For sports car race fans the world over, whether casual observers or ardent loyalists, there is a certain warm and inviting feeling of well being – that all is right with the world – when one tunes in to his Radio Le Mans show or any of the many races where he commentates.
Having had many casual nods and hellos at the races over the years, the first time I formally met John was at Daytona earlier this year. My colleague and I were having breakfast at our hotel and happened to see him at the next table. The 2014 Rolex 24 was the inaugural TUSCC race and as we got up to leave I patted him on the back and said, “It makes me feel much better to see you here.” He leapt up to shake our hands and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the waitresses were putting chairs on the tables and turning off the lights when we realized that maybe it was time to leave. John and his wife Eve are salt of the earth people. A rare type.
Many don’t even know his name and he can walk down any street free from the fear of autograph hunters (with the possible exception of Le Mans). But make no mistake, when you tune in to his broadcast, or are lucky enough to hear him live at the track, you will immediately start to talk to your pals in his excited ‘Mackem’ accent. You might get goose bumps; you will likely feel a smile spread across your face, but one thing is certain, you will most definitely recognize The Voice.
John Hindaugh – known to most simply as ‘Hindy’ – is the motor racing on-air star of our time. To call him just a ‘commentator’ would be to do him a gross injustice, as if to call Allan McNish merely a ‘good driver’. Sure there are plenty of other excellent commentators out there, but none have the instant recognizability nor the cult following of this larger-than-life character. That he is one of the nicest ‘real’ blokes that you could wish to meet only adds to his global popularity.
It’s not that he is just a good commentator, it is the way he immerses himself in his passion and involves his audience in a way that few can ever claim to have done, with the notable exception of Murray Walker.
His witty banter with colleagues or a lucky interviewee is the stuff of legend as he seemingly moves from in-depth serious questions to off-the-wall comedy with the consummate ease of a seasoned professional who has done it all. The gaffs that frequently occur on a live broadcast during an endurance race only make the audience warm to him more and add a human element that make him ‘one of us’.
Besides the Radio Le Mans coverage of many races around the world, there are also plenty of other tyres in the warmer to keep fans occupied between events: their website hosts Midweek Motorsport every Wednesday evening – a talk show where John and his supporting cast of staffers discuss matters of the moment on all topics motorsport related and always with interesting personalities to spice up the deliberation. Then there is the social media: the Facebook page rages all day and night and whereas many forums seem to play to the lowest common denominator, RLM attracts a very highly educated crowd where the debates run the gamut of disparate subjects with lengthy, well thought out and poignant commentary. Ably moderated by Eve who also serves as managing director, she keeps the peanut gallery in line not only on Facebook but also on Twitter where again, fans can interact ostensibly around the clock!
Hailing from Sunderland, it’s no surprise nor a secret that John is a big football fan. What you may not know is that his current day job may never have come to pass had it not been for his fondness for the sport.
I was honored at Sebring earlier this year to sit down with the legendary Hindy in between his stints at the mic during a private engagement with Audi Sport. To say that the Energizer Bunny has nothing on him is no exaggeration. I’ll just stand back and let him tell the story!
“It all started with a soccer injury!” John says. “When I was a teenager I blew out my right knee by playing too much football and I ended up in hospital. I was sixteen and listened to the local hospital radio service. They had music and sports commentary from the local football matches. All my friends were going away to university, but I’d decided to go out into the big wide world of Work – I was about to go work at a bank believe it or not – and I had a bit of free time so I went and volunteered at the hospital radio.” John couldn’t have known then where this would lead but he sat down in the booth for the first time and his life was forever changed.
“I always said that if you can commentate on karts that all look the same, then by the time you get to big cars that have different shapes, sizes and colours, it’s actually quite easy!”
“The producer asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘Anything I can do to help.’ It was all voluntary of course. He put a piece of paper in front of me, stuck a pair of headphones on me and said, ‘When the light goes red…read that.’ So I did. It was the hourly news bulletin, and after I said, ‘So have you recorded that?’ and he said, ‘No it was live!’ That was that and I thought, ‘That wasn’t too hard’. After a few weeks of being the new boy, I got my own show doing music presentation and I realized that I quite enjoyed it.”
This comes as no surprise, as no one could ever accuse John of being a shrinking violet type. After learning production and editing techniques while still spinning records (yes – records. Black vinyl ones – ask your parents if you are drawing a mental blank), he found that this had laid the foundation for his future as a broadcaster.
