His was the voice that touched us all, inspired us and excited us and delighted us. Although Tom Carnegie is gone, his voice forever remains a part of us, lodged deep in our very soul.
Nearly all men harbor a hope that their work will become immortal, lasting far beyond their passing. That’s nothing but a distant dream for most, but for Tom that is indeed his legacy. For years to come people will smile and grow excited at the sound of his voice, echoing across the landscape of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His career was so vast it nearly defies explanation. When the Indianapolis 500 resumed in 1946 following World War II, Tom was a local radio man who, by pure chance, was asked to help out at the Speedway. His booming voice and natural energy clicked, and he was asked to come back next year. And the year after that, and the year after that…next thing you know, he was as much a fixture as the physical property itself.
Along the way, he became unquestionably the most notable PA voice in the history of motorsports. He did more than inform; he entertained, he influenced, he steadied us, he electrified us. Knowing that his voice is now forever quiet, there is no escaping our powerful sense of loss.
God gave him the voice, and so much more. There were two key dimensions that are the essence of Tom Carnegie: his impeccably warm personality, and how he prevailed in the face of a devastating episode at a very young age.
As a boy growing up in Missouri, Tom was a strong athlete, dreaming of playing baseball for his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. But at age 17 he contracted an unknown viral illness — possibly polio, but never confirmed — which left him hospitalized for months.
The illness left his legs bent and twisted and nearly useless. His life was shattered, but his parents insisted on helping their son adjust to his new reality. His father cried as he hung buckets of bricks on his son’s legs, forcing them to straighten, slowly allowing Tom to regain at least partial use.
It’s still difficult to fully comprehend the powerful emotions of such a moment; but the key is that instead of becoming bitter and withdrawn, Tom rose above the circumstances. He turned his career path toward broadcasting, and the rest is history.
Although he never regained the full use of his legs, he never allowed that fact to define his life. And he never allowed his misfortune to dim that bright smile, those twinkling eyes, that unforgettable giggle.
Others will remember his voice, and those spine-tingling calls at the Speedway. Those are certainly wonderful things to be remembered by; indeed, with the miracle of electronic recording, his words will live forever.
But what stands out in my mind is how this man touched the people close to him; his neighbors, his friends, his colleagues, the people who directly crossed his path. He was more than merely a voice coming from loudspeakers; he was a kind, loving, good soul who cared deeply for his fellow human beings.
Amid the millions of people who scurry about, living their lives and making their mark, only a few rise to a higher plane. Those are the famous, the accomplished, the respected, the influential. But even among those, there is another, even higher, level. It is reserved for the giants, the men of immeasurable reach who even themselves don’t realize how much their life has meant to the masses.
That’s the higher plane of Tom Carnegie. Standing tall, above us all, undying in our hearts and souls. For a few brief moments each May, he helped us escape the mundane boundaries of life to reach an electric, emotional place that shaped and inspired us, and helped us more deeply appreciate the color and thunder of auto racing.
Somebody once made the observation that nobody is irreplaceable. For the most part, that’s true. But here — when I think of Tom’s presence in our sport — is perhaps the exception.
He was our friend, and now he is gone. But only physically; all we have to do is close our eyes and think of that voice, and those twinkling eyes. Those are the memories that will never leave us.