John Hindhaugh – The Voice of (Our Kind) Of Motorsport

There are differing opinions as to who is “The Voice of Motorsport”.

dailysportscar.comThere’s rather less doubt though about the voice of sportscar racing. Countless thousands, if not millions, instantly recognise the dulcet, Sunderland tones of John Hindhaugh, as once again he conjures up the mental pictures of the Le Mans 24 Hours and the far away races of the American Le Mans Series, as a presenter on the wonderful Radio Le Mans and the ALMS Radio Web.

By way of an introduction to our stronger ties to the American Le Mans Series Radio Web, we gave John a chance to explain his obsession with racing – sportscar racing in particular.

But how do you get to do a job like that?

dailysportscar.com“Well it all started with a knee operation.”

Strange but true, as an 18 year old, it was whilst recovering from the operation that he first discovered the delights of hospital radio. An immediate enthusiast of the art of radio presentation, it was soon to emerge as the chosen career path. But not before he had renewed the acquaintance of ex schoolmate Joe Bradley, the pair launching their now infamous commentating double act more than 20 years ago with commentary on kart races at the Felton circuit in Northumberland.

“It was the classic two blokes on the top deck of an old bus,” says John. “Joe had been in the year above me at school so I knew of him rather than knew him, but we found out through hospital radio that we were both motorsport fans and started a sort of Martin Brundle / James Allen Combo with Joe in the Brundle (expert) role, as he had raced a bit in Formula Ford.”

Kart racing is a good proving ground for a budding commentator, with the action coming thick and fast. As Hindy says, ”we’ve always seen ourselves as fans with microphones. I remember someone coming to take issue with something Joe had said during a kart race and his response was spot on – “We just say what we see,” he said – and that really sums it for me.”

These were heady days at Felton, with the likes of Warren Hughes, Dario Franchitti and F1 new boy Justin Wilson amongst the Cadet Class runners.

There was Rallycross coverage too at Langbaurgh – “I’ll talk about anything that moves really, but this was a great grounding, if you can pick out helmets at that level and talk about it you can do anything.”

By now Hindy had established himself in a day job as promotions manager with Metro Radio in Newcastle upon Tyne, and it was through this job and a fantastic stroke of luck that his long involvement with Radio Le Mans began.

“I was contacted in 1987 or ‘88 by a guy called Anthony Landon, of Landon Brown Associates, who had been impressed with some of the promotional girls that worked for me, so impressed in fact that he married one of them! He came up to Newcastle to meet me and I noticed he was wearing a rather natty Radio Le Mans jacket.

“I’d seen a story in Motoring News (now Motorsport News) about the station and even though I’d never managed to get to the race, I was really keen to get involved. Anthony suggested I contact Henry Turner who was running the show, and he asked me to send in a demo tape.”

It was some time before he had any response but then, “I got a call to ask whether I was free to come to Le Mans in four weeks time. I decided to take some time to think about it and about a nanosecond later said yes! It was a real dream come true.”

But why did Le Mans hold such an appeal? Again it came down to a chance schoolboy event.

“Well, quite apart from the fact that I love all motorsport, the love of sportscars probably came from a film club we had back at school – they used to draw the curtains in the main hall and show films on a big screen erected on the stage. It would have been about 1974 when they showed “Le Mans.” Fantastic stuff! The cars were like something on another planet and Steve McQueen, who’s always been a real hero of mine, was just so cool in that movie. My immediate reaction was “where is this place and how do I get there?” It would be another 15 years before I got the chance though.”

So fast forward to 1989 and a bright eyed and bushy-tailed Le Mans virgin joined the Radio Le Mans team.

“It was classic “new boy” stuff – I even slept on the studio floor for the first few years – and it was four years before they let me sleep on the front seat of the Radio Le Mans Range Rover, but I was just delighted to be there and a part of it all”

1989 also saw the start of what would soon become the infamous “Mad Friday”.

“We held a spoof ‘Miss Le Mans’ contest on the tail lift of the 7.5 ton truck we carried all the gear to the circuit in. Anthony Landon Brown appeared in drag and I compered it with him. We got a load of girls to turn up from the campsites, with the promise of the first prize a unique piece of handmade 24 carat jewellery – I don’t think the eventual winner was too chuffed when the prize turned out to be a piece of string with 24 CARROTS on it!”

