Ask Donald Davidson: The first ‘500’ TV voice, and putting Carnegie on the mic

Published On September 9, 2015 » 2607 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History

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Who was the first TV announcer for the first televised ‘500’? — @AtomicEventCool, via Twitter

It is not one of the names one might expect, but rather a fascinating gentleman named Earl Townsend, Jr., a one-time college basketball star who later became a deputy prosecutor for Marion County and a very successful Indianapolis attorney and trial lawyer. He lived to be 92. His widely diversified accomplishments as an actor, composer and expert on birds, among other endeavors, included stints as a radio announcer at around the time television came to Indianapolis.

There is quite an interesting back story to all of this, because while Sarkes Tarzian’s Bloomington-based WTTV Channel 4 was the first station in the area to be granted a television license, the first to actually go on the air was WFBM Channel 6 in Indianapolis. And the date, believe it or not, was Monday, May 30, 1949, which just happened to be Race Day. They had been running test patterns for a few days and, as part of an unadvertised dress rehearsal, had actually televised part of the final day of qualifications, but officially, the dawn of Indianapolis television took place on race morning. The very first “program” ever seen was a showing of “Crucible of Speed,” a 1946 documentary film about the track underwritten by Firestone and available today on DVD, if one knows where to find it. This was followed by live coverage of the Indianapolis 500, apparently flag-to-flag and with just three cameras, all of which were on the main straight, and with commentary by Earl Townsend. We assume there would have been commercial breaks, but they were likely few and far between.

Note the TV camera stand atop the Turn 1 grandstand roof for the first televised race in 1949.

Note the TV camera stand atop the Turn 1 grandstand roof for the first televised race in 1949.

By 1950, WFBM was carrying regular programing, and so race coverage was limited to an occasional update during the course of the day. By 1951, however, even that had come to an end, management apparently fearing that television might be having a negative impact on the live gate. We never actually had a conversation with Mr. Townsend, but we did have a minor encounter with him in October 1973. This was the first year for USAC’s Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway and track owner Earl Baltes was sharing the promotional duties with Johnny Vance, a longtime official and second-generation sprint car entrant from Dayton, Ohio. Baltes and Vance had arranged to have part of the Circle in downtown Indianapolis blocked off one weekday lunchtime and several open-wheel dirt track cars were on display there. As an added gimmick, Vance had prevailed upon one of his father’s old drivers, Travis “Spider” Webb, to come in from California to help with the promotion. Evidently the word got around. Sometime around 11:15, just as the early arrivals were beginning to assemble, a tall, thin, well-dressed gentleman came striding confidently on to the scene, followed by an equally well-dressed lady who was running along behind him in tiny steps, coat unbuttoned and carrying a briefcase and clutching several framed photographs. “Where’s Spider Webb?” demanded the gentleman, who turned out to be Mr. Townsend. The framed photographs being carried by his assistant were action shots and panoramic lineups of late 1940s from Winchester and Salem and so forth, believed to have normally been hanging in Mr. Townsend’s law office, which was just around the corner.

Whose call was it to put the late, great Tom Carnegie on the mic for qualifying? — @ScottFelthousen, via Twitter

Tom’s fabulous public address career at IMS began with a last-minute assignment to help with the 1946 race, his initial calls for qualifications not commencing until the following year. While he claimed, in later years, that it was Tony Hulman who hired him, we believe it was actually Wilbur Shaw, who had just been named president and general manager. The shy and retiring Tony pretty much remained in the background for the first couple of years of track ownership. Our understanding is that Tom, who had just moved to Indianapolis, was on the public address for a vintage car display somewhere in town a couple of days before the 1946 race and Wilbur, who was in attendance, was impressed by his voice and his delivery. Surely nobody could ever have imagined the impact the booming Voice of Carnegie would eventually have as, through the 1950s and 1960s, he continued to coin and improve upon those never-to-be-forgotten phrases.

A young Tom Carnegie in 1953. (Note how there's plenty of spaces yet to be filled on the Borg-Warner Trophy.)

A young Tom Carnegie in 1953. (Note how there’s plenty of spaces yet to be filled on the Borg-Warner Trophy.)

IUPUI’s ‘500’ HISTORY CLASS UPCOMING AT SHS

The fall version of IUPUI’s very popular twice-a-year Indianapolis 500 history course with instructor Donald Davidson will be held in the Speedway High School’s cafeteria over four Tuesday nights in October. The dates for the four two-hour sessions (7-9 p.m.) are Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27. The fee is $99. Interested parties may register at http://www.iupui.edu/~solctr/  For further information please call 317-278-9701 or e-mail sbeeson@iupui.edu.

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About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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