I don’t have a lot of memories of Tom Carnegie. I didn’t know about him until about a decade ago when I first started following open-wheel racing. By then, I had missed out on the Indianapolis 500′s glory days and, of course, all of the times he would boom ‘It’s a newwww traaaack record!’ for brave, lucky souls.
My first Indy 500 was his last one as chief announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the 2006 race that ended with Sam Hornish Jr. beating Marco Andretti to the stripe in the second-closest finish in ’500′ history. I was covering the race that year for the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts. Since the paper decided to go with the AP’s main story for the Monday edition, it was my job to gather as much as I could for the Tuesday auto racing notebook. That was a relatively easy job and as the race wore on, I didn’t have much to do except go out to the Tower Terrace in ten or fifteen-lap intervals.
Of course, I was out there for the final laps when Hornish, Marco and Michael Andretti battled for the win. The crowd was buzzing at the thought of Michael finally winning at Indianapolis and while he dropped back in the end, the crowd just got louder as Hornish and Marco brought the fight to its climax. You could sense an electricity going around the Speedway…I thought I literally heard it crackling in my ears. And of course, Carnegie’s signature voice was in the air as well, as it had been for the previous 60 years. It was an amazing day.
The other memory comes from last year during my second visit to the Speedway. After talking with my editor at FoxSports.com, I left my post in the IMS media center and had some lunch downstairs. I was just about done and all of a sudden, I got bumped forward into my table.
I turned around and there was Carnegie in his wheelchair.
I wasn’t sure if I had moved my chair backward and got in his way or if his wheelchair handler had just misjudged a turn in the cafeteria’s narrow aisles. But I decided that I had moved first and quickly apologized.
“No, no, it was my fault,” Carnegie replied. “We’re sorry.” Brief grins were exchanged and that was that. He and his handler went to the lunch line and I had to go into the teeming masses below to get more color for a Carb Day notebook.
Beyond those two moments, I was just like the majority of the world that got to know Carnegie simply through the television or radio. But it still felt like it was enough. You felt like you knew him even though you didn’t meet him personally. And he was certainly somebody you were glad to “know.”
I’m saddened for his family and for his friends. But I also feel for the fans that did grow up on Carnegie’s voice every year at the Speedway.
Open-wheel racing changed dramatically during his 61-year tenure as the voice of the ’500′. The classic front-engine roadsters became the rear-engine machines with fighter jet looks. The 500′s sanctioning bodies flipped from AAA to USAC, then CART to IRL (now INDYCAR). Females went from outlawed in the pits to making history on the track. Some drivers became legends at Indy. Others became tragic footnotes. And the Speedway itself evolved, too — every grandstand or building seen from inside the track was built after Carnegie took the Brickyard’s chief announcer post in 1946.
Through all of those waves of change, he was the constant. And because of that, he’s become a symbol of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ that’s every bit as enduring as a Foyt or an Unser.
For the older generation, he was the soundtrack to the month of May and a gentleman that played a role in a large part of the Speedway’s golden history. For younger folks like me, he was also a vital link to the past. When I decided to learn more about the ’500,’ I watched a few old clips of past Pole Days and heard Carnegie amp up already excited crowds of hundreds of thousands. It was a reminder of what the race had been and what it could be again.
If the ’500′ is going to return to its former prominence, it’ll have to do it without him around now. But while he’s gone, that doesn’t mean he’s been silenced. As far as I’m concerned, he’s in another place where he no longer needs a wheelchair and his pipes are back to full strength. And something tells me he’s already back to doing what he did best here on Earth.
That’s something worth smiling about through the tears.