The technology in those early years had a long way to go too: “Our ‘radio mike’ took two people to carry – it was an ex army radio set with a lethal ribbon aerial, we were in serious danger of slicing air lines, fuel lines or even people when that thing was extended!”

But the equipment and the level of professionalism improved dramatically as the years passed. Hindy was now very firmly part of the team, and has missed only one race since his debut.

“I missed Johnny Herbert’s win in 1991 with a really bad case of chickenpox. I had spots in places I won’t describe!”

Jump forward to 1996 and the next big step forward. “By now we’d developed event radio to a much higher level. I’d run the station at the British Grand Prix in the mid ‘90s and was sure that there as something that could be done to support the British Touring Car Championship.”

A meeting at the Autosport Show with Haymarket Publishing’s John Chambers was the key: “You get the money and we’ll do it,” was the response, Hindhaugh’s marketing expertise was brought to bear and TOCA Radio was go!

“Since then we’ve done a huge range of events – we’ve done drive-in movies using event radio for the soundtrack, the customers listen in via their car radio – World Superbikes, Rally Great Britain, Golf, Horse Racing and even a major public demonstration over Countryside issues.

“The key was to persuade potential backers of the marketability of event radio, the problem was that the numbers in the audience are low in commercial terms, other media offer access to bigger audiences at less cost. My argument though has always been that the entire audience are relevant, there’s no wastage. I call it narrowcasting rather than broadcasting.”

It would take another big step forward to grab a bigger slice of the audience and Hindy’s first instinct was to jump onto the satellite TV bandwagon.

“I thought about the potential of an audio transponder on the Astra satellite, it was carrying loads of motorsport back then and our service would have complemented it ideally – the cost though was horrific, there was no way we could afford it, and that was before the explosion in cost driven by football.”

It would be 1997 and another chance remark, this time by Mo Bradford, before the solution would present itself.

“I was broadcasting at the Coys Historic Festival at Silverstone, I’d mentioned our problem in conversation and Mo suggested the internet – I’d never really heard of it.

“I spoke again to Haymarket and they weren’t keen: I guess they saw the potential challenge from the web to their magazines, fair enough, but that’s not a criticism. Race fans have good reason to thank them for continuing to support Radio Le Mans through the years when Bernie (Ecclestone) almost succeeded in killing interest in the race. Without that we simply wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Radio Le Mans still took the plunge in 1998, sourcing support from Porsche Cars GB for ISDN lines from the circuit, via Paris to the UK, and finding server space through contacts with city institutions which were using none of their prodigious capacity during the weekend.

“It was a great result, we got online for next to nowt and for the first time Radio Le Mans went global.”

The demand from race-hungry listeners was enormous and the web servers almost buckled under the weight.

“In 1999 Virgin Radio claimed to be the most popular web- broadcasters with audiences of about 100,000. We had five million hits over the race weekend. We blagged some early digital cameras and posted images too, it was real ground-breaking stuff.”

Best of all though this new audience was trackable, gold dust for the marketing managers of potential backers and advertisers. The response to Radio Le Mans mushroomed and suddenly there was the potential for the enterprise to be profitable as well as enjoyable, but how could this be sustained over a full year rather than a single week in France?

Time for yet another step forward.

“I was over at Joe Bradley’s place with a takeaway, waiting to watch some motorsport on TV when I got a call from Joe Weidensall.

“He introduced himself as working for Don Panoz, we knew Don as the man who had entered those funny looking front-engined cars. Joe asked whether we’d be interested in bringing the radio show to the States, to cover a new 10 hour race at Road Atlanta. I did two sensible things, I got Joe to check where Atlanta was in an atlas and I said yes!”

Hindhaugh was seriously impressed by Weidensall: “Joe was the Beatles’ first ever road manager in the US, he spoke our language and understood perfectly what would be needed to do it properly. When we got over there (for the first Petit Le Mans) the gear had all been hired and we were ready to go. We also sorted out what to call the show in that first phonecall, ALMS Radio Web.”

