It seems almost unfathomable now, but for decades, the Indianapolis 500 grew in worldwide acclaim without TV and without orchestrated drama in qualifying and without any drivers or teams being guaranteed starting positions. It was so large, in fact, that the race grew in spite of the fact it was almost always run on a weekday, not even on a Sunday. In a simpler time in our collective past, the Indianapolis 500 was a cornerstone of America’s Memorial Day weekend.
Leading the growth of the Indianapolis 500 post World War II and pushing its reach to all corners of the globe was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, established in 1952 and first airing flag-to-flag coverage of the race a year later. The network had 130 affiliates for that race in 1953. By the early 1980s, the number of affiliates had risen to over 1,200. The network was also carried via shortwave stations and the US Armed Forces Network, claiming that the broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 was available at every location on the earth where English was spoken. At its zenith, the network boasted an audience of over 100 million listeners worldwide.
Many readers here will know the names of the Chief Announcers for the IMS Radio Network. They will know the names of Sid Collins, Paul Page, Lou Palmer, Bob Jenkins, Mike King, and Mark Jaynes. And while these six men have each delivered some historic highlights, many of the greatest radio network calls over the past 70 years have been made by voices some fans may not be familiar with.
Today, I’ll present you with seven of my favorite radio highlights spanning the many years of the IMS Radio Network. These are obviously up for debate and each fan will have their own list. But I think any of the highlights below are deserving of being on this list.
7 – Scott Dixon’s 2017 crash (Nick Yeoman)
Nick Yeoman came to the IMS Radio Network in 2010 and made an immediate splash. He hadn’t even graduated yet from Ball State University when Mike King gave him a shot on the network. After earning his stripes on pit lane, Yeoman moved to Turn 2 in 2016 for the 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
A year later, Yeoman would find himself witness to a horrifying site with a miraculous ending when pole sitter Scott Dixon sailed nearly the entire length of the south chute through the air after touching wheels with Jay Howard’s car. Dixon’s car flew rear-first into the inside catch fencing above an infield tunnel and disintegrated, ripping the Honda engine off the rear of the car and sending it hurtling back across the track toward the outside wall.
Yeoman described the horrific incident in real time without undue exaggeration or hyperbole though his voice easily conveyed the magnitude of the situation. As if you could hear his entire body relax, Nick’s description of Scott Dixon exiting the car under his own power put millions of listeners immediately at ease. I’ve been fortunate to know Nick for many years since he took on his role with the IMS Radio Network, and I absolutely claim this was one of Nick’s finest moments.
6 – Guerrero stalls on pit road, 1987 (Lou Palmer)
As I wrote about on Monday, the tale of Roberto Guerrero flipped from promising to tragic in 1987. After a mid-race incident that saw a spectator fatally injured when Guerrero’s car struck a free-rolling wheel of Tony Bettenhausen, Roberto found himself in position to win the race after Mario Andretti’s engine went south with only 22 laps remaining.
Entering the pits on Lap 182, Guerrero needed only a timed pit stop to maintain his nearly full-lap lead over second-place Al Unser. Unfortunately, damage from the earlier incident included unnoticed damage to Guerrero’s clutch master cylinder. When he went to leave the pits, the engine stalled.
Calling the action in Guerrero’s pit at that time was network veteran Lou Palmer. Palmer joined the IMS Radio Network in 1958 and was famously assigned to the third turn as a rookie because, a Sid Collins put it, “nothing ever happens out there.” As it turned out, the first time Palmer keyed his microphone to describe cars at speed, a massive crash was occurring in front of him that involved 15 cars and the fatality of Pat O’Connor.
