If you think the “men behind the mics” at race tracks are able to tell stories, a skill perhaps especially honed when action on the track has stopped temporarily due to rain, then you would not be mistaken. Six announcers from around New York State and Connecticut, some with over 50 years’ experience behind the mic, answered questions and told stories from their work in the booth on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at the International Motor Racing Research Center (IMRRC) in Watkins Glen, New York. The panel discussion was part of the center’s “Conversation Series” as well as Opening Weekend festivities at Watkins Glen International.
Moderated by center Archival Assistant, Kip Zeiter, who also organized the program, the six announcers were: Joe Marotta, who announced all 44 years at Super DIRT Week at the Syracuse Mile; Roy Sova, this year in his 52nd year at Oswego Speedway; Gary Montgomery, who has announced at Weedsport, Canandaigua, and Syracuse; Mike Paz, who has worked at nine NASCAR tracks, including WGI; Frank Del Vecchio, a racer and announcer who has worked at tracks across the nation, including WGI; and Greg Rickes, the voice of Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
Zeiter led things off with several questions he had of the panelists, then invited each to share stories. The program concluded with several questions from the audience. Refreshments and more conversation followed at the center.
The men took different paths in making their way to the booth. Some first announced for sporting events at their high schools; some stumbled into the booth when a last-minute replacement was needed; still others took an even more circuitous route, like Del Vecchio who made his way from behind the wheel of a race car to behind the mic, sometimes alternating roles in the same race.
Unlike the cushy job with close access to drivers and observing everything that is happening from high above it all while being protected from the sometimes harsh elements of Mother Nature that many might think race announcing entails, all of these men have also had to face challenges and adversities in their careers at racetracks. From being ignored or shoved by racers when attempting to obtain an interview to getting rocks thrown at their heads by unruly spectators, to needing to keep calm and avoid speculation when a rare fatality occurred while they were commentating, race announcing is a world that has its challenges along with its privilege.
Asked why they keep coming back, most of the announcers said it was a combination of the people in racing who keep them there along with their undying love for the sport. In every case, their voices, still as rich in tone and full of passion in talking about their subject as one would imagine of men half their ages, showed how perhaps the biggest asset of any announcer is to be first and foremost, a fan.
That is the approach several mentioned they use, as well, in deciding what to talk about over the mic. Some said they typically walk the pits before each local race and get the names of the competitors, where they are from, information about their sponsors, any other information such as birthdays, etc., for the weekend. Others said they listen to spectators and what they talk and ask about before or during a race. These insights not only provide material for their commentary but also make these announcers’ comments relevant to the fans in the stands.
Asked what they like best and least about their role in the sport over the years, some mentioned they like the improved safety that technology has brought to the sport, but they dislike the “cookie cutter” nature of the cars in so many of the series they announce for now.
Technology, for all its advancements in safety and knowledge, has also made the sport much less approachable for a beginner with little money or family connections to the sport, some said. There is little incentive, it was noted, for the person working in his/her own garage to improve a car’s performance and take it out to the track to see what it can do, like there used to be.
Moderator Zeiter pointed out that, for the spectator, the announcer’s role adds to the entire “visceral experience” of a race — the overall sensory environment. From the eyewitness stories these men shared, there is no doubt that good announcers not only inform spectators about what they are witnessing on track but also add their own flavors and personalities to a technical sport, humanizing it in a way that keeps fans coming back to the track again and again. They are the voice of the sport, and some might say, the first storytellers of its history.