The venture was an immediate success for the series and for the fans. To nobody’s surprise, Hindy and friends were commissioned for a full season in 1999.

“That was a huge amount of work though. We’d never have managed it without Bob Dawson, known to one and all as “Brilliant” Bob, with due respect to Bob Wollek.

“Bob is the best engineer I’ve ever met, a real ‘fixer’, he can do seemingly anything with anything. I learned very early though not to ask how he did it, they were usually long and confusing conversations. He always seems to have his gas-powered soldering iron in his back pocket (let’s hope he lets it cool down first – Ed) and please take my advice, never, ever travel with him, his usual carry-on luggage includes transistors, circuit boards, wires and batteries. Security checks can take a while! He has however sourced everything we’ve needed for the show. It was a great feeling to step off a plane and find shiny new equipment ready to go.”

Since then the team has covered every single ALMS (and ELMS) race. Bob Dawson now works full time for IMSA, covering timing and scoring systems as well as his Radio Web responsibilities.

For the other Radio Web regulars, the day jobs are more diverse. Joe Bradley is a serving police officer in his native Sunderland, whilst pitlane reporter Graham Tyler (below) is a highly qualified medical masseur, his skill bringing relief to patients suffering from a wide range of orthopaedic and muscular complaints. It no doubt helps the team to survive the more gruelling races too, hence his email moniker fingers@radiolemans.com.

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Hindhaugh himself has covered all bar three ALMS races, missing only two Laguna Seca races because of illness and a prior business commitment and, much to his regret, the Race of 1000 Years at Adelaide.

“I was still working with Ray Mallock at the time and we were finishing off the Saleen S7. It was a real shame, but I couldn’t justify three weeks away whilst we were nailing down such a big project.”

All of the team though buy in totally to the “For The Fans” ethic of the ALMS. They’re all convinced too of the benefits of Radio vs TV.

“For one thing I’ve got the perfect face and physique for radio! But there are huge benefits of the immediacy of radio. The drivers and teams will tell us things that they would never say to camera. For them and for our listeners, it’s just like talking to their mates. We are after all just fans with mikes.”

dailysportscar.com“One of the best things for me is the weird and wonderful places we get e-mails from. My absolute favourite was the guy who mailed in from a geological survey in Greenland: that in itself conjured up one of those wonderful mental pictures of a guy with a laptop typing by candlelight. We read his mail out on air and he was delighted. Better still though we got another mail from another guy, 200 miles from the first, telling us that there was more than one listener in Greenland. Those two now get together to listen to all of the races – great stuff.”

“That’s one of the reasons I still get a buzz out of it but the other is the racing itself. I’m a motorsport nut, NASCAR, IRL, CART, Rally, Rallycross I love all of it. But for me sportscars are the absolute ultimate, more overtaking in a single race than in an entire season of F1.”

“I was watching the Australian Grand Prix last night and everybody was whingeing about the new rules not allowing the cars to be set up to the optimum. In sportscar racing, the cars can never be set up to the optimum, it’s always a compromise. It’s a true team sport too, the drivers have a responsibility to each other to hand the car over in a state in which it can run strongly to the finish. On track there is the buzz of seeing four or five different classes mixing it, the uncertainties of traffic, often with a speed differential of up to 100mph, its never cut and dried. These guys don’t have the comfort zone of a rule that says the slower car has to pull over and let them pass within three marshals’ posts either, they have to drive with their right foot and their backside. I think it makes them better drivers.”

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First and foremost though, Hindy sees himself as a fan. Has he got a favourite ever race? A long pause.

“My first ever Le Mans in 1989 left a huge impression. 1989 was pre-chicane on the Mulsanne and standing by the barrier taking pictures as the cars screamed past just feet away was simply awesome. In general though I’d say that my favourite is usually the last race I saw, there’s always something to talk about and memories to retain.”

The best drive you’ve ever seen?

“An easy one, but odd in a way. Easy because it was a quite amazing feat. JJ Lehto in the eventual race-winning McLaren F1 at Le Mans in 1995. JJ hauled back more than a lap on the other leading cars in the pouring rain and pitch darkness of Le Mans at night. Odd because I never actually saw him in the car, I was in the Radio Le Mans truck watching the timing monitors, another example of real-time information giving a vivid mental picture.”

