Personal Memories Of Tom Carnegie

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We all knew this was coming, probably sooner than later. Yet, when I learned Friday that Tom Carnegie had passed away – it was much more of a shock to my system than I thought it would be. I was probably one of the last to find out about it. I was on a five-minute break during one of those all-day Friday meetings at work. I went into my office, checked my e-mail and read the news. Without time to do anything other than e-mail the news to both of my brothers, I returned to the meeting about budgets and procedures.

I found myself more upset than I thought I would be. When someone passes away at the age of 91, you generally smile and say something trite like “…well, he had a full life”. Instead, I felt like I had lost a member of my family. I saw on Twitter where Curt Cavin said that "…even though Tom Carnegie was great on the PA, he was an even nicer man. He treated me like a grandson". Well said.

Last year, I wrote a post on Tom Carnegie. I wanted to write something about him while he was alive, and it wouldn’t be so much a tribute or an obituary. I went back and read it over the weekend and I still marvel at all of the historic moments that his eyes witnessed. He saw both incarnations of the Novi, the front-drive as well as the Novi of the early sixties. He called races that invoked the regal names of Mauri Rose, Ralph Hepburn, Rex Mays, Bill Vukovich and Pat O’ Connor. He was there when AJ Foyt was a rookie in 1958. He was also holding the microphone when Foyt tearfully announced his retirement in 1993.

Tom Carnegie was the one that informed the crowd of the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. He was there at my first Indianapolis 500, calling the race that saw the first rear-engine car take the checkered flag with Jim Clark behind the wheel. Of the ninety-four Indianapolis 500’s that have taken place, Tom Carnegie was behind the microphone for all but thirty-three of them – which includes the past four races.

Many eloquent tributes have been written in the past few days. Many have told his story and given point-by-point accounts of his life. I’m not going to rehash what others have said. What’s the point? I couldn’t do it as well as they have and if I could, it would be repetitious anyway.

Instead, I’ll share the memory of Tom Carnegie that is most special to me. The year was 1992. I had been to the Indianapolis 500 seven times as a kid. From 1965 through 1972, I went with my family to qualifying and race day almost every year (except 1966, when my father took my uncle and grandfather). I grew up in pretty much a “Leave It To Beaver” household. Today, I almost find myself apologizing for the fact that I had a very happy childhood – because I’ve found that so many people didn’t. A big part of those childhood memories revolved around the Indianapolis 500.

After a twenty-year absence, I returned to the Speedway in 1992. When my (then) wife and I parked in the infield on race day and got out of the car – it was freezing. It was a cold, damp morning. Even the usual infield crowd was subdued. They were more concerned with staying warm, than having the usual 8:00 am cocktail. As we stood there shivering, wondering whether we should head for our seats or get back in the warm car – suddenly this booming voice came over the PA system. As Tom Carnegie welcomed us on behalf of the Hulman-George family, a swirl of childhood memories overcame me. I felt like it was 1967 again and I was eight years old.

At once, my chill went away. Much to my wife’s dismay, I couldn’t get to our seats fast enough. We weren’t prepared for the cold. I was lucky to have packed a pair of jeans, much less a heavy coat. Unless you were there, it’s hard to convey just how cold it was that day. But we sat in our seats in the Tower Terrace, just south of the starting line, the entire morning. We watched the cars moved to their individual pits and then to the starting grid. With my wife being bored to death and relentlessly reminding me how cold she was, we watched all the drivers and car owners parade in front of us. I was in heaven while I was taking it all in. But what amazed me was how every time Tom Carnegie’s voice echoed through the speakers, telling us whatever was going on, it seemed like I had never been away from that place.

When he retired after the 2006 race, it wasn’t quite the same. I think Dave Calabro does a great job, especially considering the shoes he is filling. There is really no one who could have done a better job – except for Tom Carnegie. But Dave was a good friend of Tom Carnegie and was always gracious enough to share the mic with Mr. Carnegie, whenever he was around and willing to share a few words.

I saw Tom Carnegie race day morning last year. He was in his wheel chair looking rather frail, but was always smiling as he was surrounded by a throng of well-wishers. But when they put him on the microphone to say a few words, the voice was as strong as ever. It was eighteen years since that frigid day in 1992, yet it still brought back those memories – and the memories of when I was a little boy being captivated by what I was seeing and hearing.

