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The voice of the Indianapolis 500 on calling the greatest spectacle in motorsport

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Roar Guru
24th May, 2019
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I met Mark Jaynes in person for the first time only last August, but for me and many millions of IndyCar fans in all corners of the world, I feel like I’ve known the pride of small-town Monrovia, Indiana for years.

That’s because his reassuring, dependable voice helms a signature and much-loved radio broadcast originating from racetracks across North America. For years, the IndyCar Radio Network call has been my soundtrack to IndyCar racing, the live radio descriptions available on phone and the internet.

Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with somewhere well north of 300,000 fans in attendance to watch the 103rd running of the fabled 500-mile race, a large portion of that turnout will have scanners or transistor radios with them and will tune into the radio broadcast frequency to hear Jaynes in full flight as he leads a broadcast that quite literally moves at a speed north of 220 miles an hour, bringing to life dramatic events on the 2.5-mile super speedway that sits at the corner of 16th and Georgetown in Speedway, Indiana.

Then, there will be those in Central Indiana, where tradition dictates that the race is not shown live on television. That elevates the importance of the radio broadcast, for it is the only way that those not at the track can follow the race live.

Somewhere around midday, in backyards, front yards, by the pool or the lake, in cars and garages and everywhere in between, Hoosiers young and old will gather, turn on their radios, and Jaynes’ reassuring voice will filter through the speakers, guiding them through the greatest race there is, preceded by those famous, goosebump-inspiring words: “Now stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing”.

As the voice of the Indianapolis 500, Jaynes is part of a very exclusive club whose membership is small. In fact, the accomplished broadcaster is only the sixth man to be the chief caller of the Indianapolis 500 on radio, and follows in the footsteps of American broadcasting legends including the trailblazing Sid Collins, Lou Palmer, Bob Jenkins, Paul Page and Mike King.

On Sunday, Jaynes will again take his position on the front straight at Indianapolis, just about close enough to be able to reach out and touch the fabled yard of bricks that mark the start/finish line of the greatest motorsport circuit in the world, and lead a broadcast that emanates from America’s Midwestern heartland and can be heard in all corners of the globe thanks to the magic of the internet and smart phone apps. North American listenership numbers are big, worldwide numbers boggle the mind.

The 103rd running will be Mark Jaynes’ 24th Indianapolis 500 broadcast. Starting as a pit reporter, then calling the action from pivotal turn three, and now leading the entire broadcast, he’s been front and centre for some of the biggest moments of the race for nearly a quarter of a century, including the tense final laps of the 2006 race where Marco Andretti and Sam Hornish Jr engaged in a battle for the ages that led to a last-gasp Hornish win.

Particularly noteworthy for Australians, he called Will Power’s elevation into racing immortality one year ago.

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Prior to the exciting craziness that is race weekend at the Indianapolis 500, I had the chance to talk with Jaynes about IndyCar racing, his broadcasting roots, the fabled Month of May in Indianapolis, and, of course, life as the voice of the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar racer Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan competes in the 2018 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

AK: Broadcasting the Indianapolis 500 must be a dream come true for a kid from small town Indiana. You’re on record as saying you grew up listening to the likes of Sid Collins, so how did it feel when you were announced to the world as the new voice of the Indianapolis 500, particularly because it coincided with the race’s 100th running?

MJ: I’m pretty sure the feeling would have been the same regardless of which race it was. That said, it was quite surreal, to be honest. I would say now into my fourth year as anchor, I’m becoming more comfortable with the moniker ‘voice of the 500’.

AK: As a native Hoosier, what does the Indianapolis 500 and the month of May mean to you?

MJ: I suppose I’m most proud of the fact the world is watching. It’s a rarity in which novices, casual fans and gearheads come together to celebrate the world’s greatest race. I think in that regard it is like no other event given the size of the attendance combined with the radio and TV audience.

AK: Talk to us about radio’s very unique connection to and relationship with racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

MJ: I firmly believe the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network played an integral role in building the event into its international significance. For years, it was the only way to follow the race live. Sid Collins and his staff worked tirelessly to secure affiliates across the country and around the world.

