The Sound of Speed
Audio guru Steve Durr manages emotion at the world’s biggest sporting event, the Indianapolis 500.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is no shrine to silence, but when I arrive early in the morning of Saturday, May 23, the day before the Indianapolis 500, it has that aura — a Zen temple. I enter at the southwest gate beneath a wonder-of-the-world-sized grandstand and walk past many flights of stairs. One climbs toward a square of blue sky. Where a baseball park arrival is a rhapsody in green, this is a brain rush of silver and aluminum. I’ve poked up at Turn One, which is among the most desirable places to watch the race. The front straight, a runway-wide, laser-perfect ribbon of asphalt stretches away for most of a mile toward a nearly invisible Turn Four. The grandstands and guard rails converge there in an art class vanishing point. In the stillness, my mind’s ear fills in the scream of engines, the whine and rattle of pneumatic wheel guns and the reverberant call of the public address system. At the same time, I’m moved by the whisper of a Spring breeze. I’ve watched America’s Palace of Speed on TV for much of my lifetime with awe and longing, and now I’m here. And hovering over all of this is the architectural center of the track, a tiered and tapered glass tower called the Pagoda. That’s headquarters, where I’m supposed to be.
The public gates open to early risers. Fans sidle past me at race walker pace, carrying things — posters and three-dimensional objects like helmets and clothing. It soon becomes clear that I’ve merged with the rush toward the Saturday morning autograph sessions, which take place in a large courtyard in the infield behind the Pagoda. The herd streams through a tunnel near Gate 6, under the track itself (you can reach and touch it) and back up a ramp into a vast public space. In a courtyard, beneath a giant TV monitor, tables are set up for the drivers, organized by tomorrow’s grid positions. Motor racing fans queue up. The hard core. They bring their own Sharpies.
Steve Durr is slightly agitated and intently focused on several interconnected problems when I find him. His greeting is friendly but distracted. He’s about 60 years old with a full head of white hair and the compact build of a guy who manages by walking around and doing the hands-on things that need doing, whether climbing ladders or rooting around in tangles of wire. He’s in racing black — slacks and a golf shirt emblazoned with the “wing and wheel” Indianapolis Motor Speedway patch and the logo of his back stage technical team, RaceTrack Engineering. A walkie-talkie is at his side, through which come and go instructions, questions, Southern wisecracks and some circuit-melting cussing. Durr’s face is simultaneously friendly and bullshit free. As a boy in Louisiana in the 50s, he’d lay on his stomach listening to the Indy 500 on the radio every May. Now he’s here, enmeshed in technology and jargon and everybody else’s problems, running on stress, manic euphoria and an implacable deadline less than 30 hours away. Durr’s a specialist in a particular confluence of art and technology: public address systems. It’s safe to say nobody will notice him or his vast speaker network unless something goes awry. He’s invisible and anonymous, but without him and his team, the largest sports event in America and its pageantry has no soundtrack, no reach and no presence.
Durr invites me to follow him through a blank gray door at the base of the Pagoda. Suddenly I’m in the speedway’s communications nerve center, called the Phone Room, because its focal point is a massive copper wire switching center featuring endless white sockets with connectors of many sizes and colors plugged in like a postmodern Lego set. Surrounding that, on industrial shelves festooned with old oil company decals and office doodads are power supplies, amplifiers, Ethernet bundles, fiber optic lines, modems and a half dozen old-school tube televisions with images emanating from the track’s many closed circuit systems. “Everything comes through here,” Steve says on the fly. “It’s either from the 1950s or 2015 or everything in between.”
Coming and going are other engineers and technicians in their similar black uniforms, trying mightily to not get their wires literally crossed. On a desk there are five green ledger books that look like something from a World War II battleship with page after page of grid lines denoting signal paths. Guys in Black using cell phones and walkie talkies, sometimes both at the same time, fill in spaces with pencil. “On 25, I’m sending you Victory Podium tie lines,” says one. Durr, with quarter inch cables draped over his neck, peers at a patch bay that looks a bit like a 1920s telephone switchboard. “Hey, where do you want this return to the driver’s meeting?” he asks the cell phone clamped to his ear with his shoulder.