Now those melodic vocal chords have been silenced forever. It saddens me that I won’t hear that majestic voice this May, or ever again. We’ve all lost a major link to the historic past and our own personal past. We all knew this was coming, but it still stings nonetheless. He will be missed.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Personal Memories Of Tom Carnegie”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I do not think anyone could add anything to that post George….

  2. Mike Silver Says:

    Beautifully written, George. You described my weekend perfectly.

  3. Jack in NC Says:

    Very nice, George. In the true spirit of Tom Carnegie, you said what needed to be said with grace and polish.

  4. A very well done piece George. Thanks for sharing your memories of Tom Carnegie

    I was at the race when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonals died. We were parked in the infield next to the backstretch fence. Huge clouds of black smoke arose from the grandstand area and the crowd everywhere on the track became very quiet. Later Tom Carnegie confirmed what we all feared and announced to the crowd what had happened as only he could . The entire crowd fell silent. Some fans immediately began to leave.

    Like you, I returned to the 500 in 1992 after a long absence. My daughter and I were guests of my uncle Charlie Campbell who had attended 33 races in a row at that point. The night before it rained so hard that there was enough water flowing down my uncle’s Broadripple street for me to float a canoe on. The rain washed the rubber off the track and the next moring was very cold. Many fans from perhaps warmer places were unprepared for the cold and were shivering. Then, exactly as you remember, Tom Carnigie came on the loudspeaker and welcomed the crowd. Soon, everyone’s adrenalin began flowing and we ignored the cold weather.

    Later, Roberto Guerraro the pole sitter spun out of the race on the pace lap while trying to warm up his tires. I don’t recall what Tom reported about that. Perhaps you do.

  5. This is a beautiful piece, George. Great job.

  6. I’ve been going to the 500 since the early 1980’s. We were up there pretty early on Saturday in 1992. It was a very warm day, probably in the 80’s. About 8:00 as I recall the cold front began moving though and within an hour it was in the 40’s. We had to buy sweat shirts from the vendors just to stay warm. We were at the Coke Lot that year and it was a very cold night and next morning. Very heavy overcast. Watching the Pole sitter wreck on the pace lap was something I won’t soon forget. We were in the stands along the back straight that are gone now but we could see the wreck. The day was salvaged by the close contest between Al Unser JR. and Scott Goodyear at the end of the race.

    This was also the days before the jumbotrons (or whatever the current name is for the big screens TVs in the infield) were installed. Tom Carnegie did some of his finest work keeping you informed of the events going on in areas away from where you were sitting. In some ways it was better than watching the jumbotron.

  7. james t suel Says:

    GEORGE that was the best piece on TOM CARNEGIE ive seen. 1960 was my first 500 an 2011 will be my 51st , i cant beleve i wont here that great voice!
    thanks for your blog

  8. George, I hope to meet you this May. Well said. Soon, and it is coming, life as we knew it Pre-1960 with all the stars of Indy, is coming to an end. Tom probably was the most important “non driver” to ever be associated with the “500”, other than Mr. Hulman and very close behind, Jim Nabors. Our heroes are slowly fading away, let’s hope this new breed is as good a caretakers as its’ predecessors.

  9. George, your tribute is a most fine one

  10. You’re that good at writing on Indy, George. Damn good. Don’t mind if you don’t get paid, what matters is that we read it.

  11. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    Outstanding!

  12. I’ve been in a funk about this for almost a week. It’s hard to believe we won’t be hearing Tom on the PA. It didn’t matter what kind of week I had had, or what else might be going on, when I got to the track early, as we die-hards always have and always will, hearing Tom say “GOOoooood MMMMorning RRRRace Fansssss…..and welcome…..” all was right with the world. I haven’t missed a Race Day, or qualifying day for that matter, since 1978, and Dave, Jerry and the others do a fine job, but I’ll miss Tom badly.

    I wish someone could invent a time machine so we could all take our kids back to a first weekend of time trials and experience it the old-fashioned way with Tom Carnegie, Jim Phillippe and John Totten. Those were the days.

    In reply to an earlier post, I would include Donald Davidson among the most important non-drivers at the Speedway as well.

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