Bringing excitement to every race he ever announced, Jan Gabriel, perhaps having the most recognized voice in the history of Chicago-area motorsports, passed away Jan. 10 at age 69, suffering from polycystic kidney disease.
Born in Wisconsin and growing up in the Chicagoland area, Gabriel was the track announcer at the once-popular Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs. Beginning in 1968 and for 14-consecutive summers, Gabriel handled the microphone duties at “the track of clay” — working as many as four nights a week. Gabriel had branched out to TV production and other promotional adventures when the track closed after the 1995 racing season.
“I used to go there all the time and watch the stock-car races,” Gabriel said years later. “I would tell myself, ‘I’m going to be the announcer here.’ I asked the owner of Santa Fe, Howard Tiedt, if I could have a try.”
After a couple of audition nights, Gabriel, who even tried some stock-car driving himself in the early ’60s, was chosen to be the track announcer in ’68 and entertained Santa Fe fans night after night from then on.
“I tried different things to generate interest and to make the races entertaining to the fans,” Gabriel once commented.
Gabriel talked Tiedt into getting him a cordless microphone so he could add to the flare he was beginning to give the track. Calling the racing from the infield on many occasions, the always-entertaining Gabriel even once called a race with his wireless microphone from an airplane.
Part of the Indianapolis 500 track announcing team for three years, Gabriel produced the nationally syndicated “Super Chargers” TV Series for 12 years. He was a young disc jockey for WJOB Radio in Hammond, Ind., for a number of years and personally wrote over 1,000 commercials for the old Chicago-based Community Discount stores.
In recent years, he organized and promoted the Team Demolition Derby shows at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet. Gabriel called the events “roller derby with automobiles.” Amazingly, Gabriel was still promoting even though he had to have both of his legs amputated a few years ago due to health issues.
Gabriel’s “electric tones” became nationally famous when he began doing radio commercials for the U.S. 30 Dragstrip, which was located east of Interstate 65, right off of U.S. Highway 30 in what is now considered Hobart, Ind. With the powerful WLS radio station carrying the commercials, listeners, literally throughout the United States, heard Gabriel shouting, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday at smoking U.S. 30 Dragstrip,” which was part of the “high-speed” advertising script for the popular dragway.
Future NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip, a then 16-year-old teenager in Owensboro, Ky., was among the listeners to hear about U.S. 30 and Santa Fe, which also ran radio ads on WLS.
Waltrip reminisced, “I was riding to the dairy drive-in in my ’63 Chevy 409, listening to WLS radio, when I heard this guy talking about Santa Fe. I thought to myself, ‘That must be one whale of a place. I’ve got to go there someday.’” Years later, Waltrip made several special appearances at Santa Fe with Gabriel calling the action.
Santa Fe was “one whale of a place” and Jan Gabriel made it so. R.I.P., Jan.