“It shouldn’t work,” he tells me. “I have one microphone two miles away coming in on a copper phone line. It’s not even shielded, but it works perfectly. It’s a fuckin’ miracle.”
Durr and the team from RaceTrack Engineering have been on site for days, both because the Indianapolis 500 has been built into a multi-week festival and because getting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s sprawling audio system up and running is a lot harder than just switching it on. They are preparing for the largest single-day sporting event in the world with a live audience of between 200,000 and 300,000 people on site. Three hundred and eighty eight speakers are distributed around 2.5 miles of track and grandstand, powered by 300,000 watts coming out of 15 amplifier rooms, all controlled from a couple of desks at the Pagoda. Durr says in the cold off-season animals can crawl into its underground conduits and make nests. Miles of cables and plugs must be checked. Weather and dormancy will nudge any engineered system toward entropy, so the whole thing has to be coaxed back up to optimal performance, much like a race car. Even when it’s running well, the system is like a giant nervous system that’s subject to unpredictable vagaries and the demands of capricious human beings.
He’s agitated on this Saturday before race day because people over whom he has no control have mucked with his system in the off season. “I had it working beautifully last year. It was gorgeous. It sounded like a church. And then they threw those goddamn video boards in there,” he says. Giant video screens are par for the course at sporting venues, but in the winter prior to this Indy 500 the legacy analog screens were replaced with modern digital LED walls. That sounds like progress, but instead of the sound and picture arriving together on the same circuit, the new screens are run by computers, creating latency. Durr arrived to discover all the video lagging behind his audio, and by a different amount depending on the size of each screen. “There’s just all these spigots that have to have a completely different temperature of water,” he says. “Some want it hot, cold, in between. So all that stuff comes out of that Phone Room, and it’s all got to be thought through.”
The fans depend on the video screens for enjoying not only the racing action but the cherished opening ceremonies and Memorial Day commemorations. They do not want to hear American Idol star Jordin Sparks sing “And the home of the brave” while her lips on screen are forming “For the land of the free.” But it was almost this bad when Steve arrived and he is still making last minute tweaks to overcome it. He found it easier to reflect on the affair with a smile a few weeks later than it was to be in it: “That really stressed me out more than I’ve been stressed out in the last 20 years.”
I’ve known Steve Durr for about four years by this point after being introduced by a fellow audiophile. And while I see him only so often, each occasion is a chance for me to besiege him with questions about sound, the philosophy of musical performance and the shamanistic art of what’s technically called live sound reinforcement. If you’ve spent significant time enjoying live music, you may have formed impressions of the sound guy at the mixing board console toward the back of the room. They can be diffident, dick-headed and often nearly deaf. Durr is the antithesis of the type. Over a forty year career he’s emphasized balance and dynamics over volume and kept his attention on the needs of the musicians. His aim is to ensure that if the artist has the capacity to move the audience, nothing will stand in the way. Every hall, barroom, auditorium and amphitheater comes with a different sonic signature and limits, and Durr was mentored by people who taught him to shape the situation with a mix of science and carefully cultivated intuition.
“If it sounds like a set of loudspeakers it’s wrong,” says Steve in his Nashville studio some weeks after the Indy 500. “Nobody came to a concert to hear a sound system. They came to have an emotional connection. To hell with the technology. If it can’t move you emotionally, I’m not doing my job.”
