It Was Forty Years Ago Today

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Forty years ago today, we lost one of the main threads that make up the fabric that is the history of the Indianapolis 500. I’m not talking about a driver, car owner or even Tony Hulman – who, himself, passed away a little later on in the fall of 1977. This person was never a chief mechanic and never built a race car. But he is as much a part of the lore of the Indianapolis 500 as AJ Foyt, Wilbur Shaw or Louis Meyer. His name was Sidney Cahn, Jr. – or as he was more commonly known as – Sid Collins, after changing his name in an era of anti-Semitism.

I am lucky enough to have heard many of Sid Collins’ live broadcasts of the Indianapolis 500. The first I ever heard was part of the 1964 race. I was only five years old. My father had taken both of my older brothers to the race. As much as I wanted to go, I was told that I was too young. My mother stayed home with me and eventually found the broadcast on the radio. By the time we found it, we had already missed what was undoubtedly one of Collins’ finest moments – his on-air delivery of the Eddie Sachs eulogy, after Sachs had been fatally injured early in the race. Dave MacDonald would succumb to his injuries later that afternoon.

I argued my way to the 1965 race, but was left home again in 1966 along with my brothers when my father took his brother and my grandfather to the race. We all huddled around the radio and listened to Sid Collins describe the action, as only he could.

From 1967, I went to the “500” every year. But after the 1972 race, my father inexplicably announced that he didn’t want to go to the race or qualifying anymore. ABC had started doing the same day edited rebroadcast the night of the race by then, but I always listened to Sid Collins doing it live.

By 1973, I was old enough to realize how good Sid Collins was. This was before ESPN or cable. We had roughly three channels (ABC, CBS and NBC) and not many live sporting events to choose from. There was usually only a couple of college football games televised each week – and hardly ever my Tennessee Vols. If I wanted to follow the game, I listened to the legendary voice of John Ward, who was the “Voice of the Vols” for thirty-one years. He was excellent and I knew it, especially compared to some of the other announcers I was forced to listen to. John Ward was eloquent, excitable and would paint a picture as he described the scene. Sid Collins was the same way and I was aware of his talent, even as a surly teenager.

Collins was known to be a perfectionist in everything he did. He was always dressed immaculately and always went to great lengths to focus on his appearance and image. He was also known to have quite the ego, but most successful people in that line of work do – and that’s not a bad thing.

From what I have read and heard over the years, Sid Collins had just as much of an impact as Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw in the growth of the Indianapolis 500 after World War II. Prior to Collins, Bill Slater of the Mutual Broadcasting System anchored the coverage of the Indianapolis 500. The format was a thirty-minute show at the beginning of the race, updates throughout the race and then a thirty-minute show at the end of the race. Collins had been a turn announcer with Mutual and had been tabbed to anchor the broadcast when Slater was ill. But on Race Morning, Slater showed up. Collins showed his disappointment, so Slater invited Collins to do the broadcast with him.

After an increase in fees, Mutual decided they would no longer broadcast the race. Collins, who worked for WIBC, put together what became the IMS Radio Network with turn announcers and reporters from every station in Indianapolis. He came up with the idea of broadcasting the entire race, which was unheard of in those days. The IMS Radio Network as we know it was launched with the 1952 race.

It was Sid Collins who coined the phrase Now stay tuned for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as a way to let the stations know a commercial break was coming up.

But more than creating the radio network and coming up with catch-phrases still in use today, I think it was Sid Collins who was responsible for making the Indianapolis 500 a staple in American culture. Before World War II, most people outside of Indiana only had a vague idea what the Indianapolis 500 was. They may have seen a photo in the newspaper a day or two after the race, but they had no real grasp of what the entire event was about.

That all changed when Sid Collins became the first Voice of the Indianapolis 500 with the advent of the IMS Radio Network and the full race broadcast. With Collins at the helm, he used his unique talent to bring the listeners in and make them feel as if they were sitting in the stands. He was so smooth in his delivery and eloquently descriptive. He didn’t describe the Jones & Maley Special that Sam Hanks drove to second place in 1956 as red. To Sid Collins, it was candy-apple red.

I think that Sid Collins did more to raise awareness for the Indianapolis 500 than anyone else in the history of the race. Through the IMS Radio Network, the race went from being mostly a Hoosier event to one of world-wide prominence. As Donald Davidson likes to say; “Radio was king in those days”. It was the only way anyone had access to anything. Sid Collins and his unique ability to frame sentences on the fly, made listening to the full-race broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 a Memorial Day tradition throughout the world.

