Radio Days- Listening to the 1960 Indianapolis 500

Photo: (left) Rodger Ward leads Jim Rathmann late in the 1960 Indianapolis 500; (right) Rathmann took the lead for good on lap 197 and won by 13 seconds.

Editor’s note: I learned Sunday afternoon of the death of Pat Kennedy, who has authored several trivia books about the Indianapolis 500. I have all of them and use them constantly for quick reference. My condolences to his family. For more about Pat, please read  George Phillips’s post on Oilpressure from yesterday at https://oilpressure.com/2020/04/13/a-major-loss-to-the-indycar-community/

The interminable days of quarantine afforded me the time to listen to a complete radio broadcast of one of my favorite 500s, the 1960 race. I listened to the race at home that year. It was a great race. This story is more about the broadcast than the race. Several things stood out to me about the radio call in 1960. It was quite a contrast to today’s radio broadcast. I’m not saying one was better than the other, but the evolution of the radio network is very clear.

1960 was the eighth year of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. It was still growing.  Lead announcer Sid Collins welcomed a new station from Minneapolis to the network, for example. I had listened to the broadcast of the 1953 race, the  first year of the network. The earlier broadcast had some rough spots, many of which had been smoothed out by 1960. There were still a few glitches in communication between the broadcast booth and pit reporters.

As the speeds of the cars increased, the coverage had to change. Today the radio call is rapid fire coverage of non stop  track action. In 1960, the broadcast coverage of the race was rather leisurely. They knew they had a three and a half hour race to cover and that there would be many lulls in the action. Pit stops only happened every 40-50 laps. Not every one came in at one time.

The pace of the race allowed for time to talk to celebrities and guests. Stopping in to chat with Collins and his color commentator Freddie Agabashian this day were Indiana governor Harold Handley, Guy Lombardo, David Crosby, and former winners Johnnie Parsons and Bill Holland. Parsons spoke first, the Holland followed. Holland referred to the 1950 race by joking, “Ten years later and I’m still following Parsons.”

The five reporters stationed around the track- one in each turn and one in the middle of the backstretch gave somewhat laconic reports and descriptions of the action. “Eddie Russo spun and hit the wall. Back to you, Sid.” The team employed the same relay system in use today in which one corner reporter calls for the person at the next station to continue the action. The two pit reporters had a lot of ground to cover during stops. Sometimes it sounded as if Collins had a better view of the pit action than the pit reporters did.

The broadcast as presented on Indycar Radio cut most of the commercials. They left a couple Stark & Wetzel spots in. I always enjoyed the whistle in those commercials. While the ads ran you could still hear the cars on track in the background. I always loved that.

Speaking of commercialization, I didn’t hear a lot of brands mentioned except for Firestone tires and Champion spark plugs. Not every thing during the race had a sponsor. It was refreshing. The car names were mentioned when the starting lineup was presented, but after that the announced interval standings included just the car number and driver’s name.

One difference from the 1953 broadcast I noticed was how Collins referred to the drivers. In 1953 he called them “lads.” In 1960 they were “boys.” I guess they had grown up in seven years. The safety crews and mechanics, however, were “men.”

As the race got closer to the finish, the broadcasters paid more attention to it. A great three way battle for the lead began around lap 145 between Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann, and Johnny Thompson. Thompson would drop out of the race about 30 laps later, setting the stage for Ward and Rathmann to conduct their classic duel. Collins and Agabashian were excited that this race might be the closest in history. In 1960 the closest finish to date was Wilbur Shaw beating Ralph Hepburn by 2.16 seconds in 1937. The record would stay in tact a while longer.

A couple of interviews with drivers who dropped out of the race made me sad since I knew what the future held. Eddie Sachs- it was great to hear his voice again- proclaimed that he would definitely win next year. He was almost right. Tony Bettenhausen, the great driver with an awful record at IMS said he would be back for his 15th race in 1961. He was killed in a practice accident the day before Pole Day while testing Paul Russo’s car.

I recommend you go to Indycar radio and find an old race broadcast to listen to. I plan to listen to another one in the mid 1960s or early 1970s. I will not listen to the 1964 race. I still have nightmares about that one.