The Forgotten Voice

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The way some people are remembered in history is a curious thing. History can be kind to some, where many of their sins are forgotten over a period of time for one reason or another. Others can have their legacy drift away to where they are nothing more than a forgotten footnote.

With this being the Month of May, most of my coherent thoughts right now revolve around the Indianapolis 500 and what goes along with it. The other night, I was thinking about some of the great calls over the years over the IMS Radio Network. I even went so far as to pull up the network’s Wikipedia page. What I saw, or didn’t see, shocked me.

In the third paragraph on the page was a quick paragraph about the various voices to be heard over the years.

“The most notable personality from the network is hall of fame broadcaster Sid Collins, who was the original Voice of the 500 from 1952 to 1976. Other notable broadcasters over the network’s history include Paul Page, Bob Jenkins, Jerry Baker, Bob Lamey and dozens more.”

I guess one of my favorite voices from the IMS Radio Network over the years, has been cast into the dozens more category. Who am I talking about? I’m referring to the legendary Lou Palmer, who was on the network from 1958 until 1989 – the last two years being the Chief Announcer, or the Voice of the 500.

Part of the reason why I liked Palmer so much is because of everything Donald Davidson has said about him over the years. I would suspect that Donald ranks Lou Palmer second only to Sid Collins as his all-time favorite announcer on the IMS Radio Network.

Donald has stories after stories about the certain way with words that seemed to come so easily to Palmer. He tells of how he would do several takes of the afternoon track practice report that would be delivered over the local airwaves on WIBC. No two takes were alike, and I don’t mean he would change a word or two here and there. They would be completely different. Donald never knew what made one better than the other. Only Palmer knew when he had it right.

Palmer debuted on the IMS Radio Network in 1958. They stuck the rookie in Turn Three because “…nothing ever happens down there”. Palmer was in for an instant baptism when the two fastest cars on the front-row got together on the opening lap in the third turn. The result was a fifteen-car pile-up that saw rookie Jerry Unser take flight and go over the Turn Three wall. Very popular driver Pat O’Connor was fatally injured in the accident. That was Palmer’s first lap of action to call on the radio network – a network he called home for the next thirty-one years.

Palmer had a deep voice that was sometimes described as The Voice of God. It wasn’t as deep as track announcer Tom Carnegie’s voice, but it was deep and booming nonetheless. His describing of a scene, a situation or an accident was unparalleled. A typical qualifying run described over the air by Lou Palmer might go something like this. “The sky is blue, the car is red, the helmet is yellow and the flag is green as Mel Kenyon starts his qualification run” in that crisp, unique diction of his.

One of Lou Palmer’s favorite lines is one that I have been finding myself inserting into this site more and more often, as sort of a silent homage to Lou Palmer. He would utter this phrase when describing an accident when a driver was trying to save the car before ultimately stuffing it into the wall. The phrase I’ve been casually working into my posts is; "…and then it all went terribly wrong". After all these years, I’m finally publicly acknowledging where that phrase came from. Not only is it my mini-tribute to a great announcer, but it is really a descriptive way to tell a story.

Lou Palmer was the master of the understatement. Maybe the most typical of a Lou Palmer understated description was in 1989, when Kevin Cogan crashed in the opening laps, demolishing his car as the tub came to a rest on its side in the pits – Palmer calmly described Cogan sliding through the pits “…in a less than orderly fashion”

In 1988, Lou Palmer was named the Chief Announcer when Paul Page left the radio network for the greener pastures of network television. Sid Collins is still considered the all-time Voice of the 500, and his tenure lasted from 1952 to 1976, when radio was king. After his death in May of 1977, Paul Page was named as his successor. Page held the position from 1977 through 1987. When Page left, Lou Palmer was given the job.

Lou Palmer is described as a perfectionist, who was very intense on and off the air. Donald Davidson speaks of Palmer intently watching practice with one foot propped up in a chair as he nervously tapped a pencil on a desk. He may or may not have been the easiest person to get along with, but he demanded more from himself than anyone else. He took his job very seriously, at least the part that he considered his job – and that was preparing for the race broadcast and executing it flawlessly on the air.

Going from a pit reporter and doing Victory Lane interviews, to the Chief Announcer; was much like a defensive coordinator becoming an NFL head coach. Suddenly, your time is taken up with a lot of ancillary duties, that you consider more of a nuisance than being part of the job. Lou Palmer immediately found out he was expected to host banquets, attend parties and balls during the Month of May, and most of all – be very available and affable to fans that might want to shake your hand and meet you.

The higher-ups at IMS made it clear to Palmer that these were expectations he was going to have to meet. Palmer wanted nothing of it. He wanted to take the time to prepare for the perfect broadcast and make sure it came off without a hitch. As clear as the IMS brass was to Palmer, he made it equally clear to them that he had no desire to take part in anything that would detract from his time to prepare.

Shortly after the 1989 race, there was a meeting of the minds as it all came to a head. IMS wanted to strip Palmer of his Chief Announcer duties, but return him to the role of pit announcer that he had held for years – in all essence, demoting him. Palmer came away from the meeting and released his own statement that he had been fired from the network he had called home every May for thirty-one years. Whichever was true, Lou Palmer never worked on the IMS Radio Network again, to the best of my knowledge. He was the voice for CART radio in the nineties, before retiring. Palmer passed away in Indianapolis in January 2008, at the age of seventy-five.

If you read through the IMS Radio Network Wikipedia page, you barely find a mention of Lou Palmer. When describing his tenure as the Chief Announcer, it gives the two years, but then goes out of its way to point out that his tenure is the shortest of all Chief Announcers. I suppose he is still considered persona non grata to some who are still left with the track, or at least whenever someone wrote the Wikipedia page of the radio network.

I find that sad, because Lou Palmer worked tirelessly to present the perfect broadcast wherever on the track he was reporting from. He also gave us some of the most memorable calls of all time. His voice does not need to be forgotten.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “The Forgotten Voice”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Great story on Lou Palmer. He was in my opinion the best . Only Carnegie had a more notable voice. Removing Palmer was one of the speedway bone head moves.. Thanks for putting his story out.

  2. Thanks for including the 1989 Cogan crash call in the post. What a great call! Knowing that Cogan was fine after the crash, I actually chuckled upon hearing it for the first time many years later.

    “We look to the north end where one car, out of control, has now moved on down into the pit area in something less than an orderly fashion.” Yeah, I’d say so!!

  3. SkipinSC Says:

    During the majority of his years on the IMS Network, he was a news reporter on (then) WIBC radio. His voice boomed out over “Radio Indiana” every hour of the afternoon and was very distinctive. He was one of a team of news and air guys many of whom were Indiana legends as broadcasters.

  4. Bruce B Says:

    George, this is a great write up on Lou Palmer. Perhaps he doesn’t get his just due because his tenure as voice of the 500 was only for 2 years. But for those of us around back then, we know this was only a small part of his career. His hourly trackside reports on WIBC were epic! This was basically our “twitter” back then.
    …”It’s happy hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the shade has cast its shadow on the front straightaway. (cars zooming by during the report) …..”And now the months fastest speed, in fact the fastest ever here……Mario Andretti in Roger Penske’s car number 7 at 203.482 followed closely by Danny Ongais at 203.195″

  5. Well done, George. I’m sure you and I were in Tower Terrace for Pole Day multiple times – I usually had my radio tuned into Lou Palmer on qualifying days and would love to get my hands on more archive audio of his calls. Nothing like it before, nothing like it since.

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