Durr grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was captivated by that region’s indigenous music culture. He never played professionally but rather found himself interested in how groups made themselves heard in various kinds of venues. He started touring with rock bands at age 17, and over the years he’s run sound for a huge range of artists, among them Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. In his early twenties, Durr spent many nights running sound at The Warehouse, a legendary, long-gone rock venue on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, and when that city’s signature Jazz & Heritage Festival launched in 1970, Durr was there, assembling sound systems out of borrowed and rented gear. He ran sound at JazzFest for its first seven years. Then in 1977, he moved to Nashville where his first job was designing the sound systems for the many live performance venues at Opryland USA theme park. Next it was a new monitoring system at the iconic Woodland Studio, where the album Will The Circle Be Unbroken was recorded. Instead of being the “front of house” audio mixer running sound, his firm became one of the nation’s leading acoustic designers. He regards his proudest achievement as the sound system at the new, television-ready Austin City Limits Moody Theater, which opened in 2011.
Along the way, Steve fused his expertise with a lifelong love of motor sports, installing or improving PA systems at a dozen or more racetracks, including Bristol Motor Speedway, the 160,000 seat coliseum of stock car racing in eastern Tennessee. In 2002, he was called to consult on a new PA system being planned for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the oldest and most venerated track in the country. The job was replacing the vintage bullhorns with high quality loudspeakers that could be used for live music performances. As with the LED screens, what sounded like a quantum improvement in quality came with unexpected problems. Durr advised on the speaker choice but had only limited involvement in their actual installation and setup. When this critical stage was mishandled, the big expensive network of speakers was a disappointment. For the first time in memory, many in the crowd couldn’t understand beloved track announcer Tom Carnegie, and fans let the track have it with thousands of complaints. How fancy, full-range speakers could sound muddy and bad where antique bullhorns sounded great for decades is one of those mysteries of the physics of sound that Steve Durr was born to untangle.
The man who called him back in for the repair job has become a fast friend, business partner and co-pilot of the Indy sound system. Short of stature and larger than life, Dave Dusick is a vivacious compliment to Durr’s Louisiana saltiness. (Durr calls him “the most inspirational, fun, interesting lunatic that I’ve been around in my life.”) Back at the beginning of the drama Dusick was an Indianapolis Motor Speedway employee whose team installed the new speakers. Now he’s president of RaceTrack Engineering, which is contracted by IMS to manage the track audio and other internal systems. By the time I see Durr and Dusick in action at Indy, they’ve shared a decade of projects together, including numerous race tracks but none as spiritually fulfilling or as technically difficult as Indianapolis.
Durr hands me off to Dusick for a tour of the track’s inner sanctums, and it takes effort to keep up as Dave guides me past the ESPN pre-race broadcast reporters in mid stand-up, through race control (where Dusick’s job during the race is to call up instant replay video for the race’s referee to make on-the-fly calls about penalties and wrecks) and then up an elevator to the very roof of the Pagoda. Up 150 feet and outside in a cool breeze we have a sweeping view of the 2.5 mile track. I can see nearly all of its entire rounded off rectangular ribbon of asphalt from up here, and that’s saying something, because the place is just colossal. A postcard you can buy superimposes scaled satellite photos of global landmarks over the infield to prove the famous fact that the IMS could contain the Kentucky Derby, Yankee Stadium, the Wimbledon tennis campus, The Rose Bowl and the entire Vatican. From here, this is completely believable. It’s like a city with districts. The team garages are permanent buildings, while the team headquarters are mobile units that roll as semi-trailers from race to race all season long. To the northwest is the 96,000 square foot Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. There are camping zones, including the infamous Snake Pit where for a time in the 70s and 80s, outright bacchanalia was part of the race experience for consenting quasi-adults. Four holes of the Brickyard Crossing golf course run along and just inside the backstretch. There are trees and plazas and vast parking areas as well. The grandstands opposite us at Turn Three appear minuscule from here. It is bewildering to realize that the cars at race speed make this circuit in less than 45 seconds.
It may be just as remarkable that nearly every one of the 250,000 people seated in those two miles of grandstands will hear the race announcer and see video of an event taking place live in front of them. And as we admire this sweeping vista, Dusick tells me how this behemoth of a sound system came to be and how Steve Durr got the track out of its frustrating sonic conundrum. When its shortcomings irked fans for several years in a row, Dusick and Durr were called in as consultants and then as contractors to fix it. Fortunately, there was nothing wrong with the speakers. It’s just that aiming and tuning them properly makes a huge difference in the listeners’ ability to discern speech. This is no small accomplishment.
