The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 23, 2013

Motorsports: Clear as a Bell


Daily Item

---- — By Shawn Wood

For The Daily Item

INDIANAPOLIS -- Howdy Bell never thought of being in radio. His father and uncle owned pharmacies in Indianapolis, and that was Bell's chosen profession as well.

It wasn't until he flunked a chemistry course at Butler University that he decided to change his career path.

For 42 years, Bell's baritone voice was heard around the world, bringing the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500, to fans everywhere.

"They did research and found out that 110 million people were listening on average around the world during the radio years," Bell said recently.

Bell, 79, was born in his parents' house in Indianapolis and, with the exception of two-year stint in the Army and five years working in radio and television in Louisville, he's always called it home.

Bell recently recalled the first time he went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I was 14 or 15 at the time and I walked five miles to get to the track to see practice one day and then walked five miles home," he said.

His voice was heard for the first time over the Indianapolis airways in 1961. The following year, he got a call from Sid Collins, one of the founding father's of the IMS radio network.

"'I heard you do news and play-by-play. How would you like to fill in for Mike Ahern for this year?" Bell said of the conversation he had with Collins, the long-time lead announcer of the 500.

"In those days Mr. Tony Hulman (owner of the speedway) suggested they have all local announcers."

That phone call took place in April and Bell made $125 for the day's work.

Bell continued on the network for another four decades, even after Ahern, who was in the Army at the time, came back.

"I was nervous as a wet cat," he said of his first 500 in 1962. "In those days, we were it. There was no TV and it was all live. Sid was a taskmaster. He wanted us to be correct, but we didn't have to hurry as we didn't have any competition.

"I got to thinking about it and I said, 'Self, why don't you just think of broadcasting to your local audience in Indianapolis, as I did on my disc jockey show? It took a lot of stress off."

Bell, who has been married to Elizabeth for 40 years and has four children, worked for 10 years on the radio network with Bob Jenkins, who was the TV voice of the United States Auto Club Thunder Series, doing the field rundowns.

Today, Bell is used by the network much like a "utility infielder."

"Even to this day, I'm standing in the media center when they do the pomp and circumstance on race day and I still get excited."

Bell learned broadcasting at Butler where he studied under -- and later worked with -- the late Tom Carnegie, long-time public address voice at the speedway.

His most memorable moment on the network came in 1975.

"Tom Sneva ran over the right rear of a driver and took a ride into the fence in front of my broadcast position in the Turn 2 suites," Bell said. "We always called in yellow, Turn 2, and I swallowed my microphone. I thought Sneva was done. The ball of flame was nothing like the Dave McDonald/Eddie Sachs crash in 64. I thought he was going to burn up in the car. The back of the seat was the bulkhead for the front of the engine mounts and he hit the wall and the engine came out of the chassis and the impact bent the seat forward. I vocally panicked on the air."

Bell noted that the broadcast he enjoyed the most was A.J. Foyt's win in 1977 as Bell was always a Foyt fan. Of the female drivers who have raced at the track, Bell says that Janet Guthrie is the best of the bunch.

Bell served as the eyes and ears for Indy 500 fans around the globe, all thanks to a failed chemistry course in college.