The Voice Of The 500

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Thirty-five years ago today, one of the iconic voices of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was silenced, when Sid Collins took his own life rather than face the certain grueling death associated with his recent diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I was a freshman in college at Tennessee. Believe it or not – the student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, actually carried a blurb about it on the back pages the next day. I remember following my usual routine (gee, some things never change) of eating breakfast in the school cafeteria before class and seeing the news.

In those days, I had lost some of my interest in the Indianapolis 500 from my childhood. Most eighteen year olds in Tennessee at that time knew nothing of Jim Hurtubise, Lloyd Ruby or Rodger Ward. College and girls, though not necessarily in that order, filled my mind that spring more than the upcoming month of May.

But when I read the small story about Collin’s death, I suddenly went back to my childhood in the sixties. My first real-life exposure to the Indianapolis 500 was through the radio and Sid Collins. The year was 1964. With an October birthday, I had not yet turned six years-old. My father took my two older brothers to the race for the first time, but I was deemed too young to go. I wasn’t sure what the Indianapolis 500 was all about, but I knew I was missing something special and it was eating away at me.

My mother turned on the radio after the race had been going for a while. I remember I was pulling for Parnelli Jones just because I knew he had won the year before and I liked his name. We had already missed the Sid Collins eulogy for Eddie Sachs, who had been fatally injured in a Lap Two crash that also later took the life of rookie Dave MacDonald. I think I knew a driver had died that day, but even at five years-old, I knew that that was a part of racing at that time.

Sid Collins used a lot of sophisticated words that were tough for a young kid to understand. But I could tell by the way he described my first race that it was something special. I’d like to claim that I remember hearing Sid Collins interview a young Brit named Donald Davidson, who was visiting the race for the first time – but I don’t. But I just remember the demeanor and excitement that came out of that speaker as Collins painted a picture with his words.

Later on, I can remember my father always carried a radio to the race. There were no video boards back then. All we knew was what we saw from our seats, and what Tom Carnegie and crew would tell us over the PA. So my father kept a plug in his ear and would tell us what Sid Collins was relaying.

After the 1972 race, my father inexplicably decided to stop going to the Indianapolis 500 for reasons I’ll never understand. Whatever the case, from 1973 forward was when I really became accustomed to the style of Sid Collins. By then, I was a despicable fourteen year-old who thought I was too cool to follow an old man’s sport. But it was funny how, come qualifying and race day, I was always glued to the radio listening to Sid Collins tell the story of that year’s race.

If you never had the pleasure of hearing a full Sid Collins broadcast, you’ve really missed something. This is a way-overused cliché, but he was really one of a kind. He strove for perfection in each and every race. He demanded professionalism from himself and his cohorts on the IMS Radio Network. From what I understand, Collins was not the easiest person to work with. He had little time for flippancy during a broadcast, yet had a very keen sense of humor that he displayed while hosting banquets, dinner parties and galas.

Sid Collins was born Sidney Cahn on July 17, 1922 to Jewish parents who ran a store in Indianapolis. He used the name Collins in broadcasting to avoid anti-Semitism feelings that existed in the 1940’s. While working for WIBC in Indianapolis, he began his career at the 500 while reporting from the south end in 1948 on the old Mutual Network. There was no full-length broadcast in those days, only highlights sprinkled throughout the day sandwiched between two thirty-minute shows at the beginning and end of the race.

In 1952, Mutual left and Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw created the IMS Radio Network. Having already filled in for chief announcer Bill Slater, Sid Collins was named chief announcer for the broadcast in 1952. By 1953, the full-length flag-to-flag coverage format was adapted.

I’m not sure when Sid Collins coined the phrase “Now stay tuned for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. It wasn’t in 1953, but by the time I started listening in 1964, it was sprinkled throughout the broadcast every time there was a commercial break. He had other less famous sayings like: “Here they come for the world’s fastest fling start”; and would always greet the winner as he crossed the finish line with “…has just won the Indianapolis 500 mile race”.

In those days, there was no television coverage. Radio was it. It didn’t take long for Sid Collins to become a legendary favorite to those of us that tuned in for the race. His voice, his delivery and his demeanor became fixtures in our mind. To those that were never able to make it to the race, Sid Collins was the Indianapolis 500.