From our rooftop perch, Dusick observes that the speedway was laid out in 1909, in the middle of flat Indiana nowhere. Its footprint hasn’t changed since then (remarkably), but the facilities surrounding it have grown in stages and phases for more than 100 years.
“We have two miles of grandstands that were built over different eras,” Dusick says. “And the construction and design of each of those grandstands depended on the economic times of that decade. So one has a lot of massed concrete. And another decade it’s steel and it was labor intensive. So we have two miles of grandstands, but we have twelve different cross sections of grandstand designs. It’s like twelve different venues lined up around the track.”
This makes for an appealing, all American pastiche. Some IMS grandstands are upright and double decker, like Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Some resemble a standard issue college football stadium. Some are elegant parabolic curves like big metal flowers. Each of these layouts presents its own acoustic qualities, and this turns out to be critical to why the sound system was flawed and how Dusick and Durr approached the job of fixing it, something they were at last hired formally to do in 2005. They walked the stands, section by section, over the better part of a week, with tape measures and sound pressure meters and best of all, say Dusick, Steve’s ears.
“It takes a guy like Steve Durr to understand the intricacies of how acoustical physics works,” Dusick says. And he points out that Durr’s ears weren’t just tuned to the moment. He had to always be thinking ahead to race conditions. “We balanced the system when the track was empty. You’ve got all this steel and asphalt. But Steve understands how the energy of the venue changes when it fills up with people. And he understands how to predict that and how to tune and balance a system to maximize the energy and the emotion.”
Durr’s most peculiar memory of the process was discovering how sound was actually bent by weather conditions. “Some speakers go across the race track and we aimed them where I thought they would go,” he says. “Well the heat from the race track bends the sound waves! If you stood up on the roof it sounded great! So we aimed the speakers down at the track and it went right up in the stands.”
“Sound truly moves him. It controls his mind,” says Dusick. “When he walks into a venue, he’s so driven by the audio quality and the ability to clearly understand what’s being said. There’s nobody out there like him. He’s an acoustic savant.”
I reconnect with Steve Durr up on a cylindrical platform at the foot of the Pagoda that will host much of the pre-race ceremonies. Ferns and flowers are arriving and a super-graphic backdrop has been built for the TV set pieces. On the track, production assistants and volunteers are blocking out camera shots for tomorrow’s driver introductions. Immediately below us is Victory Lane, where in about 24 hours the winner will steer his car to meet his team, receive a neck wreath and drink the victory milk. (This of course is Indy’s quaint, all-American twist on the classic European champagne ritual, and I must say that milk always looked like a particularly refreshing thirst quencher for someone who’d just driven 500 miles in a hot, screaming death torpedo.) After the ritual quaffing, an ESPN reporter will approach the winner with a wireless microphone, and that too must work and come through Durr’s world and out over the PA.
“One, two, one, two” says a booming broadcaster voice through those 388 speakers. Unoriginal perhaps, but it sounds good — momentous and crisp, emerging it seems from the entire track, but without the echoes or delays you might expect. The voice belongs to track announcer Dave Calabro, who’s sitting in a white picnic chair behind the podium’s set speaking into microphone while Durr tends to a mixing board on a small portable audio station behind him. Calabro twiddles his in-ear monitor and gets comfortable with this powerful apparatus that will project his voice like some god to a quarter million people. He gets in his flow: “Starting 16th, the defending Indy 500 champion Ryyyyyaan Hunnnnter Reay!”
When he’s done sound checking I ask if he’ll pause a minute and tell me what he thinks about his job and this whole scene. “This is the ultimate theater,” he says. “I’ve been to Super Bowls and the Olympic opening ceremonies. This is my favorite.”
