Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Man... Big John

I'm calling a TO from the running babble for a different kind of post. The usual nonsense/whining/preaching will be back soon enough. This, is personal.

If you live near Indianapolis, or you follow the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you know that the immortal Tom Carnegie passed away recently. You know because it was covered on every slice of news media. Rightly so.

Tom is a legend. His voice was as much a part of the The Speedway as the bricks, and it will echo in the rafters of the grandstands for ever.

Tom played to the crowd, and he did it well. We ate out of his hands during qualifying, and it isn't the same without "And... He's... on it!" "Gooooood morning, race fans!" was the start of the ritual every race morning, as I sat patiently in my seat, hours before the green flag dropped. 

On the IMS PA, Tom was the show.

But in my book, John Totten was the man.

John was the unassuming one. The guy who filled in the gaps. The guy who knew exactly what was going on, and told us about it, matter-of-factly, with the silky smooth, deep timber of a professional broadcaster.

Big John, with essential clipboard, pen, and pencil.

John is best known for his work on qualifying days. The old qualifying days, when we didn't have video screens in the infield and speeds didn't pop on boards a second after a car breaks the line.

After Tom told us that he was, indeed, on it, it was John who called the car around the track. "He's out of one, 18 inches from the south chute wall, into 2, left side rubber just kissing the white line, smooth as he drifts out 6 inches off the wall and comes down a couple feet as he settles in for the backstretch..."

They traded back and forth, seamlessly, without a director in their ears. John with the call, Tom with the facts and the cheerleading.

Tom got the crowd to cheer. John told the story. John painted the picture. John kept us on the edge of our seats.

It was more romantic, and for me, more exciting hearing it, as opposed to seeing it on the big screen. On the screen, most runs look the same. But John made every run unique. He could pick out the subtle differences between one driver's line, and another driver's. Or even differences between runs, laps, even corners, for a single driver.

John knew how to convey a driver riding on the edge, taking the car faster than the car wanted to go, and he did it without screaming, without hyperbole, without telling us "he's really trying hard".

John wasn't flashy. Not even close to flashy. The opposite of flashy. John was... a pro.

As much as he loved qualifications, John was at his best was during the week at "happy hour", that golden hour between 5:00p and 6:00p when the track was cool and the speeds would bounce.

The pit lane would come to life as every team looked for the limit, and hoped to make a headline.

It was crazy, chaotic, and it could be confusing, if John wasn't on the PA stand.

Here's a little game you can play next time you're at The Speedway during a busy practice. When lots of  cars are dashing out of the pits, ripping a couple laps, darting in for a quick change, and going back out again, pay close attention to the PA.

How often do you hear the car number, and then the driver's name, like "There goes car #37... Ryan Hunter-Reay", and how many times do you hear the name, and then the number, like "Here comes Ryan Hunter-Reay in car #37"

Would you even notice the difference? There is a difference. The difference is that announcers who do the number first, and then the name, are looking it up. They see the number, start to talk, look down at the sheet, say the name. Or at best, they're doing it in their head. Number... driver.

The pros know who's car it is immediately. Not by number, but by sight. And they tell you who it is. Immediately. And not just AJ, Mario, and Rick. Every car. Every time.

And the super-stars recognize if the helmet doesn't match the driver who is usually in the car, and they do it on the fly, and call it before the car is by them. "Here comes Fittipaldi trying out Al Jr's car."

Nothing got by John. He was sharp, alert, and he knew his shit. Cold. And everyone knew it. It was no coincidence that he was on that stand during happy hour. No one did it as well. No one dared try.

One more key fact about John Totten. He was my step-dad.

For 20 years he was a positive force in my life, and just when I really needed a positive force in my life. He taught me a thousand things. To be patient, accepting, kind, and warm. That the drivers aren't the only heros at the race track. And that accolades and cheers aren't important... a job very, very well done, really is reward enough.

I was an Indy 500 fan before I knew John. But John helped me to learn, appreciate, and love auto racing.  Some of my favorite race day memories happened after the race when John would take me to the garages. I got to see the crews and the owners and the drivers relaxed, when the month was over. The fans were gone. It was just racing family. And they all greeted John with a smile. Sometimes the smile came with a shrug when the day didn't go great. But they always were glad to see him.  

We watched countless other races together, races of all forms, on a crappy, 13'' TV in our kitchen in Lebanon. The sound was always up too loud, and John would smoke through the whole race. He wouldn't say much, and he never stood up and screamed at the drivers who were half a world away*. When he did comment, he was succinct, insightful, and on point. And I paid attention.

The last race I watched with John was Cleveland 1997 when Alex Zanardi sat on pole, dropped back to damn-near last after pitting while the pits were closed, and stormed back through the field to win. John was in the ICU at the time with a vent in his throat. He wasn't smoking that time, but he also wasn't talking.

Just watching the race was a big day for him. We watched the pre-race and the start, then he started to doze off after Zanardi's early pit mis-step. I told him not to worry, that he probably wouldn't miss very much if he took a quick snooze.

He woke up just before Zanardi passed de Ferran for the lead. He tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed to me "Looks like I missed something." Succinct, insightful, and on point. And a perfect example of the man's deadpan humor.

That afternoon we the last time I saw John conscious. He died a couple weeks later.

When I sat next to John on those early qualification days, just as I was getting to know him, I was fascinated by his stopwatches. He used 3-second sweep watches, perfectly encased in a black rubber "Autolite" case. Before digital stopwatches, the ones with "lap" features, you needed two watches to time consecutive laps. The 3-second sweep is accurate, and mesmerizing, and it oozes class and sophistication. Not the "I have one of these and you don't" sophistication. The "I know what the hell I'm doing" sophistication.

For hours on those weekends in May I studied how he held the watches, how he used them. During practice, I practiced myself, trying to stop one and start the other at precisely the same time. I learned to read them almost as fast as he could. To me, those watches were as unattainable as the microphone. One day, after he'd bowed to the times and started using a digital watch, he gave them to me. It was as if John Lennon had given me his white piano. They are among a handful of possessions I consider priceless.

Proper from for the use of 3-second sweeps

Those of us who listened to Tom and John on the PA while we were being infused with the smells and the grit and the sound and the thrilling danger and the glorious speed that became such a big part of us, were treated to the best of the best.

I would give anything to be able to unplug those big screens, and listen to Tom and John call a few qualification runs. I want to relive the drama of imagining where the car was after it disappeared around turn one until it emerged from four, and the suspense of the "time and speed report", drawn out, with the crowd holding their breath, or shushing each other, hanging on every syllable, scribbling the numbers.

Just a few more runs, to remind us all just how great it used to be.

And I wouldn't mind hanging out with the old man, either.

Good running,

*I can't say the same about myself.