by Donald Davidson
"Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing."
For more than 25 years Sid Collins served as the chief announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, a role which earned him lasting international recognition as "The Voice of the 500."
Back at a time when radio was "king," the Memorial Day broadcasts were heard around the world by millions upon millions of devotees, for whom tuning in was an annual tradition, whether they were picnicking at a park in Illinois, painting a fence in Maine, cleaning out a garage in California, attempting to relax on a bunk aboard a troop ship or even crouched in a foxhole.
For the multitudes unable to be in attendance, Sid made the "500" come alive. The most emotional among the mountains of telegrams and letters he would receive came from homesick service people stationed overseas.
For many years, the principal radio coverage had been provided by the old Mutual Radio Network, an NBC spinoff which typically covered events in the town of an affiliate, calling upon that affiliate to provide all of the engineering and announcing save for a New York–based "anchor" who would come in at the last moment. By 1946, the Indianapolis affiliate was WIBC.
Originally, the typical "500" coverage was comprised of 30 minutes at the beginning (pre-race ceremonies and start) and 30 minutes at the conclusion (the final laps plus the winner's interview in victory lane), interspersed throughout the day with brief "updates." In 1948, several years before the broadcast enjoyed such a luxury as one announcer per turn, locally raised 25-year-old Sid Collins was assigned to "the south end." No sooner had Mutual gone on the air for an update than, right in front of Sid, driver Duane Carter broke a rear axle, causing an elaborate spin which Sid was able to describe "live."
When advertisers balked in 1951 at a dramatic hike in Mutual's rates, it appeared there might not be any radio coverage at all until WIBC decided to cover the race regardless, using its own Sid Collins as anchor, and reasoning that all of the recent productions had been theirs anyway. One thing led to another, and no sooner had the checker fallen than arrangements were made with Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw to create the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network.
The old Mutual format was used the first year, but in 1953, radio history was made when WIBC teamed up with the city's four other stations to present the first-ever flag-to-flag coverage of the "500," presenting a continuous four-and-a-half-hour marathon interrupted only by commercial breaks.
From there, the Network grew by leaps and bounds, the station count climbing from 26 to 135 in the first year alone, assisted greatly by the broadcast being carried by the Armed Forces Network in Europe and the Armed Forces Radio Service in the Far East. In 1954, with a quartet of half-hour qualification wrap-up shows added, it was up to 210, and by 1963 the increasing use of short-wave radio pushed the number above 700, eventually topping out at a mind-boggling 1,200 stations.
Sid Collins, by now a bona fide star, was a complex man: dynamic, charming and humorous (he was an outstanding emcee), but also extremely motivated and hard-working, bent on perfection and accepting not much less from anyone with whom he dealt. He liked to think of himself as an orchestra conductor, the other announcers being his musicians. He stressed the importance of painting a "word picture" for the listeners, telling his colleagues, "If a car is red, tell the listeners that. If you know that it is specifically candy-apple red, then, tell them that too."
Tragically, Sid struggled with failing health during his last couple of years and, after being diagnosed with what was believed to have been the devastating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), he ended his life on May 2, 1977.