Calabro’s year-round job is sports director for Indy’s NBC affiliate WTHR, Channel 13. But come May, he relocates to the IMS for three full weeks, something he’s done religiously for 30 years. His father was one of the yellow-shirted track officials in the 1950s. Dave hung around and snuck in to the pits to interview drivers for high school radio. And as often as he got kicked out, he kept coming back and lurking.
The aforementioned Tom Carnegie, one of the most famous voices in American motor sports, a man revered like Vin Scully or Red Barber, tapped him as an intern while Calabro was in college and eventually made him his side-man for the races, ever-mentoring and nudging the broadcaster, 40 years his junior, with advice about how to work the crowd and keep eyes on a complex, unfolding race. “He knew me because I was the kid who was always in the way,” says Calabro. “He was the master of the theater. I learned how to play the crowd from him. On the PA it’s all about timing, pace and delivery. I’m carrying his legacy.”
When Carnegie retired in 2006, Calabro took over the lead chair. He monitors the race just a few feet off the front stretch in a simple white metal shelter with open sides the Guys In Black call the Fruit Stand. His voice has to go from a microphone (one especially designed to pick up his voice while rejecting as much track roar as possible) through an extensive chain of mixing equipment, cables and splitters and on to not just those many track speakers but to broadcast radio, an internal TV network, ESPN’s national broadcast and a host of closed circuit systems throughout the track. Again, that’s mostly Steve Durr’s responsibility.
As rehearsals proceed up on this dais overlooking the famous Yard of Bricks at the Start/Finish Line, it becomes clear just how much will happen tomorrow and how much could go wrong. A military-grade schedule of events is etched in the minds of the RTE team. There will be: Florence Henderson singing “God Bless America” with the Purdue Marching Band; the National Anthem by Jordin Sparks and “America The Beautiful” by Danielle Bradbery, winner of The Voice; a large scale military parade on the front stretch with dialogue between two soldiers; driver introductions; an a cappella men’s vocal group singing “Back Home Again In Indiana”; a solemn invocation and prayer for the drivers’ safety, and the emotional climax of a single trumpet playing “Taps” in memory of fallen soldiers. Oh, and there’s going to be an audio feed from the International Space Station to introduce the National Anthem, which for obvious reasons can’t be rehearsed. Durr’s closest trackside aide, a wiry guy in his 50s with long hair named Steve Hennig, who happens to be a Grammy-winning guitar player as well as a master technician, tells me: “It’s TV. They don’t care about the audio unless it’s bad.”
When the dry runs are over, about 3:00 in the afternoon, the entire RaceTrack Engineering team gathers in the media center lounge to run over a lengthy check list. It’s both businesslike and warm slash fuzzy. Team coordinator and Dave Dusick assistant Brooke R., an Indianapolis transplant who’s stumbled unexpectedly into the midst of the IndyCar world, calls the meeting to order. She’s about 22 years old, all American blonde and sincere. “I started out by expressing my gratitude to them for welcoming me onto the team this year and I could not hold back the tears,” she wrote on her blog a week later. “I am not ashamed of that. I had passion for what I was doing, and that is a beautiful gift.” She tells them that day “This is changing my life.”
Then she makes sure everyone in the room knows each other’s job for tomorrow. They remind me of those contrived teams from spy caper movies where each character has a technical specialty and a strong personality. Zach J. is in charge of information technology and the fibre-optic parts of the sound system. Ashley K., the other woman on the team, handles PR and social media. Rob H. will act as the ears of the operation on race day, free-roaming the track to spot check audio or follow up on complaints. “Racin’” Jason H. will work the Fruit Stand, personally responsible for the microphones next to Dave Calabro during the race. He tells everyone that he came up through dirt track stock car racing and that he’s “blown away” just to be here. Kim F. is a grey-haired guy with people skills, and he’s the race day talent wrangler, making sure each artist gets to their marks on time and in a good mood. Rod F. will be the ultimate audio traffic cop, sitting at a console overlooking Steve Durr’s station and the entire front stretch. He’ll be the key man in making sure Durr’s system of audio video synching works, running some incoming events through the delay and bypassing it with others. He too offers an inspirational pep talk, reminding the team if anything goes wrong, they should focus on going forward not what happened. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever done in my life,” he says.
