By BILL FOLEY
An entire generation of race fans has grown up and have heard a handful of legendary racing announcers.
Oswego Speedway stalwart Roy Sova commences his 54th season behind the microphone at the Steel Palace while Joe Marotta is also around 53 years as he continues at Oswego and Spencer Speedway.
Mel Thomas started 42 years ago and announced the last Modified race at the Waterloo Speedway in the fall of 1976.
“Cowboy” Paul Szmal is in his 32nd year and continues to be the man behind the mic at various venues.
Shane “Grandpa, take a Viagra pill” Andrews is beginning his third decade entertaining and informing fans.
Mike Mallett has been around longer than many folks realize and he too is one of the announcers somewhere between the old guard and the newcomers.
Western New York’s Rick Mooney is another of the veterans of the announcing booth while at the other end of the state Dan Martin has been an anchor announcer.
It won’t be too much longer before some of these voices will disappear from the tower and a new generation of announcers will slide into the seat to carry on the tradition.
New, and not so new, names have, deservingly, begun to gain a little more time in the spotlight.
Many of the current new crop of announcers aren’t even as old as the number of years that the veterans have announced.
Traditionally fans buy their ticket, sit in the stands, listen to the announcer and head home. Very few ever have any idea of the person behind the microphone.
In part one of this two part series, it’s time to get to know some of the younger lions who will be carrying the sport for many decades.
In part one Tim Baltz, Adam Buchanan, Dave Buchanan and Paul Harkenrider are all highlighted while tomorrow the careers of Dan Kapuscinski, Steve Ovens, Rich Vleck and Mike Warren will be discussed.
Tim Baltz: Super Dirt Series, Mohawk, Cornwall, Brockville
Starting as a youngster who lived five minutes from Can-Am Speedway it was the beginning of a long racing connection for Baltz.
The 34-year-old is one of the next generation to carry on the racing tradition.
Tim said, “I listened to John Burr, the voice of the track, and his classic calls that would make fans stand up. He really knew how to get fans excited about something on the track. As I got older I was racing and still paid attention to announcers. I became a huge fan of Jamie Davis who announced at Mohawk. After my one and only year in a 358-Modified I was left without a ride in 2001. That was the year I was 16 and I asked Jamie if he was interested in having some help up there because he was doing it alone and he said we could try it out. The next week I got into the line up for the first Modified heat and I got so nervous I locked up, shaking and everything was a mess. I was a ‘nervous wreck’ as my mother described me that night.”
Continuing he explained, “As the night went on I got better and it was great. Jamie asked me what I was doing the next week and I said I was available. He said that was good as he needed me. That year I announced as a fill in at seven other tracks with the help of Jamie and the Voice of Cornwall Brian Mulligan who both gave me guidance and opened so many doors.”
The ride has been interesting. Tim noted, “To be honest I never thought this would take off like it did. I just expected to announce a bit and then continue working on my step dad’s 358 and eventually get back in the car. However, 18 years later I’m announcing close to 100 shows a year.”
Preparation is something that is amazing in the way Baltz moves forward. He said, “I have this habit of always over preparing for the races. It’s something I have done since the first year. I always taught myself if I fail to be prepared, be prepared to fail. I prepare all week and make sure I have all my notes that I need for an event especially if the series is coming to the track that I’m not familiar with. I’m always working. I’m just a guy who loves stats and I know people in the stands like that as well. Basically, it’s like I run my own race team. I usually spend close to 30 hours a week after my regular job (Morning News Anchor 99.9 FMRadio in Gananoque, Ontario). I’ve learned on race teams that preparation at home means results on the track and in my case it’s results on the microphone.”
Memories and influences are critical as he said, “The memories that really stand out is being able to do the final five Super DIRT Week events at the Mile with guys like Shane Andrews, Joe Marotta, Brian Mulligan, Rich Vleck, Dan Martin and Dave Buchanan as well as the past two years at Oswego with Dan Martin, Shane Andrews and Rick Eshelman. Eldora was amazing time for me as were the DIRTcar Nationals in 2017. The World Finals the last two years were also amazing. Basically, anytime I can be on the microphone is a great memory. I’m fortunate to be able to do this and I hope I do this forever.”
However, there are memories that he would rather not have. Tim explained, “Being at Cornwall the night stock car driver Danny Lefebvre was killed on the last lap of the feature, the night Dave Wilgosh had a heart attack in a Sportsman race at Brockville and catching the flu at the 2017 DIRTcar Nationals were three of the worst memories.”
In conclusion he said, “To the people who helped me get to this point in my announcing career I owe so much to them. I appreciated the history about those who were on the microphone before me and love referencing them any chance I get. Without the voices of the past we wouldn’t have what we have today.”