Palmer would hold the Turn Three position through 1962, after which time he moved to pit lane starting in 1963. He traditionally reported on the faster cars at the south end of pit lane and always conducted the winner’s interview in Victory Lane. He would stay there until 1987 with this call of Guerrero’s pit chaos. The following year, Palmer would ascending to the rank of Chief Announcer and succeed Paul Page as the third Radio Voice of the 500. As was his style as a pit reporter, Palmer presented the play-by-play of the 500 with an eloquence and poetry that I believe has been unmatched by the other five Radio Voices. Yes, that includes Sid Collins. If I lost my vision today and had to listen to one Radio Voice of the 500 describe the action of all future Indianapolis 500s to me, I would chose to have Lou Palmer be that voice.
Palmer’s call of Guerrero’s pit stop is as gut-wrenching as a George Jones country song. As Guerrero’s car stalls the first time, Palmer describes with excitement the effort to restart the car. When the crew tries to push the car away and it stalls again, Palmer’s call goes from excitement to excruciating anguish. The car would eventually fire and leave on the third attempt, but the damage was already done for Guerrero. And the events left us with another unforgettable call by the veteran Lou Palmer.
5 – Finish of the 2006 Indianapolis 500 (Mike King, anchor)
The first of four finishes of the Indianapolis 500 to make the list, the 2006 finish had the most on-track players and the most movement amongst the participants. Set up by a caution on Lap 191 for very light contact by Felipe Giaffone, the four-lap shootout to the checkers featured a returning Michael Andretti, his rookie son Marco, Bryan Herta, and Sam Hornish.
The radio team was led by Chief Announcer Mike King with the turns being manned by Hall of Famer Jerry Baker, Adam Alexander, Mark Jaynes, and Chris Denari. Each man described the action eloquently and conveyed the excitement of the action before them. Embellishment was unnecessary, nor was speculation. The action on track was sufficient to provide all the necessary excitement.
I recall vividly being in the stands watching the action unfold before me and thinking it odd that nearly all five announcers conceded victory to Andretti after he slammed the door on Hornish in Turn Three on Lap 199. Sam lost nearly two seconds to Andretti following the move, but quickly regathered himself and started reeling Andretti in over the last lap. Adam Alexander even went so far as declaring the headlines were to read the young rookie was the winner. It wasn’t until the cars got back to Denari in Turn Four that he recognized Hornish was once again on the tail of the youngest Andretti.
Unfortunately, the legendary finish was spoiled by two further gaffes that detracted from the moment. The first seemed like a microphone or switching failure on the part of the IMS Radio Network technical team as Chris Denari handed the call of the finish off to King. For whatever reason, King’s microphone did not immediately activate, though when it did become hot, you can hear King saying something about “…four,” presumably Turn Four. What was spoken in those couple seconds is lost to the ages, and I’ve never heard Mike King comment on the glitch. Thankfully his microphone keyed just in time to call Sam Hornish passing Marco Andretti a few hundred yards from the finish.
The second, and in my opinion more annoying, problem with the finish was the near comical, Santa Clause-like laugh/chuckle of Dave Wilson immediately following the the finish. As King was describing Hornish’s pass of Andretti in the last few hundred yards, Wilson lets out a raucous bout of chuckling that was reminiscent of his old colleagues on the Bob and Tom Show, essentially drowning out King’s description of the events. To this day, I hear that howl and get annoyed. Dave Wilson has had a long and storied association with the Indianapolis 500 going back many years to his long tenure with WIBC and as the host of The Talk of Gasoline Alley. He has given much to the racing community and continues to be a part of the Radio Network, but this was not a highlight of his that I recall fondly.
4 – Finish of the 1989 Indianapolis 500 (Lou Palmer, anchor)
In his second and final race as the Radio Voice of the 500, Lou Palmer led his team through one of the most memorable finishes the race has ever seen. Emerson Fittipaldi largely dominated the race but had to withstand a mid-race battle with Michael Andretti and a late-race challenge from Al Unser, Jr.