“It wasn’t a career at that point,” he continues, “I did it my spare time which I had quite a lot of. I progressed to become the media officer and we had to raise funds in a variety of ways: mobile discos and putting in public address systems at county fairs, so I got to talk about everything from, ‘Isn’t that a lovely sheep?’ to equestrian events to cycle racing – we did everything.
“That led us to going to Felton in Northumberland. I knew guys who were kart racing – Mark and Warren Hughes, and young kids like Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, God rest his soul, were in cadet karting. We went there to put a new PA system in and do the commentary for the British Super One Championships. So my first motor sport commentary as such, was 35 eight-year-old kids on tiny little karts. I always said that if you can commentate on karts that all look the same, then by the time you get to big cars that have different shapes, sizes and colours, it’s actually quite easy!”
Although enjoying his new found love for motor racing, it was still a part-time affair. He was now working for a local group named Metro Radio as a promotions manager and it was through this that he had his first contact with Radio Le Mans in 1989. “I bumped into a guy who needed some promotional support for one of his brands – Anthony Landon was his name – and I noticed he was wearing a Radio Le Mans jacket. I said that I was really interested in racing and radio and could I come along and help. He said he’d give me a ring but this was in September and I never thought I’d hear from him, but in May he rang me up and says, on such and such a date can you go and meet up with this guy at this address – he’s got a motor home – bring some records and drive down to Le Mans. That was 1989 and I’ve only missed one year since in ’91. I had chicken pox and missed my mate Johnny Herbert winning in the Mazda. That is literally how I got started!”
In his local area, having a thick accent on the radio meant little as he sounded much like the other on-air talent, but has his wonderfully jaunty accent been a help or a hindrance to him, especially in the early days? “There’s an irony about that,” he chuckles, “because when I started working I was told that having a regional accent, I would never get a job in radio. If you listen to my tapes from the mid eighties, my accent was gone!” In a plummy English accent he continues, “I was very much, ‘Hello. This is the BBC broadcasting to the Commonwealth and the home counties’.” Thankfully he laughs, falls back into his characteristic well loved brogue and says, “Even at that stage I realized I wasn’t comfortable doing that and I’d kinda given up on being the next Noel Edmonds (Celebrity UK radio DJ and ultimate car guy) or Radio 1 DJ. I’d worked for local radio in various capacities including some presentation, but I didn’t think I could make a living out of it. And I was right!”
Moving forward in an industry where he felt comfortable, he managed to make a decent living by working away from the microphone and soon realized that he had found that he was living the lessons taught by his dad when he was a kid. “When you’re young, work is just something you feel that you have to do. You don’t have to necessarily enjoy it, but you do it to bring the money in and then you spend it having fun outside work.
“My father taught me when I was young, ‘Show me a man who enjoys his job and I’ll show you a man who never works a day in his life’. I was too young and too naïve to understand what that meant at the time, but when I came into the promotion and marketing side of things, I found something that not only I enjoyed, but I could make some money out of! It paid me! Wow! That was a big turning point.”
Now having some confidence in his abilities, he was hired on by Haymarket Publishing’s Autosport magazine in the mid nineties where as special projects manager he sourced the funding for and launched Radio TOCA to broadcast British Touring Car races. After doing some broadcasting he handed it off to some others and started working on Radio Le Mans.
“We realized that the amount of money needed to put it together was very difficult to justify with only 225,000 people at the circuit of which about 90,000 are Brits and another 40,000 are English speaking. When you talk to advertising agencies, they talk in advertising terms about cost-per-thousand. We knew what it cost to put it on but it was getting more and more expensive to put on mainly because of a license fee that the Automobile Club d l’Ouest was charging us for the privilege of being there.
“Motorsport was for the sole use of the rich and landed gentry. The people who ran motorsport were of the same type of social class. The guys putting on the races are doing you a favour by letting you enter!”
“We were looking for ways to broaden the audience and short of dragging more people down from the UK, we couldn’t do any more about how many people came there, so we needed to find a way to get to more people. We had a look at a few ideas including funnily enough putting it up on a satellite even in those days. Then somebody mentioned the internet. I didn’t know what the internet was – I could barely use a computer. But we had a look into it and I found some guys in London who had some server capacity. Porsche, God bless ‘em, gave us some money for the ISDN line – the high quality line that we needed – to be installed at the track so that we could get the sound back to the guys in London. It was ’96 or ’97 we went on the internet for the first time with Radio Le Mans only for the race on Saturday and Sunday and we got something like 750,000 people on board! And that was in the days of dial-up internet, not broadband…and it was all word of mouth. All of a sudden we realized that this was the answer to our prayers.”
