IRL: Special Indy feature: Bob Huey

IRL: Special Indy feature: Bob Huey

Without Bob Huey "A New Track Record" Would Have Never Been Possible at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Bob Huey never raced a car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but without him, there would have never been, "A new track record!" Anyone ...

Without Bob Huey "A New Track Record" Would Have Never Been Possible at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Bob Huey never raced a car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but without him, there would have never been, "A new track record!" Anyone who has ever attended an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1946 through 2006 has heard the famous baritone voice of Tom Carnegie uttering his famous phrase, "Heeee's on it!" But without Bob Huey, no one would have heard it.

Tom Carnegie and Bob Huey.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.

Bob Huey is responsible for the tears that come to many in the crowd of over 300,000 during the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" as the colorful plethora of balloons make their way into the blue Indiana sky just before the running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bob Huey was even responsible for letting the millions of radio and television viewers hear the unmistakable sound of Tom Carnegie on the public address system. It was clearly audible in the background of the television and radio broadcast from the speedway.

Without Bob Huey no one would have heard the late Wilbur Shaw in the 1950's coming up with the most famous words in racing, "Gentleman, start your engines!"

In 1946 it was a good thing that Bob Huey arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was given the daunting task of making the public address system workable again after World War II. Working for the telephone company, Mr. Huey took on the massive track of 2.5 miles of hallowed ground, along with the 559 acres that accompany it.

Huey would have to come up with a public address system for an area the size of Vatican City, The Roman Coliseum, The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (home of Wimbledon), The Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium and the track at the home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs. You see, all six of these venues would fit together in the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The facilities at the speedway were in deplorable conditions in late 1945. "Horse weeds were growing in the track and trees were growing up against the walls" Huey recounted. But it wasn't long after Terra Haute businessman Tony Hulman bought the speedway for $750,000 from legendary World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, that all you could hear was "sawing and hammering" according to Huey.

The old wooden grandstands were replaced with steel and concrete structures as rapidly as possible in the following years. "Back in those days all the chairs for the stands were brought in from Bloomington. They were all wooden folding chairs. Semi after semi would truck those chairs in here" Huey remembered and it was his job to make sure that the people in those chairs could hear Tom Carnegie and the other public address announcers.

At that time, the public address system consisted only of speakers in the pit lane. The pit lane in 1946 was about half the size of the current pit lane, starting around the old pagoda area and running to the end of the current pit lane. "There were eight or nine poles with three speakers each in the pit lane," Huey stated. That was the total extent of the public address system.

The wiring was in terrible shape after the speedway had been neglected during the war years, so Mr. Huey started his mammoth project by cutting down all the speaker wire that was present, not only in the pit lane but in the garage area. He was afraid to use the old wiring in its current condition.

After Huey had cut down all the old wiring, he started on a new public address system that the track would need for the 1946 race. The speedway brought out a construction crew to set telephone poles for the public address system. The problem was that the crew hired out by the speedway did not know how to tie in speaker wire on insulators, so it was up to Huey to show the crew how to tie the wire in correctly. The crew then proceeded to string the audio wire completely around the track.

As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway started to build new stands, it was up to Huey to continue to expand the public address system around the speedway. By that time the speedway had employed a person to hang the speakers for Mr. Huey, but he continued to string all the speaker wire himself.

"The telephone company took responsibility for all of this," Mr. Huey stated. "You talk about a job on a windy day. Standing on a ladder up in the penthouses was pretty precarious." Later, Bill Webb came out to run the sound system for the speedway but Huey continued to work for Webb and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the weekends while continuing his career with the telephone company.

In the late 1940s, the old pagoda that was built in 1926 had an automatic ringing machine on a private line that Huey had rigged up. He powered it with his car battery. "I got a new battery every year after the race," he chuckled.

Huey also installed the track lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track lights were also run on batteries. The AAA, which was the sanctioning body at that time of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had relays and a switch box on the pit lane to control the lights around the track. The AAA helped pioneer and officiate motor sports in the United States until 1955.