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AK: It’s hard for a lot of people outside of Indiana to grasp the incredible importance of the Indianapolis 500 as an event rather than a mere race. As a native Hoosier, tell us why the race – and, indeed, the entire month of May – is such an important part of the fabric of the state of Indiana.

MJ: I think once the Speedway landed in the hands of Tony Hulman, with Wilbur Shaw as president, it took hold among their fellow Hoosiers. I suppose prior to that, one could point to the automotive manufacturers based in Indianapolis as creating a source of pride for having enjoyed success. There to is the love affair Hoosiers have for short track racing that dates back decades. Perhaps then it’s difficult to settle on one or two reasons.

AK: Australia’s interest and awareness of the Indianapolis 500 is growing and was given a huge bump by Will Power’s victory one year ago, a big moment in Australian motorsport history. What were your observations of what was a pretty dominant month of May for Toowoomba’s favourite son?

MJ: Not sure it will ever be duplicated. For sure his victory lane celebration was out of character, but I think it was born out of the frustration at seeing so many Bog Warner Trophies in the Penske Trophy case and none of them bearing his name. Will has checked off boxes rather methodically in his career: becoming comfortable on ovals, overcoming bad luck leading to the loss of three consecutive championships and now winning the Indy 500. Scary to think his best may be yet to come!

AK: If you’re a first-timer coming to Indianapolis for the 500 and you have just a couple of days to take in the sights and sounds of the city on its biggest weekend, what are some absolutely can’t-miss events?

MJ: Carb Day is a must, including the concert after. Saturday is Legends Day. You can meet with and get autographs from drivers who have competed in the Indy 500 through the years. You can attend the formal drivers meeting then make your way Downtown for the 500 Festival Parade. There is also a Saturday concert at IMS. The walk along Georgetown Road is a must the night before the 500. Thousands of fans roam the street just outside of IMS in preparation of race day. Main Street in Speedway offers plenty of events leading up to the 500. In short, the energy level and offerings around Indy leading up to the 500 are incredible!

AK: You’re part of an immense legacy as a chief announcer for the Indianapolis 500. How does it feel to follow in the footsteps of such legendary broadcasters?

MJ: It’s not something I take lightly. I had the honour of working with some of my predecessors and I’ve taken something from each of them. I communicate with Bob Jenkins and Paul Page pretty regularly and seek their input. Our historian Donald Davidson is a conduit to our storied past as well and is a source of guidance for sure.

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AK: What is your earliest memory of the Indianapolis 500?

MJ: Hall Elementary school field trip. We went to the old Museum and I bought two postcards. One was of the late Art Pollard and the other was Al Senior’s Johnny Lightning Special.

AK: Who are your broadcasting idols?

MJ: My first was long-time NBC sportscaster Curt Gowdy. He could make a regular season baseball game in July sound like the seventh game of the World Series. Locally, Jerry Baker who was with the network for almost 40 years. Jerry did everything at every level – high school, college, pro – and I envied his versatility. Plus he was blessed with an incredible voice. Lastly, the late Gary Lee. Gary is one of the great motorsports broadcasters of all-time. I think I was a pretty good broadcaster when I joined in 1996, but Gary made me a motorsports broadcaster.

AK: The list of noteworthy events that you’ve described over the course of your career broadcasting the Indianapolis 500 must be incredibly long. What are your stand-out moments?

MJ: 1996 when Bob Jenkins introduced me for the first time in the 500 pre-race show, calling the controversial 2002 Castroneves/Tracy pass, the 2006 finish between Marco Andretti and Sam Hornish Jr.

AK: Do you get nervous, knowing how many people out there, all over the world, are relying on you to paint the picture of the race for them?

MJ: Absolutely – until the mic goes on. Then the focus the job requires doesn’t provide you any time to be nervous. Sounds simplistic, I know.

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AK: Yours is the central voice of a complicated, multi-faceted broadcast, where events unfold in the blink of an eye. Talk to us about the turn announcers and pit reporters you work with, and how the entire production meshes together so seamlessly.

MJ: I am surrounded by consummate professionals who are like-minded. We share the same philosophies. I recently lost a very close friend. Matt English was a long-time high school athletic director and coach. He fought three bouts of brain cancer before passing away last December. Matt believed in ‘we before me’. Putting your best interest into building overall success instead of being concerned with individual glory. There is total buy-in to that mindset. Continuity helps as well. We’ve been together quite a while now so what we do has become second nature. There is a huge trust factor among us. We are just as rock solid behind the scenes as well.

