By Aaron Waldron
Think about the last time you were at the racetrack. What’s the first thing you remember? It might be the on-track racing action, culminating in the battle for the A-Main win - whether you were part of it, back in the pack, or watching from the sidelines. It might be the track itself, and how fun you thought the layout was to drive on. It might be the time you spent in the pits bench racing with your friends, or when you decided to rebuild your shocks and went a half-second faster per lap the following heat.
Rarely, if ever, would anyone say “man, I just can’t stop thinking about how awesome the announcer was!” - but hearing how awful someone was to listen to for hours on end is more common than you probably realize. Most often, that person is locked in a box or perched atop a platform that isolates him from the rest of the attendees. And yet of all the people involved in organizing and executing a racing event, it’s the person sitting behind the microphone that has the biggest job of all.
Sporting events of all kinds employ a public address announcer to communicate information from the playing surface to those within the facility. As the only connection between what’s happening on the track, what the official scoring computer says, and what the spectators and racers in the pits hear, the announcer is responsible for a lot. Be it a local weekly club race or large events with hundreds of entries, an attentive and punctual announcer can make or break a day at the racetrack.
First and foremost, the PA announcer at an RC track is tasked with keeping the program moving. In a perfect world - where racers prepare their cars well in advance of their races, cut their warm-up laps to just a handful, pull off shortly after finishing a race, and report immediately to their turn marshal cones - the pre-recorded voice in an automated scoring system could perform this basic function. But this is the planet Earth, and there’s not one single person at the track with greater influence on the pace of a racing program than the announcer. From letting racers know what’s coming up next, to when they should be checking in or pulling off, to ensuring that turn marshal spots are filled and the next race is beginning on time, the announcer must keep all plates spinning - or everyone will be stuck at the track much later than necessary.
How the announcer keeps the steam engine moving, however, is equally important. We’ve all been to tracks where the words ringing through the speaker are simply unpleasant - as if the only way to motivate customers to do what you need them to do, like returning to the track to turn marshal, is with intimidation and sass. Just like talking to customer service representatives on the phone, it’s amazing what one can accomplish by being polite and positive. A communicative announcer that commands the respect of the racers by treating them with equal consideration often has much less trouble keeping the program moving than one who simply wields the power of the microphone like Excalibur.
More than simply operational directors, an announcer’s job is to inform and entertain. There’s a lot of down time during any RC race: intermission between races and rounds, even when the on-track action is as exciting as watching moisture escape from freshly applied paint. A well-informed announcer who knows a bit about the background of the racers involved, even as simple as what equipment they use, can make all the difference in the world. And no matter how exciting a three-way battle for the win might be to watch, a well-phrased play-by-play can motivate racers out of the pit area to the track perimeter to cheer every pass, every crash, and every last-second dash to the finish line.
The key is knowing how to balance program management, conveying information, and providing entertainment. You might be the most exciting color commentator outside of a Spanish soccer broadcast, but it won’t matter you can’t get the next race started. Never underestimate the importance of learning the proper way to pronounce someone’s name (and correct the spelling in the timing program if necessary). If you’ve ever heard the announcer at a big race mistake a racer’s equipment multiple times, you’ve certainly heard the crowd’s grumble of correction get louder and louder each time.
Far too often, I hear announcers who are more stuck on saying their own cute little tag lines than they are being observant of what’s going on. Saying the same (often unconventional) sentence before the start of a race, repeating the same jokes, etc. And nearly all of the announcers who fall into this trap glue their noses to the computer screen rather than paying attention to the cars on the track.
What is happening on the racetrack is more important than anything an announcer might think is pertinent information. I’ve been a fan of watching the AMA Supercross series since I was old enough to identify a dirt bike, but I want to smash my television set every time Ralph Sheheen cuts off a guest mid-sentence to blurt out his signature “450 LCQ, REVS COME UP, WAIT FOR THE GATE DROP, HERE WE GO!” or when Jeff Emig mindlessly pontificates about confidence (especially when following Ken Roczen or Marvin Musquin in fourth place) when there’s a battle for the lead. And if the cameraman ever misses a serious block pass for the final transfer spot in the heat race because they had to show the winner coast over the finish line uncontested, so help me. There’s no greater disconnect between an announcer and his audience than when he’s talking about something different than what the crowd is watching. I burn with rage when I hear the audience react to something during a Supercross broadcast that the broadcasters don’t even acknowledge.
Announcers who maintain the attention of the audience will always have an easier time keeping the program moving - by getting the turn marshals they need and keeping the drivers on schedule.
I’ve filled in as a part-time announcer at whatever happened to be at my home track over the years whenever the person holding the post failed to meet what I, and other racers, wanted to hear - not because I think I’m the best at it, but because I’ve strived to provide what I think everyone is missing. It’s a lot of fun, and performance anxiety certainly isn’t a problem. I’d rather take constructive criticism on what I can improve than sit in the pits stewing over how long it takes to start the next race, hearing people get called out needlessly for simple mistakes, or being genuinely unconcerned with what’s happening on the racetrack. I can tell when I’m having an “off” night where my mind isn’t focused on what’s happening, because the program takes longer than it should and the racers aren’t as tuned in. There are times when I have drivers come up to me after the program is finished and tell me that I was so exciting to listen to that they contemplated pulling over during their own main event to watch what I was describing. Every night is a learning experience, equal parts humbling and rewarding.
A solid announcer doesn’t just impact a single race, but future turnouts as well. When the job is done right, the announcer might not be what racers remember - but it’s better to be forgotten because you were a complement to a great night of racing rather than being remembered for creating bigger problems than you solved. And if you’ve ever seen a track that seemingly has it all - terrific layouts, posh pit area, and a welcoming facility - but fails to draw a turnout, take a look behind the microphone.