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The Voice, Remembered

The first thing I noticed when I stepped onto the grounds – aside from the fact that I had stepped from the car into a sand trap – was that voice.

It was May 31, 1986. My first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I had driven all night with an old friend. It was 8 a.m. and we were both loopy from a lack of sleep. I stepped out of the car and right into sand, but then I heard a voice. That voice.

He was talking about a high school marching band. A rather mundane subject, I suppose, but to me it was magical. Everything was magical that day. I’d wanted to see this thing, the Indianapolis 500, since I was a kid, but this was my first time. I was in that initial 'holy-crap' phase that hits most people on their first trip to Indy. We had driven the length of Georgetown at a slow crawl past thousands of people to enter at the north gate.

My brain was on fire. Does this thing ever end? My God, look at all the people! Look at how big it is! They let people take coolers inside? How many people does this place hold? Do you have any idea where you’re going? Hell, who cares? That girl is wearing a checkered flag skirt. I’m never going back home, man.

I was told that the sand that covered my shoes was part of a golf course. The place is so big, it has a golf course in the infield! My friend, who had seen the 500 before, said later that my mouth did not close for the next five hours. My lower lip was so close to the ground, he thought I might step on it.

The soundtrack of the day was his voice. A big, booming sound so natural and fitting that it seemed to come from the trees. That day in 1986, I not only discovered the Indianapolis 500, but Tom Carnegie.

It was with sadness that I heard of Tom’s passing, but the news also brought a smile of recollection. Like hundreds of thousands of others, I derived joy from Tom’s work. It meant something to all of us and we can still hear it without summoning a recording or a YouTube video.

Tom’s voice was not one of those things that you could instantly analyze. Here was a voice that had to be loud to be heard, yet was never loud. Never forced. His words never superseded the action. They only accented it.

There are hundreds of examples of Carnegie's iconic phrases – “annnnnd heeeeee’s on it." He could describe action as it happened and bring racing heroes to life for the fans, and he conducted one of the best live interviews I’ve ever heard.

In 1993, A.J. Foyt suddenly announced his retirement on Pole Day. Carnegie was the first person he told. It was an emotional moment for both, and the emotion was conveyed with the proper amount of sentiment.

“I was choking up and Tom was right there with me,” Foyt recalled. “I think he hated to see me retire. He told me later, not on the PA, ‘Well, there comes a time when we all have to do this, A.J. I know how hard it was for you to do that, and I just appreciate you doing the interview with me.’ I would rather have done it with him than anybody else even though I’ve got a lot of good friends there. He knew how to ask questions and when to ask. He knew when something was bad and he just knew how to do it. I think it’s born in you. It’s not something you learn.”

Exactly. That was the beauty of Tom Carnegie. His voice wasn’t a skill. It was a gift. One that he shared with the rest of us for 61 years. Sixty-one years. Give that a second thought. Most people’s professional careers last somewhere between 40 and 50 years. This man covered one race, and covered it brilliantly, for 61 years. That's extraordinary.

Yes, it’s sad news, but it is greeted with a touching remembrance by all of us who love the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His voice was a moment in time. When we hear him, we hear friends and loved ones. We hear ourselves.

We are all better for having heard one man speak. 

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