AK: Every Indianapolis 500 is a huge event, but the 100th running in 2016 had that extra layer of history. Aside from the century milestone, it was your first year as chief announcer. Tell us about what that day was like for you?

MJ: Plenty of nerves for sure. Coolest part was a package of pre-recorded well wish I received from everyone on our crew. That helped me settle a bit. Mike King, Paul Page, Bob Jenkins all were a part of the show and I was thrilled about that! When it was over, my hands were shaking from pure adrenaline, which is something Mike King had told me would happen. When the show was over, I walked along McCray Street on my way home and neighbours were coming out of their homes to congratulate me. Lastly, I was greeted by my grandson who was a little over a year old. Eventually, I went down to my basement and fell asleep – for a very long time.

AK: If you could broadcast the Indianapolis 500 alongside any other broadcaster – dead or alive – who would you choose?

MJ: I think I would like to be in the old master control tower and sit alongside Sid Collins, but working pit road with Lou Palmer would have been cool, too!

AK: Who was your favourite driver growing up?

MJ: First favourite driver was Mark Donahue. Loved everything about his approach, the look of the car. All of it. Always wanted Gary Bettenhausen to do well. I lived a mile from Gary B in Monrovia, Indiana and went to school with his sons Todd and Cary. Al Junior was always a favourite too.

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AK: What is one Indianapolis May tradition that you always make sure to enjoy?

MJ: Can’t pin it down to one. I moved to within six blocks or so of IMS five years ago and love driving past IMS each and every day. As far as the month, it’s just a joy to take as much in as I can.

AK: It’s race morning – what does your race day entail? Do you have any special traditions or superstitions?

MJ: I arrive very early, 6am, and go to the booth. I’m alone and I do try to connect myself with those before me and try to imagine what their thoughts might have been. I walk down to the pit wall and sit and watch the place come to life. Might have some interviews to do with various media outlets, but eventually, I make my way back to the booth and prep for our production meeting.

AK: What is your favourite part of the pre-race ceremonies, and why?

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MJ: Pretty much all of it from the presentation of colours to the command. It’s unlike the build-up to any other event.

AK: Other than Indianapolis, what’s your favourite race track on the IndyCar schedule?

MJ: I enjoy all of them. Hard to pick a favourite. I suppose if forced I would say St Pete. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that area since I was very young and hope to retire there someday. From an IndyCar perspective though, Green-Savoree do a hell of job kicking off the season!

AK: Even though McLaren didn’t qualify for the race, talk about the significance of their entry with two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, who is in pursuit of the fabled Triple Crown of motorsport?

MJ: The biggest benefit is reconnecting the event internationally, I think. The split and the explosion in popularity of Formula One caused that interest to erode a bit.

AK: You’re IndyCar CEO for a day, and you have a chance to bring back two historic IndyCar races. Which two do you choose?

MJ: Watkins Glen for sure – IndyCar belongs there due to its storied motorsports history. Not a historic race, but an enjoyable one was Richmond. It drew good crowds, the racing was entertaining and the area is a must-visit.

AK: If you could call any other sporting event in the world, what would you choose?

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MJ: National championship of college football. College football is my favourite stick-and-ball sport.

AK: At a time hopefully in the distant future, you’re about to retire, handing over the mantle of the voice of the Indianapolis 500 to another broadcaster. Imagine you have time for only one piece of advice. What knowledge do you impart?

MJ: Be respectful of the history and traditions of those before you. Feel free to put your own spin on it but remember, people are tuning in to listen to the Indianapolis 500. You are the conduit at that point in time. History has shown they will listen regardless of who is in that chair. Also, surround yourself with knowledgeable, talented people and let them do their jobs. Lastly, it is the hardest thing you will ever do and you will treasure every single minute of it.

Mark Jaynes will lead the worldwide radio broadcast of the 103rd Indianapolis 500-mile race on Monday morning. The green flag flies shortly after 2.30am (AEST) with 90 minutes of pre-race coverage to set the scene. You can listen via IndyCar.com, IndyCarRadio.com and the Tune-In app.