The Voice Of The 500
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.