During all this, Dusick is kicked back in a metal cafeteria chair with his feet up as if on a Barcalounger, letting Brooke run the meeting and making mental notes. When he finally speaks, his edge and snark are gone. He tells them: “This is the best team we’ve ever had.”
Crew call for Sunday is 5 a.m.
My aim on race day is to watch Steve and the RTE team from a distance, taking not even a chance at interrupting their concentration on this highly choreographed, high-tension event. It is, in any event, my first Indy 500 in person, and I intend to soak it in. At 7 am, the roads through the auto engineering office park near the speedway are mostly clear, congesting somewhat in the wide veldt of residential areas around the track, which are waking up for the Hoosier equivalent of Christmas and the Fourth of July combined. This sprawling district of low Midwestern homes has been and will be an all day, all night, house-to-house party with open garage doors, big screen TV viewing, Bud Light and endless games of Corn Hole, the essential Indiana pastime. Closer to the track there’s a vast campground stacked with trailers and RVs, making its own good sized insta-town. Flags fly over campsites, marking gatherings of old friends and family who’ve been coming for decades. I follow a lot of wavy orange traffic batons and park on matted grass. I walk toward the great eastern wall of the track on Georgetown Road encouraged by the floating smell of frying bacon.
Steve Durr has taken command of a golf cart, one of dozens flying about or parked strategically for the use of useful people. He invites me to hop on as he rolls to his SUV, parked some ways away, to grab a piece of gear. “We’ve done our homework,” he says when I ask him if he’s anxious. He is however amusingly annoyed that somebody threw another request at him on race morning, because he’s had enough already. He’s grabs a device from his vehicle that can mediate some apparently necessary line between the Media Center and ESPN. However much is planned in advance, he says the final hours inevitably present problems. “I don’t need this grief and stress in my life, but it’s an amazing experience,” he says. “I do this because I love it.”
Durr vanishes to solve more last-minute problems and I put my media pass to work getting a close-up look at an area that will shortly be extravagantly crowded and off limits to the likes of me: Pit Lane, the Fruit Stand, the Yard of Bricks and the Borg Warner Trophy. This enormous vessel of silver makes even the Stanley Cup look modest. It’s five foot four and weighs more than 150 pounds — an Art Deco column shaped like a WWI bomb topped by a statuette of an anatomically correct nude guy waving a checkered flag in sterling silver. I can almost touch it. It’s just sitting there in Pit Lane apparently unguarded while people take selfies with it. Then every so often a team will move it around the area, and I realize that the TV networks are shooting B-roll with boom crane cameras so that later they can cut those clips into their race opening packages and credits. Somebody has to think of this stuff.
The next five hours accelerate into a blur of extra-strength, multi-modal stimuli. A dozen or more high school marching bands from around the state parade down the front straight for an audience of sleepy early arrivers. Boy Scouts carry American flags in formation. Hard looking men in orange fire suits and wraparound sunglasses appear like mushrooms after a rainstorm, tending to…things. There’s a parade of vintage race cars and former Indy 500 winners are driven in a motorcade around the track. And then this day’s race cars begin to appear, rolled silently with their engines off to their pit lane positions, starting with the lowlier back-of-the-grid operations and later the elite teams.
I perch on the Media Center’s outdoor balcony to look down at a red carpet arrivals event in the infield plaza. Celebrities from in and out of the world of motor racing (Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, racer/actor Patrick Dempsey, Mario Andretti!) do that pose, talk, stroll thing celebrities do on red carpets. One of the obligatory stops on this gauntlet is the TV interviewer and camera people for the IMS internal TV network. This is yet another media operation that’s easy for the fan to take for granted, even as its images and and sound are playing live or taped across a vast network of screens, from billboard sized public displays to monitors in private suites. High up in the Pagoda in its own room, IMS TV’s director and producers are manning digital work stations coordinating live feeds and rolling video packages throughout the track, including pageant queen greetings, historic highlight reels and motion graphic time-killers. All that sound is passing through Steve Durr’s world as well, where it’s sent to the PA, delayed by a few crucial milliseconds to make it in synch with the slower video images. As the sun climbs higher and the stands begin to fill up, everything seems to be working.