Adam Buchanan: Fulton and Brewerton Speedways
As a four-year-old he started racing in Quarter Midgets and as he got older he said, “I quickly began to realize that it was not going to happen and I wanted to stay involved in racing.”
He began to explore announcing and said, “It seemed like a solid way to combine my passion for racing with a career in broadcast journalism.”
Influences for racing came from close to home at first as he said,” My parents have always supported me no matter what the situation, giving up spare weekends and a boatload of money to get me started in racing as a kid. My parents sacrificed a lot for my benefit. They also gave me the push I needed to get off my rump and go make it happen.”
His Uncle Joe was a cameraman at CBS and ABC on regional and national levels and Adam said, “He gave me the confidence I needed, and it severely lacked at that time, to go after my dream.”
Adam noted, “I was also influenced by my announcing partners. When I started I was green. I had done a lot of stick and ball sports, but not racing. Bill Foley and Shane Andrews really took me under their wing and helped me adapt to the fast paced action and excitement. They taught me the balance between entertaining and being informative. I give them both the utmost credit and respect because they didn’t have to do any of that. They could have seen a kid who was here today and gone tomorrow. They not only made me feel welcomed, but they gave me an opportunity to succeed and grow.”
It all started rather innocently as he explained, “I was home from college and at Brewerton. There was an accident the announcers couldn’t see from their vantage point. I was fresh off an ESPN internship with NASCAR following pit reporters and it got me thinking that pit reporting might be a good addition. The next week we were at Weedsport and my dad said go for it. So after Shane was finished with a victory lane interview I approached him. Brewerton promoter Harvey Fink walks by and Shane waved him down and they thought it was a good idea. They spoke to the Wights and that was the start of it all.”
Entering his ninth season he is looking forward to another season at Brewerton and Fulton.
Like the others he notes there are challenges. Adam explained, “The biggest challenge is a long season with every weekend from April until October. I, like many racers, have a full-time job and hustling from downtown Syracuse to Brewerton on Friday night is an adventure. I also come from a big family and we have a close extended family so there is always a family event. My wife isn’t a race fan, but she understands my passion for announcing. I am thankful for her because she understands the lifestyle. Not everyone would go along with this crazy schedule of ours.”
Preparation is also part of his routine, Adam said, “I learned early on when broadcasting any sport the best thing you can do to help yourself is be prepared. I started off with typing and printing rosters and stats. It has since evolved as has technology. With the help of Ted Matthews, in timing and scoring, we built a giant Excel spreadsheet that I maintain driver information and stats. I also try to get to the track early enough so I can talk to some drivers before hot laps and keep my information current.”
His top memories are interesting as he noted, “The top is the relationships I have formed with drivers and other track personnel. The tower crew is basically one big crazy dysfunctional family, we crack jokes, and try to have fun doing what we love. We spend more time with them during the summer than we do with our own families. There is a strong bond between everyone and it makes the nigh enjoyable.”
Continuing he spoke about track memories and said, “Interviewing Matt Sheppard and Danny Johnson after an Outlaw 200 where they took each other out. I asked Matt what happened and he said, ‘He ruined my night so I ruined his.’ One night at Brewerton Jessie McClellan dropped the F bomb on the mic after a Late Model wreck while trying to fight the driver that wrecked her. Everyone thought it was funny, but I was mortified and thought I was going to get fired. The Matt Hulsizer win as he had to fend off Billy Decker and his brother in law Robbie Bellinger winning a feature in similar fashion. Then there was the season finale this year where Chris Hile threw the mother of all slide jobs on Billy Decker and held on for the win. I remember going bananas in the tower for that one.”
Dave Buchanan: Lancaster Speedway (Media Relations Manager and Announcer), Ransomville, and ROC Modified Series)
Though not strictly a dirt announcer, the 35-year-old Digital Media Coordinator for Tent & Table is one of the regulars for the asphalt set.
Dave said, “I grew up watching NASCAR and other racing on ESPN, TNN and CBS as a kid and was fascinated by the broadcasters as much as the cars. People like Bob Jenkins, Ken Squier, Mike Joy and Ned Jarrett are just a few. Then when I’d play with my Hot Wheels cars I’d pretend I was calling a race running them around my bedroom floor. I started going to Lancaster Speedway on a regular basis after my dad started working there in 1989 as an official. I just got hooked into local racing. I fell in love with the Mods and Supermodifieds. I hung around the track as a kid watching the races, selling programs or just running around with my friends. Then in ’96, on Autograph Night, I walked up to then track announcer Jason Trainer and told him I wanted to do his job. He introduced me to Craig Wilson who was the head announcer and he thought it would be a good idea to make me a junior announcer. I started announcing the big wheel races and that led me to a couple of races. By the end of 1998 I was part of the announcing team.”
