His voice has become an institution…

IndyCar commentary — By on February 11, 2011 12:38 pm
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“His voice has become an institution at this race.”

The irony is that these are the words that Tom Carnegie used to introduce Jim Nabors to the assembled legions of fans every year for the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

But the truth is there has never been, nor will there ever be, an institution like Tom Carnegie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Carnegie passed away this morning at the age of 91.  As news of his passing quickly moved through the racing community, an outpouring of support, love, and sympathy flooded traditional and social media outlets.  For more than 60 years, Carnegie’s voice reverberated through the grounds at 16th and Georgetown, and while many (some would say most) things have changed since World War II, Carnegie always remained constant.  The sounds of the engines changed — from normally aspirated to turbocharged, from four cylinders, to six, to eight — but the voice that followed them around the track never did.

In much the same way that Vince Scully is LA Dodgers baseball, Tom Carnegie was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  His famous calls of “Aaaaaand heeeee’s on it!” and “It’s a neeeeeew traaaaack reeeecord!” were as much as part of Indianapolis qualifying as the cars and the speeds were.  Many race fans didn’t consider the Month of May to have started until Carnegie announced, “The track is open for practice!”

Carnegie first came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the track was reemerging from its darkest days during World War II.  Carnegie, a Connecticut native who suffered from polio while in college, was discovered by Wilbur Shaw and asked to join the Speedway’s public address system, first calling the 1946 race victory of George Robson.  He continued as the chief announcer until he officially retired from the position following the 2006 500.

Tom Carnegie was the PA Voice of the 500 for 60 years (photo courtesy of IMS)

Tom Carnegie was the PA Voice of the 500 for 60 years (photo courtesy of IMS)

I was blessed to have first visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when new track records were still sought year after year.  In 1988, I first heard Carnegie’s famous “new track record” call when Danny Sullivan broke the one-lap speed record with a lap of 217.749 mph.  Later in the day, the call was heard again when Rick Mears broke both the one- and four-lap records at 220.453 and 219.198 mph, respectively.  At the time, Carnegie was part of a PA broadcasting team that included Jim Phillipe and John Totten.  While Phillipe and Totten provided the play-by-play for the crowd, describing the cars through each turn and down each straightaway, it was Carnegie’s voice of the official speed reports that the fans wanted to hear.  Each lap, the crowd waited with bated breath to hear those immortal words, saddened when they were denied but jubilant when they were heard.

Sadly, new track records became scarcer in the following years, with only 1992 and 1996 seeing the bars raised.  But Tom never failed to energize the crowd with his announcing.  Sometimes, all it would take to draw a massive ovation was, “Good morning, race fans.  On behalf of the Hulman-George family, we welcome you to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”  Tom had an effect on people at the track that could never be replicated.  Even fans who were three generations younger than him understood his role and his impact on the Speedway.  It was not uncommon to see flocks of fans trying to speak with Tom ranging in ages from 8 to 80.

One of the things I admired most about Tom was that he never lost his edge. He remained as sharp on the microphone in 2006 as he was in 1946.  Sure, the voice slowed down a bit, but he never once gave the illusion that he was not still completely capable in his position.  Many fans, sadly, remember Harry Carry more for his gaffes on air and his way of butchering players’ names than they do for his truly Hall of Fame–worthy broadcasting career.  Conversely, Carnegie was as knowledgeable and respected when he hung up the microphone as he was 30 years prior.

My favorite memory of Tom Carnegie came on Pole Day in 1993.  AJ Foyt, who had planned to retire in 1991 after returning from devastating leg injuries suffered at Road America the year before, was planning to qualify for his 37th consecutive 500 when his young rookie, Robby Gordon, crashed in the morning practice.  Foyt realized that in order to properly run his race team, it was time to hang up his driving helmet.  Tom Carnegie broke the news to the crowd, who sat in stunned silence.  As Foyt took one final lap to say goodbye to the fans, the near-capacity crowd erupted in respectful ovation.  When he returned to the start-finish line, Carnegie was there to greet him.  As the tearful Foyt struggled to gain his composure, Carnegie put his arm around Foyt and conveyed the feelings of the nearly 200,000 spectators in attendance.

A few years have passed now since Carnegie hung up the reins, though he sporadically returned to the Speedway PA system in the following years.  Since 2007, several announcers have taken to the microphone, but none have achieved the authoritative status that Carnegie maintained for so many years.  It’s not likely that any single person ever will.

When Thomas Jefferson followed Benjamin Franklin as the American diplomat to the Court of France shortly following the American Revolution, Jefferson said of his predecessor, “No one can replace him.  I am merely his successor.”  Likewise, though others are capable in their own right and will follow him, Tom Carnegie will never be replaced.

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