For me, sporting events are not always about the athletes on the field, the court or the track. Sports are not always about the great coaches barking commands to their players. Most often, my fondest memories and thrills have come from simply appreciating the pageantry and spectacle that accompanies the games and events, and enjoying the special voices that made those sports come to life.
One such person was Tom Carnegie. He is best known as the legendary voice of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His booming bass over the Speedway public address system, never failed to convey both the majesty and the dangers of seeking speed at the world’s most famous race track.
Tom Carnegie died on Friday. He was 91 years old. He worked as the track announcer until four years ago. He spent most of his life painting in the most perfect of ways unforgettable word pictures. Even though he was renowned for his work at the Speedway, Carnegie presented two lasting sports images. He was both the speedway announcer, and a television sportscaster. He articulated magic in both roles.
As a TV play-by-play broadcaster, Carnegie called the world’s most famous high school basketball game: when tiny Milan High School upset goliath Muncie Central in 1954. That game is the factual basis for the unforgettable sports movie Hoosiers. His game calls were just as impressive as his work at the race track. His broadcasts of high school basketball in a basketball crazy state were also legendary.
Indeed, Tom Carnegie was the voice behind sports memories that I will never forget.
Growing up in Indianapolis, I was lucky to hear him and to see him many times. But the fact is when I saw the actual man, not just the TV image that stopped at the waist, I was stunned to learn he did it all with steel braces supporting his legs, the result of the polio that crippled him as a young man. Still, that never affected his sunny disposition, or his unmatched way with words.
I was just a kid when I first heard and appreciated Tom Carnegie. From the mid 1960s into the 1980s you would hear Carnegie bellow time and again: “It’s a new track record!” often preceded by a simple, “You won’t believe it,” or an, “Oh my,” leaving the hushed crowd to wait breathlessly for the famous sentence to follow—“It’s a new track record.”
His most famous pronouncements came at a time when the qualifications, or the time trials if you will, for the Indianapolis 500 saw crowds exceeding well over 200,000 people—nearly as many who would come to the famous race two weeks later.
My favorite Tom Carnegie memory came not at the time trials, but while attending my second Indianapolis 500 as a child, in 1967. The great A.J.Foyt, about to win his third Indy 500, on the final lap tried to avoid a big accident in front of him to reach the checkered flag.
Carnegie who saw the track scattered with cars, boomed over the PA system, “Where’s AJ Foyt? Where’s AJ Foyt? Where’s AJ Foyt? As Foyt’s car weaved through the wreckage, unscathed, Carnegie then boomed even louder, ”There he is, there he is!" to the tremendous roar of the amazed crowd. I always thought they cheered as much for Carnegie’s race call as they did for AJ’s victory.
No one could use the English language the way that Tom Carnegie did. His way with words was simple, direct, profound and always appropriate. He is one of my all-time sports heroes. Tom Carnegie was simply one of the best. R.I.P.