Huey took an old bell box from a crank telephone and put a switch on it with two beehive lights. This allowed the AAA to change the lights from red to green on the track. "Yellow was normal," he said, "So they could always have yellow. The operator could change the lights from the pits or the pagoda. During practice the operator would run the lights strictly from the pits."

When Huey installed the public address system in the late 1940s the system had one circuit of cables run from the pit lane south to turns 1 and 2 to the back straight. Another circuit was run from the pit lane north to corners 4 and 3 to the back straight. Huey wanted to keep the public address system from being on one circuit so every other speaker was on an alternate circuit.

Years ago squirrels would eat through the lead cable used to power the public address in order to get the salt out of the cable. As the years went by, the cables were eventually buried. Huey tells of one year when lightening struck the cable and the speedway didn't have any sound.

The cable was just buried in the ground, so after the lighting hit, the cable was placed in conduit. Presently, every thing is in conduit, including the new speakers in the stands. According to Huey, this cuts down tremendously on the problems of the squirrels eating through the lines.

After the war, electronic equipment was hard to come by, so Huey improvised as much as he could when rigging the public address system. "In the front of the pagoda Bill Webb, who controlled the P.A., had a small sound shack. There were two amplifiers that came from battleships powering the public address. It was so hot in that room you couldn't stand it."

"Bill Webb was always hanging out the window to get a breath of air. This little bitty room with these huge battleship amplifiers, it was rather crude but it worked," Huey laughed.

Huey recalled the first day long time announcer Tom Carnegie came to the speedway. "He only stayed two hours. He didn't know if he wanted to be here or not. He said he had never even seen a race, let alone call one, but he came back the next day and stayed for 61 years."

"In the early days, Carnegie just sat on the pit wall, and he would still like to do that if he could get away with it. He sat on the wall so he could grab people that walked by for interviews. That's where he always was," Huey remembered.

Since 1956 the public address system operates from the "green stand," a small stand near the finish line that is furnished with timing and scoring along with the live feed from the speedways video system. Carnegie and the public address crew moved to the green stand when the speedway built a new pagoda during the winter of 1956-57. Later that year in the 1957 race, Pat Flaherty won the race from the pole.

To cover an area of the size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, several remote microphones and crew members are required. However, there were never remote capabilities in the old wooden garage area.

The first system in the new garage area had connectors just inside the gate to allow reporters with long cables to conduct interviews. This allowed the pit reporters to conduct interviews with people going back and forth between the pits and Gasoline Alley.

One race day, several connectors were present in the pit lane to allow reporters to interview people and drivers during the race. That practice was discontinued when the new catch fence was erected along the pit lane due to lack of space.

The late Jim Phillippe helped with the public address system for 54 years, from 1950 until his death in December of 2003. "He would go down to the pit lane for 'Gentleman start your engines'," Huey recalled. Phillippe also gave a stirring speech each year in honor of the armed forces just before the Perdue band played Taps. He also introduced the priest that gave the prayer before the race. Phillippe also called the area in the pits where he reported "heartbreak area."

"Down where I am, it's a heartbreak area," Phillippe said in a 1999 interview about his post-qualifying interviews. "It's highly emotional. You see lots of tears of joy and lots of tears of sadness. A racing career depends on it."

On race day Tom Carnegie would go to the outside of the track on the press row to announce the race while Philippe would stay on the inside part of the track.

In 2003 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway installed a new public address system. The old speakers used to be on the walls, and they have been replaced with new state of the art speakers mounted on the catch fences around the speedway.

The new system can be controlled by computer, and individual speakers can be shut down or powered up from one central location. Each speaker is also now connected by fiber optic cable.

With the huge roar of the engines at Indy, the volume of the public address system must be able to broadcast with the car noise. Huey stated that at one time the theory was for the public address to be louder than the car engines.

"I wouldn't want to be in the stands and hear that all day," he said. Engineering people now are in charge with computer technology to determine the level of each speaker around the massive 2.5-mile track.