His choice of a favourite car again shows his ‘fan’ credentials though, with an added dash of colour provided by his ‘insider’ status.

“I love the Gulf liveried GT40s and Porsche 917s.” (That schoolboy viewing of the Le Mans movie left a deep impression.) “I was lucky enough to sit in the 1971 Daytona winner in Kevin Jeannette’s workshop some time ago, and it smelt like a race car should, even though by modern standards it seemed to have been made from Meccano.”

Another favourite, this time from the era when he was actually watching the racing, is the Viper. Again some insider colour features in the choice.

“This is a classic example of the spirit of sportscar racing. It was a road car that really shouldn’t ever have been built at all. Chrysler took the plunge though and what a fabulous result. The race programme evolved in the classic way, customers wanted to race it and the factory effort followed much later.

“I’ve been lucky enough to drive an early racing Viper (one of the blue–striped 1996 factory cars), and unlucky enough to crash it! It was at Paul Ricard, under the instruction of Olivier Beretta. I realised during my session that he was telling me a lower gear than necessary for most of the lap.” (sensible boy that Olivier! – Ed)

“I got a bit over confident and decided that when Olivier had said second gear for the entry onto the Mistral he really meant third. I took it, or rather didn’t, flat in third. When Olivier appeared in a road car he had a bit of a grin at my efforts. Sorry Olivier, I promise I’ll listen more carefully next time.”

But if any one thing establishes Hindy’s credentials as a racefan, it surely has to be his interior decoration. Why so?

“By my reckoning a lot of effort and expense goes into deciding a successful racecar livery, so why let all of that go to waste. If it works on a car it’ll work on a wall.”

That explains why Chateau Hindhaugh features a lounge decked out in Gold Leaf Lotus shades, complete with a framed print of Jochen Rindt sideways at the ‘Ring in a similarly hued Lotus. The hallway is now decked out in “Bentley Green” and currently features three framed prints from the 1970 Sebring race. The pièce de resistance however is the dining room, which is in Gulf powder blue with orange detailing. There is a hint of reluctance to admit that he took a model Porsche 917 down to the local DIY store to match up the shades. Good on you John!

“My next project is a “Sideways” room, inspired by the LAT exhibition at the Alex Reade showroom in Carnaby Street. The kitchen is in a shade quite close to the ‘Pink Pig’ 917.”

And how does his long-suffering girlfriend cope in this environment?

“Eve’s not only long-suffering, she’s beautiful too (flattery will get you everywhere – Ed). She’s got my ‘archive’ sorted out brilliantly. As with most bachelors, my prized collection was stored all over the place on any available flat surface. From time to time she appears with another print I’d forgotten about, beautifully framed. She’s no slouch herself on the sportscar front either: she can tell the difference between a 908, 917 and a 917/10!” Enquiries along the lines of has she got a sister? should be referred directly to Hindy.

For the 2003 season John Hindhaugh and the ALMS Radio Web boys (and girls) will be firing on all cylinders. They have attracted commercial sponsorship to the radio web with backing from iCard, who are providing a brand new plug-in for the Gameboy to give a link to the live timing at each ALMS round this season. Another innovation to come features the Radio Web race coverage archive.

“We’re linking the streaming audio to the timing so that you can listen to a race whilst watching it ‘live’.”

There will be extended race week coverage too. The Radio Web coverage will be heard over the tannoys at all rounds this season, and will be live on the web for the practice, qualifying and warm-up sessions, with tie-ins with local radio stations for flag-to-flag coverage.

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“IMSA have a fantastic attitude to it all,” says Hindhaugh. “Doug Robinson and Mike Dupree have given us marvellous support. The payback is in the quality of the product. We have unrivalled access, better even than TV. If we need clarification of a regulation during the race, we can go and ask Dick Martin (or Len Hunt, CEO of Audi North America - above) live on air and we’ll get it. You won’t get that anywhere else, that’s because whether it’s the autograph sessions, the open paddock, the position lights on the cars or the Radio Web itself, nobody involved at IMSA ever forgets that the show is there ‘For The Fans’.”
Graham Goodwin

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