When Tero Palmroth’s car lost a tire on the leader’s 181st lap, Fittipaldi ducked into the pits for a splash of fuel. He nearly stalled his engine exiting his pit and then got caught behind an emergency truck while leaving pit lane. Meanwhile, Little Al’s team owner, Rick Galles, opted to leave Unser on track, a desperate gamble that he could make it to the end of the race on fuel. It was a long shot but the only chance Little Al had of catching Fittipaldi and having a shot at the win.
When the green flag flew with 14 laps to go, Unser was able to close the gap on Fittipaldi and finally passed the two-time World Driving Champion on Lap 195. For a couple laps, it appeared Little Al was pulling away and was going to steal the race from Fittipaldi in the waning laps. However, with two laps to go, the leaders caught lapped traffic. Little Al easily moved around Rocky Moran in Turn 1, putting Moran between Unser and Fittipaldi, but Unser mistimed his attempted pass of Ludwig Heimrath, Jr. entering Turn 2 and lost a significant amount of momentum. This allowed Fittipaldi to quickly close the gap on Little Al leading to one of the most dramatic moments in 500 history.
The radio call of the race’s final seven laps, anchored by Palmer and featuring Jerry Baker in Turn 1, Bob Lamey in Turn 2, Larry Henry in Turn 3, and Bob Jenkins in Turn 4, was completely in sync for the entirely of the finish. Though Lamey was in only his second year as part of the broadcast network, all the other voices had been on the broadcast since at least 1981. Their flawless harmony made this one of the great calls in the history of the event.
(I will note that this is perhaps the greatest combined call for both the radio and TV broadcast. The television broadcast team of Paul Page, Bobby Unser, and Sam Posey were just memorable, more so though for the perfect way Page let the pictures tell the story and his understanding of the value of silence. It was a textbook example of how TV and radio require vastly different techniques to convey the same event but when executed correctly, each is equally dramatic.)
3 – Finish of the 1982 Indianapolis 500 (Paul Page, anchor)
While the 1989 Indianapolis 500 essentially came to an end with about a lap and a quarter left to go, the 1982 500 went all the way to the checkered flag with an epic duel between the mishandling car of cagey veteran and the well performing car of a former winner who was still rather inexperienced.
Gordon Johncock was part of the historic rookie class of 1965 and had won the tragic 1973 running of the 500. For many, it was a race that people did not want to remember, and while no one doubted the integrity of Johncock’s win, he himself admitted he wanted another victory that could be looked upon more favorably.
Rick Mears, the 1978 Co-Rookie of the Year and 1979 500 winner, was still young and mostly inexperienced, especially in dealing with late-race battles for victory. But he was driving for Roger Penske and had started the race on the pole, establishing himself as a favorite for the race.
For the last 100 miles of the race, Johncock and Mears raced closely for the lead. Johncock’s car was faster on the long straightaways, but Mears’s car was much better equipped for cornering speed. They were evenly matched when Mears pitted for fuel on Lap 182. Inexplicably, Mears’s Penske crew filled his car completely full with fuel when in reality he only needed slightly more than half a tank to complete the race. The error cost Mears a significant amount of time in the pits and gave him a heavier car on track.
Two laps later, Johncock made his final pit stop where his Patrick Racing Team added just enough fuel to race the final 16 laps. When Johncock returned to the track, he had a lead of nearly 11 seconds over Mears.
Unfortunately for Johncock, his car being light on fuel actually worsened the pushing condition of the car and made his cornering speed even slower. Soon Mears began catching Johncock at a rate of one second per lap. With ten laps to go, the difference was 10 seconds. With only three laps remaining, Mears was closing quickly and had whittled the lead all the way down to about a second and a half.
The radio call for this historic finish was anchored by Paul Page, the hand-selected successor to Sid Collins. Page had been in the Chief Announcer’s seat since 1977 and was calling his sixth race as the Radio Voice of the 500. Joining Page on the broadcast were longtime IMS Radio Network veterans Ron Carrell and Doug Zink in Turns 1 and 2, respectively, newcomer Larry Henry in Turn 3, and veteran (and future Chief Announcer) Bob Jenkins in Turn 4.
