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Monthly Archives: March 2015

My bittersweet decision to retire from auto race announcing

313295_2193151200891_2247988_n37349_1453492869895_1732131_n(The photos were taken at Jackson County Speedway in Maquoketa, Iowa.)

This summer will be different from many of those in the past. This will be the first summer in some four decades that I have not announced auto races.

Over the years I have announced two to three nights a week. In recent years, though, I’ve worked only on Friday nights at Davenport Speedway.

But in January I informed the man who promotes the races there, Bob Wagener, that I was retiring.

It was a difficult, bittersweet decision. Announcing races has been a large part of my life and a part-time job I really enjoyed. Heck, I’ve done it for so long that in some families I’m announcing for their third-generation of drivers.

When I told Bob I was retiring, I hoped I’d be able to fade away without fanfare. I thought of a variation on a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “… I now close my … career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty….”

But that wasn’t meant to be. Bob had his publicist, Mike McGuire, put out a news release. “When the stock cars take to local tracks for the 2015 season, it won’t sound the same,” was his opening line.

Some health issues, beginning with a torn cartilage in a knee a year ago that had me hobbling around for two months, caused me to first think about retiring.

A good friend, Dan Felsen, who is a few years my senior, put it something like this: When you are young, you believe your good health is going to last forever. But as you get older, you realize you’re not bulletproof.

Trips I have been putting off are another reason for the retirement. My wife Sherry and I like to travel and have taken some nice trips, but more remain on our bucket list.

The best time to travel, of course, is during the good weather months. Those are the same months racing is taking place. I decided it’s time to stop putting off those trips.

I grew up near Davenport Speedway at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds and have been a racing fan all my life. My teenage buddies and I all gathered on Friday nights on the top row of the west bleachers to cheer for our favorite drivers.

Some of those young friends, most notably Gary Webb, would go on to become drivers themselves. I, on the other hand, wanted most to become an announcer like my role model, Paul Liebbe.

Other than working on a stock car pit crew during my high school years in the late 1960s, my involvement in racing began in 1973, when I took over from Liebbe as host of the “Around the Track” motor racing news program on KWNT-AM radio.

I kept the program alive on that and other area stations through the 1990 season. In 1973 or 1974 I began substituting for then Davenport Speedway announcer Roger Meier when he had other commitments. From 1976 through about 1978, I also announced special events in Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida for former driver Bill Schwader, who had entered the race promotion business.

Promoter Ernie Cook hired me for my first weekly announcer job at his speedway in Maquoketa part way into the 1977 season. His announcer, he told me, had gotten angry about something and had abruptly quit. Ernie asked me to fill in until his announcer cooled off and returned, which he guessed would be several weeks. I was there for three years during that, the first of several stints at the track.

During my announcing career and in addition to my full-time jobs, I made time, often with the assistance of my wife, to serve as the publicist for two Midwest-based, late-model, dirt track touring series: the NASCAR Busch (and later O’Reilly Auto Parts) All-Star Series (1990-2001) and the World Dirt Racing League’s Polydome Super Series (2002-2009).

Sherry and I traveled with the All-Star Series, and I announced some of the series races in places like South Dakota and Tennessee. I generally worked from home when I was with the World Dirt Racing League. In addition, I wrote freelance articles about racing and racers in a number of local and national magazines over the years.

But weekly race announcing was my first love, and I’ve announced races at most every track in eastern Iowa and western Illinois over the last four decades. In doing so, I’ve tried to be supportive of the sport and racing people.

My philosophy has been that a racing announcer is like a combined football play-by-play announcer and color commentator. You need to tell people what’s going on and you also need to do analysis. You do that by studying the sport and paying attention to its competitors.

I reminded them that racing looks easy, but it’s not. I’ve driven a few times and can attest to that firsthand.

My commentary has angered some people now and then. That’s to be expected. But I guess I did OK overall. I wasn’t in the business to win awards but have been honored to have done so a few times.

In 2001, I was awarded the Racing OSCAR (Outstanding Support and Contribution to Auto Racing) from Quad Cities Racing Connection magazine. In 2010, I won the Tod Brinkman Memorial Award for outstanding support of auto racing, and in 2011 I won the Speedway Fire Rescue Presidential Award for outstanding support of that group of volunteers, to which my wife and I are honorary members.

While my involvement in auto racing over the years has been a lot of work, it’s truly been a labor of love. And the dollars I’ve earned doing a job I loved paid for things like family vacations.

But what I will miss most about retiring from announcing is not seeing my racing friends quite as often. From drivers to participants to officials to sponsors and fans, racing people are the absolute best. They are highly competitive, but if you need it they’ll give you the shirt off their backs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen drivers loan parts — including engines— to those who need them to compete against those making the loan.

Since my announced retirement, I have been overwhelmed by the kind things that many people have said to me. That includes promoter Bob Wagener.

“I could always count on your guidance and knowledge to keep me in the right direction, and you were always an important part of the very best team officiating races — your presence will always be missed,” he wrote in an email.

