Senior staff writer
Radio announcer Howdy Bell will be trackside Sunday for his 55th consecutive Indianapolis 500.
A popular Southsider, Bell has lived west of Greenwood since 1984. He called his first 500 as a rookie on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, which was headed by the voice of Sid Collins.
For 41 years Bell called from Turn 2, the pits and later from the booth by giving listeners valuable rundowns of the positions of all drivers at certain segments.
“We are so blessed to be a part of this event,” Bell said last week in the IMS Media Center. “It has been a wonderful experience. It just draws you to it. As I look back on my career it seems somewhat amazing that I was studying at Butler to be a pharmacist and I’ve been a part of this event for 55 years running.”
Bell’s path to the 500 probably would not have happened had he not switched from majoring in pharmacy to broadcasting at Butler, where classes were taught there by the late Tom Carnegie, the revered voice of the 500. The Butler connection at the Speedway in the 1960s was strong.
Bell had moved from WSVL-AM in Shelbyville to WIBC-AM to replace morning show co-host Mike Ahern, who was on leave for six months of military duty in 1962. Radio network anchor Sid Collins called upon Bell also to take Ahern’s place on the 500 broadcast team.
He was originally stationed off Turn 2 before the suites were built. Seeking a more comfortable vantage point atop the suites, Collins was first refused permission by grounds superintendent Clarence Cagle but was then given the OK by IMS President Tony Hulman to broadcast from atop the building.
Bell’s only fear came during threatening weather because the platform was near two high flag poles.
Bell moved into the main broadcast booth after Bob Jenkins took over for Lou Palmer to do the race rundowns. He also called the 500 from the infield hospital and the pits.
Turn 2 remains as his favorite, but it’s the most scary place to call the race.
“Graham Hill, driving the wedge-shaped turbine, spun and came to within 6 to 8 feet of our location behind the wall,” recalled Bell, who also had a great but terrifying view of Tom Sneva’s horrendous race day crash in 1975 after going atop Eldon Rasmussen’s car.
“The car broke in half and Sneva’s seat had been pushed forward. I thought he was going to fry, but he climbed from the car. His crash was a testimony to all the safety that was built into the race cars then.”
Bell also remembers the 1964 race and the fiery front-stretch tragedy that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald.
“We went off the air for two hours while they cleaned up the track,” Bell said. “Sid’s obituary was eloquent in remembering Eddie. He was very close to Eddie, but he had nothing prepared ahead of time.”
Bell is familiar to Southsiders and has been a guest speaker on many occasions to talk about the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Indians and exploring why people say the things they do.
He is a layman volunteer car pastor through Vineyard Church in Greenwood and has officiated at weddings and funerals.
As a teen Bell worked at his family’s drugstore at 13th and Illinois streets. He graduated from Shortridge High School and became more interested in auto racing. He later sold peanuts at the track in 1952 and made $3 for the entire day.
He has four children and eight grandchildren. Three of his children are Center Grove High School graduates.
For the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Bell will be in the Media Center as a standby for the radio broadcast.