2 – Finish of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 (Bob Jenkins, anchor)
Quite honestly, the finishing calls of the 1982 and 1992 Indianapolis 500s could have been listed as 2a and 2b on this list. I give the ever slightest nod, however, to the 1992 race simply because I vividly remember listening to the race live while I was in the stands that frigid day.
A lot of people with revisionist history hold up the 1992 Indianapolis 500 as a great race. Most people do so solely because of the finish. Those who really remember the race, whether they were there freezing in the grandstands or watching the race on TV at home, remember the race itself was actually pretty awful. The carnage started on the parade laps when Roberto Guerrero, the pole sitter, spun and crashed exiting Turn 2 on the second parade lap. Then rookie Philippe Gache spun on the same lap exiting Turn 4. Gache didn’t hit anything and was able to continue on, but it was an omen of things to come the rest of the day.
The cold temperatures, which topped out in the low 50s with a gloomy sky and stiff winds all day long, made it very difficult for drivers to get heat in their tires. One yellow flag led to another and another and another. The race would be slowed for 83 laps, leading to the slowest average speed since 1958. Half of the first 100 laps were at reduced speeds.
Michael Andretti dominated the race from the drop of the green flag, leading 160 of the race’s first 189 laps. However, the Andretti Curse struck again on Lap 189 when his fuel pump failed and Michael’s race came to an end on the apron at the north end of the track.
Surviving the mayhem of the day were 1989 runner-up Al Unser, Jr. and third-year veteran Scott Goodyear. Little Al had passed Goodyear for what appeared to be “Best in Class” only a couple laps before Andretti’s day ended and suddenly found himself in the lead with only 25 miles remaining.
The radio broadcast was anchored by Bob Jenkins, a longtime IMS Radio Network who was involved in the 1982 call and was a long-time veteran of ESPN’s NASCAR racing coverage. Jenkins was joined again by Jerry Baker, Larry Henry, and Bob Lamey in Turns 1, 3, and 4, with ESPN Saturday Night Thunder play-by-play man Gary Lee covering Turn 2.
In my mind, the last 10 laps of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 are simply as good as it gets for radio broadcasting of auto racing. The delivery and cadence were smooth and effortless, the transitions from turn to turn were flawless, and the excitement was palpable. Everyone under the sun heard the famous last turn call of Bob Lamey when it was used for several years on Valvoline commercials, leading Lamey to famously quip that that call put his children through college.
1 – Eulogy of Eddie Sachs in 1964 (Sid Collins, anchor)
This one is pretty much a no-brainer. The impromptu eulogy that Sid Collins delivered live on-air for Eddie Sachs after he was fatally injured in the 1964 Indianapolis 500 transcends auto racing and falls into the category of greatest moments in all of radio history. It was the epitome of talent, mastery of language, and intensive preparation, all intersecting in that tragic moment.
For all his history and linkage to the Indianapolis 500, Sid Collins was not especially knowledgable about auto racing. He was, however, smart enough to surround himself with people who were very knowledgeable about the sport. Where Collins was not to be outdone though was in his preparation. Collins knew the people involved in the sport well. He knew their families and their backgrounds. He had a way of ad libbing when necessary, and could talk endlessly when necessary. (I see many of those same talents in current IMS veteran Jake Query, whom I have heard on several occasions deliver eloquent, informed, and convincing soliloquies completely off the cuff and unrehearsed.)
Following the on-air eulogy of Eddie Sachs, Collins claimed to have received 30,000 transcript requests from the public. I don’t know if he responded to any or all of them, but it was a moment that touched millions of people worldwide. (The full transcript can now be found online in this 2016 Autoweek article.) Unfortunately, the audio of the eulogy is somewhat difficult to find on the internet in its entirety, but the following link plays all but the last paragraph of the speech.