While Collins was excitable, he was never a screamer. Some broadcasters today feel the need to scream into the microphone to let listeners know that something exciting is happening. That was not his style. When Jack Turner flipped end-over-end going down the straightaway in 1961, Collins’ tone went up an octave, but his volume was the same and he was always in control.

Sadly, Sid Collins started having severe physical issues in 1975. He was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease began to take its toll, and Collins could not walk without a cane. As the neurological disease ravaged his body, he confided to his friend Paul Page that he would take his own life rather than face the certain paralysis and painful death that awaited him. On May 2, 1977, Sid Collins followed through with his plan and took his own life at the age of fifty-four – forty years ago today.

One wonders if Collins had foreseen that the 1976 Indianapolis 500 broadcast would be his last. Sid Collins always closed each year’s broadcast with some type of poem or prose. For 1976, Collins chose these words that are now somewhat chilling to look back on:

"To some, this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Others will come back. But in every case, it is always difficult to release each one’s grasp on the pulsating emotion that is the 500.”
"But another icy Indiana winter will come and go and before we know it, springtime returns and it will be May and the roar of engines will once again breathe life into the lazy Hoosier sky and bring us back together.”
"And God willing, I’ll be here to greet you to this annual reunion.”
"So until next May, this is Sid Collins, the voice of the 500, wishing you good morning, good afternoon and a good evening, depending on where in the world you are right now.”
"We are here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at the crossroads of America. Goodbye."

I sometimes wonder if Sid Collins’ style would work in today’s world. To be truthful, Collins didn’t know that much about racing. But he knew the people involved. He knew the drivers, the Chief Mechanics and the car owners. But most of all, he knew the fans and the fans felt like they knew him. His was a more folksy delivery. When there were lulls in the race, Collins would resort to story-telling about a driver or a legendary story about a race two decades earlier. That type of broadcast probably wouldn’t sell in today’s world and that’s a shame.

Sid Collins was perhaps the greatest ambassador that the Indianapolis 500 has ever had. Interest in the Indianapolis 500 grew in unprecedented numbers after he formed the IMS Radio Network and brought new interest in the race with his unique style and delivery.

He was a friend and mentor to Donald Davidson and through his putting him on the air for the 1964 race for a few minutes, perhaps gave him the start for what is now The Talk of Gasoline Alley. There are still plenty around IMS today that knew Collins and worked with him. They all unanimously speak of him in absolute reverence.

So, as we go about heading into the Month of May today and focusing all of our attention on the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500; please take some time to remember Sid Collins if you’re old enough. If you’re not old enough – think about what the Indianapolis 500 means to all of us today. Sid Collins is a big reason that the “500” became what it did, and it may not have ever become what it is now without him.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “It Was Forty Years Ago Today”

  1. Fascinating, thanks George…

  2. Great tribute George. I thought his bump day broadcasts were just as good as his race day ones. He really caught the tension of those last few minutes.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Mass media’s ability to create national fan bases, especially in its formative years, is just remarkable to me. KMOX’s big watt transmitter produced generations of St. Louis Cardinals fans across a wide swath of the country starting in the 1930s, just as TBS built a national fan base for the Atlanta Braves in the 80s and 90s.

    I do not think it can be understated how big of an impact the IMS radio network had on making the 500 a nationally popular sporting event. The fact that Sid Collins essentially built the IMS radio network is as important as his time spent on air.

    I’m not old enough to have heard Collins call a race live, but have listened to recordings of the old broadcasts. Collins was a gifted storyteller and was definitely great at painting a so-called “mental picture”, two things that would make him excellent on radio even today. Had Collins continued to call the race, his style likely would have changed a bit to accommodate the increasing speed of the race, but I see no reason to think he would not have been an asset to modern radio coverage.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Hi Billy. While I was attending Purdue U. I discovered the big watt transmitter of WLAC in Nashville. They had a disc jockey there named John R. He was sponsored by Randy’s Record Shop. John R. got me addicted to blues music much the same as Sid Collins got folks addicted to the Indy500 I suspect.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    I loved to listen to Sid Collins. I liked his less is more style of delivery much like former Green Bay Packer announcer Ray Scott and our Brewer announcer Bob Uecker. When at the track I always enjoyed Sid’s booming voice welcoming fans to the track in the morning. Diffey is a bit over the top for me. Was it Sid who used to give that wonderful invocation before the start of the race?

