Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Sound of Speed

When it came to titling this blog site, I was charged with distilling what 35-plus years of open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500 meant to me into a scant handful of words—no easy task, I assure you. The words themselves are plain to see, but to the uninitiated, their intended meaning is predictably elusive and mysterious at best.

But to the millions of souls that have heard those same utterances echo contemplatively, grandstand-to-grandstand, across the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they hold true reverence. They are iconic, hair-raising, and for those whose house of worship resides at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown, I unabashedly say biblical.

Tom Carnegie’s voice is an instrument; more precisely, a drum. Not a child’s toy, but the deepest orchestral timpani in full roll at the hands of the most proficient percussionist. It’s low-boiling thunder, truck tires on a gravel road. Launched from loudspeakers at the world’s greatest and most historic sporting venue, it’s aural fireworks—simply magic.

Mr. Carnegie didn’t just serve as public address announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he institutionalized the position. From 1946 to 2006 his voice was as much a part of the month of May as the cars, the fans, the drivers.

Quite reasonably, one would expect that the 500-mile race would be his brightest stage, and without question, his performances over the years were legendary. But in this writer’s opinion, the 33 snarling engines on race day only served as recurring and rude interruptions to his impeccable skill. During an era when the word “Indy” meant an ongoing quest for faster and faster speeds, the qualifications for the race are where Mr. Carnegie’s talent truly shown.

With only one race car on the speedway at a time, he had the captive ear of thousands. His dramatic delivery, tone, and inflection had fans hanging on every word in a one-way dialogue of the most engaging sort. Having performed so brilliantly for so long, Mr. Carnegie has become well known for a number of famous phrases, but to me, there is only one.

For an Indycar driver, competing in the Indianapolis 500 each year is second only to winning it. That makes a qualification attempt at Indy one of the most dramatic 10 miles in motorsports. To accomplish qualifying successfully is a triumphant victory of the grandest character, to fail is a tragedy of the greatest proportions—Tom Carnegie knew that as well as anyone.

After circling the oval on his warm-up laps and being presented with the green flag, Carnegie would skillfully and ceremoniously launch the driver into racing’s stratosphere, as if journeying to the moon, with four simple, monosyllabic words: “annnd he’s on it!” No one on the grounds, including the brave soul behind the wheel, knew what would happen over the next four laps. That’s what made those words so powerful... the suspense; the agonizing, all-consuming suspense.

Those famous words are what the singular pursuit of Indycar racing means to me. They simply and wholly encapsulate my decades-long love affair with the sport I just can’t seem to shake. To me, if they were to be linked so closely with this brave new adventure of mine, I felt it only just to pay proper tribute to the man who spoke them so nobly.

To put it more succinctly, on behalf of the millions, Tom, we miss you, and thanks for the memories.

—JM

1 comment:

  1. Hearing his magnificent baritone live for the first time on Bump Day in 1993 was a magical moment for me. It was the first time I'd been to the Speedway when cars were running in anger around the track, which was exciting enough, but to hear Tom over the PA just made it extra special. Your description of the man, the voice, and what he meant to us fans of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race are spot on! Well done, sir.

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