It takes 317,200 watts of power, 341 loudspeakers, 38 subwoofers along the main straightaway, 14 amplifiers, plus a few more amplifiers in the 10- floor pagoda at the start/ finish line and more than 70 miles of cable to drive the world's largest public address system on race day.

All of this encompasses the speedway to allow fans and race teams to access information during practice, qualifications and race day activities. An additional garage area paging system allows race teams to know additional information during the month of May.

Huey' long history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is complete with many untold and unique stories. He recounted the time driver Bob Scott tried to qualify on the last day of qualifications in 1954, just a couple of minutes before the deadline of 6:00 p.m. He ran his first two laps good enough to make the race.

Scott's good friend, Bob Sweikert, was sitting on the pit wall. Sweikert was waving his arms saying, "Go, go go!" but Bob Scott thought he meant for him to come into the pits. Scott pulled in on his fourth lap and didn't make the race even though his time trial speed would have been plenty good to make the race.

Huey recounted that Sweikert and Scott sat on the wall and cried and hugged like babies after the incident took place. He also reflected that Scott was killed that summer on July 5 at Darlington Speedway in South Carolina after hitting the wall.

While Huey never was on the air himself, he used to round up interviews for pit reporters like Bob Forbes. On Tom Carnegie's longevity of 61 years of announcing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, "Tom Carnegie will never be replaced. That torch will never be passed."

Huey' favorite all time driver is still the late Henry Banks. "He was just a great guy," Huey fondly remembered. Banks started six Indianapolis 500 races between 1938 and 1952 and won the AAA National Championship in 1947, the same year he won 30 midget car races.

Bobby Unser is his favorite modern day driver. "He don't take nothing from nobody," Huey stated. "One year they had all the drivers down for the Festival 500 parade. The merchant's association from Indianapolis gave each driver $350 each to appear. Tony Hulman and Joe Cloutier (who was the president of the speedway after Tony Hulman died in 1977) decided that they would take the $300 for each driver and put it in the prize money for the race."

"Unser got wind of the plan and got both Hulman and Cloutier together on Saturday morning and told them that no driver would get in a pace car and go downtown unless the $350 was going to the driver's home. It came right up to parade time before Hulman gave in and agreed to send the money home." Huey said he admired Unser for sticking to his guns, even though Hulman was the president of the speedway.

Huey misses the parties after qualifiction days. "Wilbur Shaw was quite a party guy and they would have parties after qualifying. Sometimes it would be a party on the pit lane and sometimes it would be ham and eggs at Tony Hulman's place in Terra Haute." Shaw, a three-time winner of the 500, probably saved the speedway from destruction after convincing Tony Hulman to buy it after World War II. Hulman made Shaw the president of the speedway from 1945 until his death in a plane crash in 1954.

Reflecting on all the modern buildings, "I think it is marvelous what they have done." Talking about the new four-story media center, the ten-story pagoda, and the new garage area, "it is all great. But I think the real romance of racing left when the roadsters stopped running."

"It used to be 90% fun and 10% business. Now it is just the opposite. It has to be that way in this day and age."

After working the Indianapolis 500 for many years, Huey suddenly had two more racing series invade the speedway with the arrival of Formula One and NASCAR. He was most impressed with the F1 cars. "Great cars, these things are just fantastic," he commented on F1. "However, I like anything with a steering wheel on it."

Formula One has a traveling announcer for the series and that announcer shares airtime on the public address with personnel from the speedway. When talking about NASCAR and the Brickyard 400, "it is a really good road show. Their promotion is just great".

So, the next time you see or hear an old broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 and hear Tom Carnegie's voice in the background, perhaps the next time you tell someone that you attended the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and that you heard Tom Carnegie in person, you will know that behind the call of every race there was someone in the background who made it possible.

In this case, a soft spoken telephone man brought the history and lore of the Indianapolis 500 to not only the people who attended the world's largest single day sporting event, but to the entire world. Indeed, there would have never been "A new track record!" without the help and hard work of Bob Huey.

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Unser