He talked about influences as Dave said, “Going to races at Lancaster as a kid influences me, but listening to people like Tim Packman, Tony Magoo and Mike Paz helped. Tim taught me a lot when we started working together and I’ve learned many things from him on announcing and media relations. I also picked up a lot of things from the people I worked with early in my career, guys like Jason Trainer, Craig Wilson, Rick Mooney, Kenny Hangauer, and Shane Andrews among others.”
Continuing he said, “My biggest challenge is my voice. I don’t have a radio guy voice like Paul Szmal or sound like Johnny Gibson or Shane Andrews, but I like to think I have developed my own personality behind the microphone.”
He gets thrills and chills as he explained, “My favorite part of being an announcer is getting to do the starting line up of any big race. Everyone is listening because the engines are quiet and you’re the ringmaster introducing the biggest stars of the show. You could call the race of your life, but most of the grandstands won’t hear it unless the track has a great PA system or they watch the DVD or its streamed somewhere. “
His major memories came on both surfaces. Dave said, “The Pro Stock race at Syracuse in ’13 or ’14 where Rob Yetman, Pete Stefanski and some others guys were putting on a hell of a race and Rich Vleck and I had a blast calling that. I also got to call my brother Charlie’s first win at Lancaster in four-cylinders. I have a photo of me interviewing him in victory lane along with him and our middle brother Mike who was on the crew.”
Each night he said, “I always try to make at least one sweep of the pits before each race I do. Walk up and down the rows and catch up with any new drivers or check in on anything I see interesting. Drivers will grab you and tell you about a new sponsor or ask for a shout out for someone that is coming that night.”
Buchanan understands the announcing needs as he said, “One other thing is that we need more announcers. There’s tracks that have openings or need help filling in. If you have the tiniest bit of interest in announcing try to get involved. Even if you’re just shadowing or interning to start, it is a great way to gain public speaking experience if you’re younger. It certainly helped me doing presentation when I was in college and speaking with people in general. If you’re older and have always wanted to give it a shot it is never too late to start.”
Paul Harkenrider: Patriot Sprint Tour
At 19 years of age Paul Harkenrider received an opportunity to announce and in five years he’s proven himself and is looking forward to many more years.
From his full-time job in advertising at WETM-18 News, the NBC affiliate in Elmira he shifts to numerous track on weekends.
Looking at the beginning he said, “I knew it was unrealistic to become a race driver because of the funds. I knew I wanted to be involved in racing somehow. Back in 2013 Kenny Shupp said he was stepping down as the announcer at Woodhull. I reached out to Ted and Brandi White (owners) about filling that position and they basically took a chance on a 19-year-old who had zero experience announcing at a race track.”
Continuing, he said, “My experience there is probably something I will never forget because it was the track I grew up where I went from sitting in the stands to being ‘The Voice’ at that track.”
Just a couple of years later he stretched his horizons and explained, “I was approached by Mike Emhof as they were looking to replace Rich Vleck, the long time series announcer of the Patriot Tour. After weeks of consideration, I took that position and since then have announced at over 25 facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario. It has been an absolute privilege to work for an organization like the Patriot Tour.”
Paul, much like the other announcers have challenges, and said, “I think the biggest challenge announcers have, especially in Sprint Car racing is keeping fans informed and entertained. There is sometimes a caution, particularly a red flag; it takes sometimes several minutes before we go back to green flag racing. That is what I call dead air and can sometimes be challenging because although the racing stops, announcers cannot. I sometimes think the announcing you do when the racing isn’t happening is far more important than the action itself.”
He thanked those who have helped him out along the way and said, “Since taking the PST position I have been fortunate enough to work alongside some of the best announcers in the business. Two guys I really have tried to follow are Tim Baltz of Brockville and Greg Calnan of Oshweken. They both exemplify how to continue to entertain the race fan as well as educating everyone so much about the drivers.”
He too does plenty of work away from the race track. He noted, “Preparation is very important when becoming an announcer. It is nearly impossible to go talk to every driver prior to a race and grab every single piece of information. You need to do research prior to the weekend. Like already grabbing those sponsors, where they are from and being a touring series I tend to reach out to most drivers to see who is coming and that way I can focus on those drivers to prepare for as opposed to spending 20 minutes with one driver who isn’t coming.”
In his sixth season of announcing he too is one of those who are expected to be around many, many more years.
That concludes part one of two. Check back tomorrow for our second and final part of The Next Generation featuring our second group of talented announcers to get behind the mic calling races for the another generation of race fans.
*Editor’s Note: Bill Foley, author of this piece, is entering his 46th year of announcing or writing.