I’ve never sprung for the ten dollars to buy a complete race broadcast from the sixties via podcast. But I’ve heard enough of Sid Collins to know there will never be another like him. I sometimes wonder if his style would play well in today’s world of shock radio. Although the on-air aura that Sid Collins created is unlike anything in broadcasting today, I like to think that his style was timeless and would work in any era.

Speaking of radio broadcasts:  Don’t forget that The Talk of Gasoline Alley with Donald Davidson begins tonight on WFNI, 1070 The fan for the month of May. This year, the show runs a little later – from 8-9 Eastern. You may listen to it here and click on the giant silver "Listen Live" button. This makes the arrival of the Month of May official.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “The Voice Of The 500”

  1. SkipinSC Says:

    Excellent memories, George. My first recall of Sid was from the 1961 race and the thrilling finish between Eddie Sachs and A. J. Foyt. Bowes Seal Fast, Foyt’s sponsor, was a client of my grandparents insurance consulting firm in Indy, so we were already partial to the young Texan who would become my racing hero for years to come.

    Ironically, three years later, Sachs’ impromptu eulogy, delivered by Sid Collins, would be one of the highlights of Sid’s career, in a race won by, you guessed it, A. J. Foyt.

    In 1973, (a year many race fans would rather forget,) I attended the race with some friends from college in Atlanta. We were all pretty well “oiled,” and I recall that as the first lap chaos occurred I grabbed the battery powered radio we’d brought with us and said, “Boys, we better turn on Sid Collins, something has gone haywire!”

    Throughout the next 14 years, I would never head out to the Speedway without a radio, although Sid had long since passed before that “streak” ended.

    What was truly remarkable was Sid’s devotion to the 500 as well as his ability to lure the “best of the best” of Indianapolis radio and TV personnel to his crew on the broadcast. The list of those who worked that broadcast would read like a Hall of Fame of Indianapolis personalites, and included Mike Ahern, later a WISH-TV news anchor and all-around icon, Doug Zink, Howdy Bell, Jim Wilson, Charlie Brockman, Chuck Marlowe, (whose main claim to fame would be “Big Time Wrestling,” and later host of “The Bob Knight Show,”) Jerry Baker, Paul Page, (Sid’s self-chosen successor,) Luke Walton, Lou Palmer, Donald Davidson (now an icon in his own right,) and many many more.

  2. A fine tribute to a very iconic touchstone in my life. When someone like Sid comes along they should be enjoyed each and every moment that they are able to share their talents with us. Same goes for Jim Nabors who won’t be with us this year while he is recovering from surgery. I think a nice bobble head of Jim singing “Back Home again in Indiana” would look great next to the one of Sid Collins.

  3. Sid (and Tony Hulman for that matter) was the right person at the right time and place.

    Unfortunately, time marches on and things must change (sorry George). Jim Nabors is now the last of a great triumvirate of audible treasures from those most glorious days of Indy 500 (Collins and Carnegie the other two of course).

    At some point, time will have it’s way and will take the final of those three. I will mark that day with sadness, but also do my best to have gratitude for having heard them for what time I did.

    Many thanks to people like George for doing this blog and allowing us to remember and recall through others, what is truly great about this race.

  4. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I only listen to the radio at the “500″ now as a matter of necessity; I can only see about a third of the track from my seats so I need to hear the turn-by-turn to properly follow the action. If Sid — or even Paul Page for that matter — were still on the call, I could almost save my $85/seat and sit in front of the radio like someone from the ’40′s. Hearing the clips on the Legacy Series race recaps or during the annual All-Night Race Party on 1070-AM is fantastic and refreshing given what is, quite frankly, an unprofessional and sloppy product from IMS Radio these days.

    I clearly remember amidst the chaos of last year’s finish, as Mike King fumbled around trying to figure out who had won the race, that “guest analyst” Paul Page had Wheldon pegged as the winner almost before the pass had been made. I like to think that Sid Collins would have had the scenario described perfectly and would’ve had some profound thing to say to give proper gravitas to the situation.