Driver introductions begin promptly at 11:37, marking as well as anything the official start of the opening ceremonies. Dave Calabro is on for real now, announcing the drivers in groups of three as they wave from a temporary stage in front of the Pagoda. Typically, such pre-game pageantry falls between endurable necessity and tedious piety. But when two large columns of military personnel march in and when the red, white and blue pennants raise up over the grid of cars and when a 21-gun salute is complimented by a long moment of reverent silence, the emotional impact forecast to me vividly by Durr and Dusick comes to pass. This is Memorial Day in America, and 300,000 watts of carefully managed engineering is allowing millions of people here and at home to share simultaneously the most concentrated dose of patriotism and sincere appreciation I’ve ever felt. The RTE tech crew are clearly dedicated to making sure each of the beats of this ceremony reaches everyone. Most extraordinary is when a planned exchange of statements between two generations of soldiers — active and retired — shifts unexpectedly in its location. It suddenly becomes clear to RTE crewman Racin’ Jason that their words might not be picked up for the crowd, and this is simply unacceptable. So with a military maneuver of his own, he’s on his back on the tarmac with a hand held microphone stuck up between them. He’s invisible to the television audience, but the dialogue is audible to all.
The only thing that doesn’t work perfectly is the Space Station greeting. Astronaut Terry Virts is visible to the track and television audience but audible only to the latter. I cringe for Durr a little bit as I watch Virts introduce the National Anthem from 250 miles up in space on the IMS screens, mouthing words we can’t hear over the PA. After the fact, Durr is contemplative and realistic: “There’s a series of lines that come from the TV compound that came to us. Someone in the compound has control over those. We tested it three times. And it just didn’t work. It’s live. Whether it was our fault or their fault I don’t know.”
But this is the only wrinkle in the carefully laid plans that lead up to the start of the race. “Back Home Again In Indiana” by the ten men of a cappella group Straight No Chaser is especially moving. For decades this final gesture before the engines are fired and the cars take to the track has been sung by Jim Nabors. But the actor/baritone has retired from the job, and this debut performance is another challenge, synching many voices in complex harmony in a challenging, wind-swept environment. It goes magnificently. Steve has opted to give each singer a hand-held, wired microphone. The thinking is that while wireless is the more up-to-date mode of micing singers in 2015, the chances of a stray pit crew walkie talkie or police radio squawking into their radio bands is too great a risk. It’s the last critical audio engineering feat before the action turns to the track and Calabro’s play-by-play call of the race.
To answer an obvious question, the PA with Calabro’s voice can’t compete with a full compliment of 700-horsepower engines screaming by. But a few minutes after the green flag falls and the concentrated power and crescendo of the massed cars spreads out a bit around the track, the spectator feels gaps in the roar. Calabro’s habit is to repeat each call three times, making it likely that any given fan will hear him at least once between cars.
That said, the overall volume of the race is not as loud as one might expect. The flat, wide layout of the IMS provides plenty of sky for the engine roar to dissipate. It’s nothing like the skull numbing thunder of stock cars in a bowl style track. Indianapolis sounds more like a hive of bees, a swarming shockwave that’s like nothing else on Earth. During green flag running over 200 laps, a dominant pitch hangs in the air somewhere around middle C, but it’s a fuzzy note, like a blurry bar of blue light. It’s attended constantly by the sound of passing cars in the foreground, which make descending notes that emerge from nowhere above the tonic and then dive down toward it, joining it, as the Doppler effect on each passing engine smears the air. It’s a unique, minimalist music that for fans of open-wheel oval racing is a balm and a massage.