“One thing we will have is all the wonderful stories and memories we have accumulated over the years, and know that your name will come up often in a positive light every time I share these stories,” Wagener added.

Maquoketa Sentinel-Press columnist Jack Marlowe wrote of me in his Jan. 24 “Sports Slants” column that “just hearing his voice made me feel comfortable at the speedway and helped me as a writer.

“Even though he is stepping down as an announcer, I think his love for the sport will not end.”

You’re right, Jack.

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

A super view, but not the best place to stay

P1000855P1000854We stayed at the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel and Suites (pictured), 300 W. Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda, Fla., on Feb 18, 2015. Looking back, the hotel, which appeared to be undergoing some renovations, had both pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, I selected the hotel for two reasons: 1) We had an early flight on Feb. 19 out of the Punta Gorda Airport, and the hotel is not far away. It’s a 15-minute trip when there’s traffic and about half that when there’s little traffic. 2) The hotel location is beautiful. The facility is situated on the bay that separates Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Other plusses include a clean room with microwave, refrigerator, free Wi-Fi, etc.

Minuses included the price for one night, a whopping $211.68 ($189 plus $22.68 tax) for our standard room with the water view. The room had a desk and chair for computer work, but a round table was chairless, meaning there was only one chair in the room for two people. Even if the round table had come with a chair or two, it would’ve been difficult to use for dining etc. because it was so low to the floor.

My main complaint, however, was a requested 5 a.m. Feb. 19 wake-up call that never came! Before turning in for the night, I tried repeatedly to schedule the wake-up call using the hotel’s automated phone system. But all I ever got was a busy signal. So I called the front desk and made a verbal request to the desk clerk. As stated, that call never came the next morning. Had we not set one of our phone’s alarm as a backup, we would’ve missed our flight.

In summary, there are other hotels not far from the Punta Gorda Airport that go for a lot less money. Water view or no water view, I would recommend one of them over Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel and Suites.

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Circus fanatic or not, the Ringling complex in Sarasota is worth your time.

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P1000752If you are making a first-time visit to the Sarasota, Fla., area, be sure to include a stop at The Ringling Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Bayfront Gardens and Ca’d’Zan (That’s the name of the bayside former winter residence of John and Mabel Ringling). The attraction is located at 5401 Bay Shore Road in Sarasota. (See photos above)

Sherry and I were in Florida several days in February to visit her sister Cindy and Cindy’s husband, Mike. They spent January, February and early March in the Sunshine State, trying out condos in various locations and, thereby, missing out on a lot of winter weather at their home in western Illinois. Their condo was on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, when we visited.

Though we didn’t take time to visit The Ringling Museum of Art, all of us spent several hours touring the circus museum and gardens. I continued to enjoy the gardens on a 70-degree day and took a tram ride around the facility while the other three also toured the Ringling mansion.

I’ve seen a lot of circuses in my years and have an appreciation for the people — both those working behind the scenes and the performers — who make them happen. But I wouldn’t call myself a circus fanatic.

Nonetheless, I found the Ringling attraction impressive and well worth my time. Our foursome was there for several hours.

My favorite part was the circus museum, filled with circus memorabilia, all attractively displayed. Photos are permitted if you don’t use your camera’s flash. Among the items to see were glittering circus costumes, ornate circus wagons, videos of performances, a variety of historic circus posters and the 44,000-piece Howard Brothers Circus model.

Many of the displays are interactive. For example, you can try walking on a tight rope or do your best to cram yourself into a small clown car. The attraction also includes cafés and a gift shop.

Museum admission includes entry to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan and Bayfront Gardens. It’s $25 for adults, $23 for seniors 65 and over, $5 for children ages 6 through 17 and students 18 and over with an ID. Children under 5 are free and admission is only $10 each for U.S. active military and Florida teachers with an ID.

The website is ringling.org and the phone number is 941-359-5700. The museum is open daily from 10 to 5 and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. The Bayfront Gardens are open from 9:30 until 6. Everything is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

If you aren’t driving to Florida, you can do what we did — take a no-frills, but direct, flight on Allegiant Airlines from Moline to the small airport in Punta Gorda. Fla., about an hour’s drive south of Siesta Key. We flew to Florida on a Sunday and returned home the following Thursday.

An interesting sidelight: The day we visited the Ringling complex I was wearing a University of Okoboji T-shirt. The University of Okoboji is a fictitious university created in the early 1970s by three brothers who printed T-shirts with an “official” school crest. The word “Okoboji” refers to some lakes, including Lake Okoboji, and the town of Okoboji in Iowa’s Great Lakes Region.

Two people saw that shirt, correctly assumed I was from Iowa, and approached me. One man, who said he now lives in Maine, had at one time lived in Marshalltown. Another man said he lives near Lake Okoboji in northern Iowa. He even recited the motto of the fictitious University of Okoboji: “In God We Trust; Everyone Else – Cash.”

Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Uncategorized