    • Are you talking about the invocation or the preamble to Taps? If it was the peamble, it was track announcer Jim Phillippe that recited these words just before the playing of Taps:

      “On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause in a moment of silence, to pay homage to those individuals who have given their lives–unselfishly, and unafraid–so that we may witness as free men and women, the world’s greatest sporting event. We also pay homage to those individuals, who have given their lives–unselfishly, and without fear–to make racing, the world’s most spectacular spectator sport.”

  5. Ron, the PA Announcer who welcomed us to The Track in the morning was not Sid Collins but the very famous Tom Carnegie, who was the Track Announcer at the IMS from 1946 through 2006. He’s the guy who invented the phrases “Annnnnd heeeee’s ON IT!” and “And it’s a neeeeew traaaaaack recooooord!”

    One can never underestimate what Carnegie brought to The Month of May with his “booming voice” and his exciting delivery. Without Shaw, Hulman, Carnegie and Collins (in that order) the Indianapolis 500 would look and feel a whole lot different, and might not have survived past the late 1940s….

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Thank you very much Phil. It was indeed Tom Carnegie.
      “GOOD MORNING RACE FANS AND WELCOME TO THE INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY”. I remember it well. That was also the cue for my grandfather to grab some fried chicken and head to the beer cooler for breakfast.

  6. Dale Christenson Says:

    What a wonderful topic you had today! Your site is a “must read” for me every day but today you hit it out of the park. It’s hard to believe that it has been 40 years since we lost Sid Collins, but I remember as a teenager sitting in the backyard of my parents’ house listening to the “magic” coming from Sid at the “World’s Greatest Race Course” on the traditional Memorial Day of 5/30. He, and his crew, painted a “word picture” and described the happenings on the track, so the track beckoned to me and I was able to see my first 500 in May of 1966. The phrase that I remember most from one of those broadcasts is “when the strains of Back Home Again in Indiana fill the air, I can think of no place on earth that I would rather be”.
    There is a 5 DVD box set from the Speedway titled “Indianapolis 500: The Legacy Series” and the last disc of the 5 is titled “Legacies” and it has the Voices of the 500 and Sid Collins is featured, and this truly gives a great history of the IMS Network and a lot of his broadcast are reproduced and WELL WORTH the price.
    Thanks again, George, because of today I finally realize that it is May, and we have 26 days left until the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

  7. Thank you George. I did not know Sid Collins was not his real name.
    I first heard of the 500 when I listened to the radio broadcast of the race in 1958 or 59. I listened each year until Dad took me to the race for the first time in 1963. I listened to the radio for the ’64 and ’66 races. I was at the ’65 race and then from ’67 through the rest of Sid’s career, so I did not hear him as often as many did.
    I do remember Fred Heckman, then the news director of WIBC starting a morning news report with “We have lost a friend,” then telling of Sid’s death.
    I don’t remember speaking with him, but I certainly remember being close to him several times during the overlap of our careers covering the 500 starting in 1972.
    I have heard from others who knew him who told me their stories of their experiences this morning 40 years ago. I will just say that several agreed that he was a perfectionist who knew he could no longer perform to his expectations, and he knew it.

  8. Jim Gallo Says:

    Thank you again George. An excellent read!

  9. Thanks you George for the tribute. I know SId’s name, but unfortunately never had the pleasure. My loss.

  10. Jay Simpson Says:

    Sid Collins and Tom Carnegie are two voices which I will never forget. They are a part of IMS history which will live forever and never be duplicated.

  11. Nannette Salih Fryer Says:

    Thank you George for this Epic piece on Sid. Yes, I do remember him very well. As you did, from my beginnings till he retired, Sid was the only Broadcaster as many feel about their favorite sports.
    At 17 in 1957, I had the good fortune to be the guest of Firestone Tire & a trip to NYC with Sam & Alice Hanks, Mom & Dad & Sid Collins, for the winning driver & owner/mechanic.
    Sam was on the ED Sullivan Show, we saw the Rockets, ate at the Copacabana & Sid walked with me back to the Waldorf. We arrived before my parents because we walked faster & Sid asked me to his room. But I declined, & just then my parents walked up. He was a gentleman honestly & the best Indy radio broadcaster that we all remember.
    Thank you to Judy Greeson for forwarding me your article.

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