Two days of experiencing the Indianapolis 500 from Steve Durr’s aural and technical point of view suggests an intrinsic connection between sound engineering and race engineering. I love IndyCar because it’s a team sport, though outsiders rarely appreciate that. They see one driver going fast in one car, whereas the fan knows the pilot is wrapped in technology that’s surrounded and supported by a brainy group of experts in aerodynamics, hydraulics, mechanics, materials and so forth. The thrill of racing for me stems not from who wins; it’s in every turn that should by all appearances throw 1700 pounds of car and driver off the track via centrifugal force — but does not. I meet a lot of people who are oblivious to the charge and adrenaline rush of racing and I’ve concluded that it comes down to how attuned one is to the physics of the situation. If you feel those speeds, tolerances and vectors in your gut, then what happens on track becomes otherworldly and magical.
A similar complacency disconnects people from the sound that surrounds them. Lifeless, over-driven sound at rock clubs and concert venues has taken its toll on audiences and engineers alike. And this drives Durr half crazy. “I know exactly what I want something to sound like before I get started. That’s having a reference point,” he says. “It’s like eating pasta in Rome. If you haven’t had it you’ll never understand what I’m talking about. If your reference point for seafood is Captain D’s, you got a problem. I tell people if you see someone running your sound system and every day they listen to those little white (earbuds) you need to fire them. Because that’s their reference point. Those are the worst sounding things in the world.”
Too often this subject is couched in terms of the expense and pomposity of audiophile stereo gear, yet I can tell that for Steve Durr, this isn’t the kind of discernment he’s talking about. Though he has a properly put together recording studio with impressive gear, you’d never call him a snob. His aims resemble that gallery docent who reveals a whole new way of seeing and understanding a painting with a short story and an insight. He believes emotional truth coming out of a sound system is a revealed thing, something we’re all capable of hearing and feeling. Nor does he believe that only music carries that emotional impact. He speaks rhapsodically about Tom Carnegie’s voice from those years calling the Indy 500 from trackside. “It was a religious experience — his articulation and his tonality,” he says. We humans are wired to receive the human voice, but it has to have a certain authenticity to stir us deeply beyond the mere information of the words. Says Steve: “The trick goes back to how much emotion are we transferring?”
Not long ago, he saw the show Jersey Boys at the cavernous Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. His seats were near the back row of the balcony, so he steeled himself for three hours of bad sound. But to his delight, the band and the voices arrived with warmth, clarity and dynamics. He was swept up and when it was over he made a beeline to the main floor and the front of house sound guy. “There was a kid running it!” he tells me. “I said, ‘Man, you don’t know me and I don’t know you but goddamn it sounded wonderful. Thank you so much.’ And he gave me a hug!” That’s Steve Durr in a glimpse.
The 500 unfolds in spectacular form, with ever-present suspense somewhere in the field and 37 lead changes, the second most in history. I am able to free roam the infield and the vast media center, where the press room offers a sweeping vista of the front stretch. Halfway through the race I walk down to the interior of Turn One, where I watch and hear the cars sweep by in blur after blur with arrhythmic swooshes and Doppler downshifts. On lap 113 drivers Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servia touch wheels and careen into the wall just in front of me at about 200 miles per hour, and the reflected energy whomps me in the chest. They are fine as is everyone else unfortunate enough to have spun out or collided in this always heart-in-throat race. Three drivers exchange the lead four times in the final 13 laps, and in the end, dashing Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, making a dramatic comeback to IndyCar and the 500 after a dozen years away driving in other leagues, whips across the famous Yard of Bricks just a tenth of a second ahead of his teammate and rival Will Power.
The RaceTrack Engineering team’s job is over for another year. Durr says he’ll come back one more time for the 100th running of the historic race in 2016. He knows that despite obstacles natural and man-made, the RaceTrack Engineering team pulled the job off this year in fine form. Because nobody noticed them.
With gratitude to key contributors Todd Mayo, Gary Pemberton and Karen Hayes.
Craig Havighurst is a writer and broadcaster in Nashville who covers music, sound and occasionally motor racing.