Not being involved in radio, I have no clue as to whether those figures were par-for-the-course. In those heady days was this a surprising number of listeners? “Massively!” says John. “I’d been working for regional stations where the whole transmission area might have been a couple or three million and that’s quite big. Most radio stations in the UK have a transmission area that might be 150,000, and if they get one or two percent of that they’re doing really well. Then here’s us with three quarters of a million people listening in…wow! I realized then that there might be something to this internet thing and to my eternal credit, I registered the domain Radio Le Mans dot com. I dunno why I did it, I just thought it was a good idea!
“Almost straight after I’d done that, I got a phone call from a guy in the States called Joe Weidensall. Joe’s a fascinating character who had been the Beatles tour manager on their first US tour and was a radio man through and through. He was working on a project with Don Panoz and he wouldn’t say what it was, but he said, ‘You’re that guy with the funny voice that does Radio Le Mans aren’t you?’ So going back to what you just asked – ‘cause by then I had my northeast accent back again and I was the one who stood out.”
With his infectious enthusiasm Hindy is warming to the story and to show how his encyclopedic mile-a-minute mind works, John segues into this, “The irony of that was that Noel Edmonds – one of my first broadcast heroes – his company ran the Panoz at Le Mans – which I had never thought about until now!”
John is in his element. My head is spinning.
“Anyway, Joe says ‘Don’s got this idea that he can bring sports car racing, Le Mans racing to America, and we’re going to do this race in October at this little track called Road Atlanta and we’re going to call it Petit Le Mans. Alright. What do you want us to do? We want you to bring Radio Le Mans to it.’ Yeah…okay! I had no idea what that meant! I’d never been to the States before but I thought I’ll say yes and we’ll try and make it happen. I gathered together about a dozen or so people, some technical; some more broadcasters and basically we went out there and we did the first ever Petit Le Mans.
“We built the website for what was then the American Le Mans Series, which started here at Sebring in ‘99. That was the first race. We were the first to do streaming audio at any kind of large sporting event and that is really the genesis of it.”
Having made the successful leap into the ALMS and making RLM the voice of what was to become arguably the most important endurance series in the world, racing in America was a big change to Europe and of course, Hindy took it in all in stride with his usual fervor: “I loved it. Loved it! I’d been working on touring cars and various championships in the UK and there’s a basic difference in car culture in the States versus Europe.
“In Europe when the car first started and therefore when motorsports first started, it was for the sole use of the rich and landed gentry, so the people who ran motorsport were of the same type of social class which gives us a very hierarchical way of looking at motorsport and how it’s organized. Almost to the point where the guys putting on the races are doing you a favour by letting you enter! That’s not a criticism; it’s just that it’s the way it came about because those were the guys who could afford the cars in the early 1900s.
“In the States, the car culture comes 180 degrees from that: Henry Ford said that the first motor race was when there were two cars side by side on the road! That was the American way. It was guys tuning their own cars, a little bit of drag racing, a bit of street racing and the way that the automotive industry developed over here was completely different…and the hierarchy of US motor racing sanctioning bodies was also very different. It was more a question of, ‘You bring it and we’ll find you somewhere to run it.’ A run-what-you-brung kinda thing. That was night and day to what I was used to and from that first race at Road Atlanta, the guys at IMSA and the ALMS completely got what we were trying to achieve.”
John and his team went from doing a once-a-year broadcast at Le Mans plus several touring car races to adding on 10 three-day endurance races in a year. This gained them invaluable experience while they broke new ground and learned as they went. The foundation was being laid for a future that John didn’t expect to come quite so soon. Haymarket Publishing, who controlled RLM, decided that they no longer wanted to be involved after the 2005 Le Mans race. This left John and Eve in a quandary over their future. He explains, “Haymarket gave us the opportunity to take over the license from the ACO, so I asked all the guys who worked with us if they would like to invest in it. They all said no, but that they would be happy to work for us. Fortunately I’d just sold my house and I had a little bit of a grubstake, so I handed most of it over to the ACO in December. We had until April – when we had to pay the second half of the license fee – to raise the rest of the money to make Radio Le Mans work in 2006. And we did. We washed our face in 2006 then built it up to what it is now.”
During the time leading up to Le Mans that year, John and Eve had decided to get married. John freely admits that it was Eve’s military precision-like organizational capabilities that made the difference between pulling this off and not…and did I mention that they had two ceremonies? One in the UK only eight days before the race and another – where else but Le Mans of course! This time at the mayor’s residence in Arnage the Friday before the race! With a who’s who of racing’s glitterati in attendance, it was the front page story of the local paper which is one of their prized keep sakes.