  5. Carburetor Says:

    Thanks George, for a great post. When I was a very young boy, my father was a devoted radio fan and it was his love of the 500 that got me hooked and helped me become the lifelong fan I’ve been for 50+ years. Sid Collins was the major reason as his broadcast style far exceeded any other broadcaster of any sport. My most beloved memories of the race actually came at the end of each of his 500 broadcasts–right before they signed off. Collins would deliver about 45-second special, eloquent tribute to the winner. The tribute however, always addressed the magnitude of the accomplishment of winning the greatest spectacle in racing–and spoke of how those that had been listening would always remember the special event of THAT day in history. Those closing remarks by Collins were priceless. I rarely hear of anyone else who remembers these, however.

    I’ve tried numerous times to contact IMS to find out if they had any of those closing broadcasts, but to no avail. I tell you, a book of just those tributes alone would be well worth reading.

    I also fondly remember how at the start of each broadcast, they would make mention of the tradition of listening to the race on the radio…something to the effect like ..’in xxxxxx, Ohio, John Doe and his two sons will bring the 1955 Buick Special out of the garage, wash it, wax it, and detail it while listening to the 500–like they’ve done every year for the past 12 years….’ They’d make mention of 3-4 other type homespun traditions stories like that at the start.

    Those starts, and those endings, coupled with everything in between, made for a very special day indeed for a young boy, that could only imagine what the race was like in person. Thanks again for the post, George.

    • Funny you mention the tradition of working on a car while listening to the 500 on the radio. By the time I became interested in the 500, Sid Collins had passed and the race was on TV, so that was more my thing, but my mom has mentioned many a year where my dad washed and detailed his car while listening to the race.

  6. I enjoyed reading this one George. To bad we have to listen to Mike BLAH BLAH King on the radio these days.

  7. Good job again George.
    I first heard Sid Collins broadcasting the 500 in 1958. My family had just moved back from Glasgow, Scotland, and Dad, who had attended races in the 40s and early 50s, wanted to hear the race again. He and I sat on the bed in my parents’ bedroom, and with the full page from the Indianapolis News spread out in front of us so we could write in the standings at 10-lap intervals, I heard my first Indianapolis 500.
    That tradition continued until 1963. My Uncle Don Menke, who held a management position at Channel 6 (them WFBM) in Indianapolis, gave Dad two tickets right across from the pits and Dad decided to take me to the race with him.
    I remember a big red tail fin on a Novi (#57?) that really made it stand out from the other roadsters.
    In 1964 Dad finally was able to convince Mom to go with him. I really wanted to go, but there were only two tickets. At the last second Dad said I could go and sit in the car and listen to the race on the radio. I declined. By then, I was already seriously building models of the 500 race cars, and I decided I would work on one as I listened to the race.
    George, you know what happened just two laps into that race. It happened right in front of my parents. Mom got up, walked out to the car and waited for Dad to join her at the end of the race.
    I do remember Sid’s eulogy of Eddie Sachs, who I had met a year or two before.
    I could have seen 198 laps of that race. It was many years before Mom would allow any mention of the Indianapolis 500 in her presence.
    I was back at the race with Dad in 1965, sitting at about the middle of the stands in the North end of the track.
    The next year, 1966, was the last year I would hear Sid collins call the race. Dad took my younger sister to the race that year.
    I was at the 500 every year from 1967 through 1995 in varying capacities from member of my high school band marching in pre-race ceremonies, to fan, to sports writer to photographer.
    I remember that morning hourly news report when WIBC News Anchor Fred Heckman started with “We have lost a friend.” and told us of Sid’s death.
    I had met Sid, and I couldn’t believe he was gone.
    Donald Davidson has since told me details of that morning.
    Sid was a perfectionist and his condition had reached a point that he wasn’t confident that he could perform as he expected himself too. That race broadcast was so much a part of his life that Sid couldn’t go on.
    I took a break from the race from ’95 through 2000. In 1998 I again listened to the race on the radio. I did miss Sid.

  8. JHall14 Says:

    A “Great Listen” is the CD entitled 50 years of Radio Broadcasts of the Indy 500 narrated by Vince Welch. It tells the story of radio at Indy with mentioning all “Voices of the 500″ through Mike King. I listen to it every year as my job takes me to Lafayette and other central Indiana cities. Needless to say, it’s that time of year!

  9. You’re forgiven for thinking about girls at college, especially when that girl was me Spring of freshman year. Funny, you didn’t really talk about IndyCars much to me then.

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