It’s May in Indianapolis and it still just doesn’t seem the same without Tom Carnegie’s booming voice over the PA at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The man was an icon. He was as much a part of the track as any driver. Rivaled by no one, maybe even more part of the Yard of Bricks than the actual drivers who drove over them. Andretti, Unser, Foyt, Mears in my opinion couldn’t hold a carafe of milk higher than Tom.
I had the honor and the privileged of knowing this man personally. Tom was the kindest, most personable man you would ever have the chance to meet. Humble, remarkably humble. Tom would always be genuinely surprised when someone would ask him for his autograph, he always considered it an honor. If he met you he would never forget your face or your name. If you asked Tom about any race he could tell you the slightest detail about anything. He was the encyclopedia of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a true marvel to be around.
I first met Tom at my grandparent’s restaurant. Tom was a regular and my family welcomed him in with open arms. During the month of May was when Tom really brought out the heavy artillery. Tom brought hundreds of people into the restaurant from out-of-town. He brought drivers, mostly rookies who just wanted to say that they hung out with a legend at dinner. Tom started at the Speedway in 1946, so by the 1980’s he was a legend. I remember my grandparents telling my sister and I to bring Tom anything he wanted and we did. He always laughed his booming laugh and clapped his hands as if he were surprised to get the attention, even though we treated him exactly the same way the weekend before.
Tom was not only loveable, he was incredibly driven. Tom was afflicted with polio his junior year in college. Persistent and stubborn, Tom would not let his disease stop him. Tom swam on the swim team to keep up his leg strength. In the mean time he picked up another hobby, the debate team. During one competition he entered a sports radio contest, which he won. Then his career in sports took off.
Tom was the sports director at WRTV-TV from 1953 to 1985. He always believed his success was directly linked to helping other people, which lead him to always encourage and give opportunities to others. I remember a story Mark Patrick told once about Tom while he was an intern for Tom at WRTV. Patrick remembered how Tom asked him to go out to interview the visiting team the Pacers were playing the next night. The team happened to be the Chicago Bulls and the interviewee just happened to be Michael Jordan. That was just the way Tom was, selfless, always wanting to inspire others. Tom had a special gift seeing talent in others they didn’t necessary see in themselves at the time.
I remember when Tom finally retired from the Speedway. I don’t think there was a dry eye at the track when he took his final lap around the Yard of Bricks. And that was enough for Tom. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want fame. Just being driven around the track one more time brought so much joy to him. He would tell the story as if it were yesterday with his booming voice and love of life laugh.
I remember how sad Tom was when my dad passed away. Tom and my dad shared a passion for high school basketball. He pulled some strings to get my dad on the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame Committee. My dad was thrilled and I believe it was just as much of a thrill for Tom to get him on the committee. I remember he held my hand and said “Your dad was a class act, Stephanie.” What great words coming from such a great man.
When Tom passed away in 2011, I remember being sad. He was such an incredible man. Then I remember thinking about someone who took life and squeezed every opportunity given to him and had the grace to do the same things for others. He lived the fullest live of any person I’ve ever known.
While it was hard to say goodbye to Tom, my hope is to have someone look back on my life and say I lived it to the fullest because Tom Carnegie certainly did.