His droll humor – famous in those from the North Country – keeps his banter lively and witty, and although as gregarious as any entertainer I’ve met, he is at the same time genuinely humble and grateful for what he has achieved. It is these traits more than any perhaps that hold the key to his success with his fans, or The Collective as they are known. His modesty will not allow him to accept the plaudits, but without Radio Le Mans, I dare say that endurance racing would not enjoy the popularity that it does today, such is the engagement of the global listening audience. I can see his face turning red as he reads this, but show me a racing fan and I’ll show you a listener who will have the RLM live feed laid over the TV pictures at any televised race.
When I ask John about this popularity, he is his unpretentious self. “We serve many masters. Obviously the fans. Possibly not quite so obviously the teams and their sponsors. Think of us as a local radio station for sports car racing. It just so happens that there is no ‘local’ any more…not with the internet: local is global. So we serve the paddock and race track in the smallest idea of things but we have a community – so maybe it’s better to call us community radio – that’s worldwide and numbers hundreds of thousands. It’s remarkable; we have listeners in the Arctic Circle; the South Atlantic; Australia and every continent in the world. I think there are 160 countries recognized by the United Nations and last year we had listeners in something like 147 of them.
“The difference between Formula One and sports car racing is that F1 has made its reputation on being exclusive keeping people out, having your nose pushed against the fence saying, ‘Ooh, I’d really like to be in there’.”
“It’s also interesting that we span the political and religious geographical divide; Israel and Palestine; Ukraine and Russia; North and South Korea; Iran and Iraq; China is a big market for us – anywhere they speak English. France, Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia even. All listeners and sizeable amounts!”
Having to speak with authority on such an alive sport at different venues in an ever changing landscape means that the team has to adapt quickly and makes hard business decisions when it comes to which races will be attended in person and which will be broadcast remotely. Not being able to soak up the ambience when attending a race makes the team work hard so that we the listeners don’t know the difference. “You have to be a good enough storyteller that the audience doesn’t know. For example, in 2013 we did Daytona – all 24 hours – from the studio at our house and most people thought we were at Daytona. We had a Skype link to the press room so that we could do interviews and we had (Florida based reporter) Shea Adam on site and Graham Goodwin, editor of Daily Sportcar.com to give a bit more atmosphere. We can put something together that sounds exactly the same as it would as if we were there.”
Whereas some may write copious notes ahead of the races, John relies on his years of stored knowledge before attending a race, but admits to listening to the previous year’s race coverage from the web site’s archive (available free for download) while travelling to an event. “What it does is, it places those pictures back in your mind and stimulates those memories. Also you’re listening to the real clever guys on our broadcast like Jeremy Shaw who’s a real student of the sport; Paul Truswell with all the statistics; the drivers with their first-hand knowledge. If I’m listening to last year’s race, we will be talking about the previous year and the year before that, so the audio revision works for me. Sometimes I just have to see a car number or a colour and I say, ‘Hey…wasn’t that what happened at such and such. And wasn’t he driving it then too?’
“If I’m not sure, I’ll say, ‘I can’t remember if it was ’87 or ’88. Collective! Help me out.’ And they will tweet and someone will have it in a moment. Email was a big move, but now Twitter and Facebook are so dynamic. When I learned radio, they always said, ‘Imagine you’re having a two-way conversation with the audience’ but radio was always a bit one-sided. Now we really are having a two-way conversation, it just so happens that they’re in text and we’re in words.
“Eve is a genius when it comes to social media. She has developed a way of talking to our audience in a way that no one else does. You can’t do the same things on social media as you would in more traditional media. You can’t just put a link to a press release. Some do, but that’s not what they’re for. People will find them elsewhere.”
This topic obviously gets John’s creative juices flowing and I can tell that he’s in his element talking about his ‘baby’ as he sits next to me with his eyes closed and literally wringing his hands as he enlightens me with absolute focus.
“The way you give your sponsors value is not going away for a four minute ad break every eight minutes. That’s old media but we’re talking about new media. We’re talking about now and tomorrow media. To give your partners value you need to begin a conversation and we do that. We don’t talk at people, we bring them inside. The difference between Formula One and sports car racing I think – and I’m a big F1 fan no matter what anyone thinks – Formula One has made its reputation on being exclusive keeping people out, having your nose pushed against the fence saying, ‘Ooh, I’d really like to be in there’. Eleven teams; 22 cars; very expensive to get in. Sports car racing traditionally and still thank goodness, celebrates variety and celebrates, ‘Come on in. Come in behind the fence; come into the pit lane; come into the paddock; stick your head in our pits and that’s a big difference.
