I’ve have had a variety of spotters over the years – friends and my high school radio teacher have climbed up with me. This year, however, it is my spotter who has me most excited for the race. I hope my dad enjoys it as much as I will.
After the race, I have the same routine. I return my gear to the Pagoda, grab a box lunch and reflect on the day by chatting with IMS historian Donald Davidson. Eventually, once I see that traffic has thinned, I begin the journey home.
I truly believe that the Indianapolis 500 has an unbreakable marriage with radio. I am very proud of the listening tradition shared by many, as I, too, share in that passion.
The race broadcast accompanied me over many a road over the years. Being a small part of it will forever be the greatest honor and privilege of my career, regardless where future roads may take me.
The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcast of the 101st Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday and is available on traditional network affiliates nationwide, Sirius 212, XM 209 and via IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.