“The way we broadcast we believe in the democracy of radio. What do I mean by that? This is another of Eve’s phrases – it should be free at the point of delivery. Now I accept that you have to buy a computer or a smart phone and you have to be connected to the internet, but what I mean is, no subscription and also everyone gets to listen to it or no one gets to listen to it. We never geo-block. I don’t care if you’re in Afghanistan or British West Hartlepool, you should all get to listen because you’re all part of the community.
“We resist geo-blocking, we advise our clients within the motorsport and automotive industry not to geo-block when we give advice on broadcasting packages, we advise them not to do deals with TV companies who insist on geo-blocking because that again is old media. It’s counterproductive. Motorsport is a niche sport and endurance racing is a niche sport within itself, so you don’t want to be cutting down the number of people that can watch and listen, you want to be opening it up! Come on in…that’s that inclusivity. Bring a friend!”
Having been aboard this rollercoaster for some 25 years now, John has his favourite eras in the sport but is genuinely more excited about its future. “The first time you go to Le Mans, you’re never going to forget that. Mine was 1989. I always remember the low rumbling sound of the Mercedes Benz V8 that was so different from everything else, but you know, it’s what comes next that really excites me.
“We’ve been at the crossroads of sports car racing for quite a while. Normally it would have gone one way or the other and got lots better or lots worse, but somehow we’ve managed to keep this momentum going. At the highest level of sports car racing – 42 cars at Le Mans in 2014, amazing – with the manufacturers coming back into it, we’ve had a decade or more of the glory days of sports car racing. When I’m a lot older and more senile than I am now, I’ll look back on all of this time and say they were golden days.”
The more he talks about current and future technologies the more animated John gets. I could listen to him all day (many of us often do…literally!) and can almost throw my questions away as he seemingly answers all of them in one breath. Something about this guy is magnetic. On one hand he’s a top bloke who I could see myself supping suds with down at the local on a Friday night. On the other hand it is becoming clear that he is a legend and I’m getting goose bumps, such is his obvious passion which is worn clearly on his sleeve. With my eyes wide, John starts to rub his hands again, closes his eyes and takes another deep breath.
“We’ve got now something coming up, with the change in regulations in prototype cars and in a couple of years we’ve got big changes in the GT category. We already have the most relevant technology in motor racing…you can argue with me but you’ll be wrong…and I know the Formula One guys will put their hands up, but I’m sorry. It’s not. Longevity, fuel efficiency, reliability, lighter weights, longer running, less tires, less fuel, less everything. Really race proving systems like FSI – fuel stratified injection – from Audi back with the original R8. Like Toyota’s hybrid technology with super-capacitors. Like the electronic systems that are controlling the phenomenally complicated power units. Systems that are harvesting energy, storing it then and throwing it back. Eight mega joules of energy for one lap of Le Mans this year – that’s a huge amount of stored energy. And this is pushing technology – when you look at a P1 car you’re not looking at now, you’re looking at tomorrow. And the day after. You’re looking at the automotive future and it’s being proved right in front of your eyes and I’m tremendously excited by this.
“I’m excited about Formula One this year too because of the unreliability that we’re not used to. We’re so used to everything lasting at least for a full Grand Prix, but 24 hours? ‘Ah well that’s easy’, but it’s not! It’s incredibly difficult to do this, and in some ways it’s good that Formula One is having troubles because people are going, ‘On my God! If they have the biggest brains, the biggest amounts of money…and if they can’t make a car last an hour and a half, how can these guys at Le Mans do 36 hour tests?’ At Le Mans this year, the P1 cars will do pretty much the same amount of race mileage that a Formula One car will do – and at relatively the same average speed – during the whole Grand Prix season of races. But they’ll do it with one engine, one gearbox and last year Audi did it on nine sets of Michelin tyres. That’s extraordinary! And why would I not be excited about that?”
Why not indeed.
Given that I cannot go on forever, I’ll leave you safe in the knowledge that there’s plenty more from Hindy and if you like this I’ll put the rest down at a later date. Do yourself a favour though: if you have never been mesmerized by the wonderful musical tones of The Voice, tune into Radio Le Mans.com and see what all the fuss is about. You won’t be disappointed – heck – you might find yourself watching an endurance race while having a beer with your new mate….who’s in Afghanistan!
Images via James Edmonds, Thomas Murray Images and Western Advocate