Three decades on from his first job with the company he now owns, operates and is very much the face of, radiolemans.com’s John Hindhaugh is considered by many to be THE definitive commentator for endurance sports car racing. Not bad for a Sunderland lad who got his start on hospital radio.
The voice of endurance racing.
It’s a phrase that’s teetered on the brink of cliché for almost two decades, and yet so perfectly reflects the character of sports car racing’s most recognisable commentator that it’s impossible to start this interview any other way.
A pillar of the Radio Le Mans broadcast team since 1989, John Hindhaugh has covered everything from the World Endurance Championship to IMSA, the Le Mans Series in Europe and America to 24-hour classics at the Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Dubai, Daytona, and, of course, Le Mans. Together with long-time cohort Bruce Jones, ‘Hindy’ provided the play-by-play for the first-ever online stream of the Race of Champions in 2008, and still does to this day. His narration proved invaluable to the success of Truth in 24, an insight into Audi’s fifth consecutive Le Mans win in 2008, as well as the more recent The Gentlemen Driver, a look behind the curtain of professional businessmen turned race car drivers. Y’know, like the 24H SERIES powered by Hankook, for whom John has provided play-by-play since 2012. Listen closely, and you’ll even hear a familiar voice in Need for Speed: ProStreet on the Playstation 3. Yes, really.
But it’s more than ‘just’ his experience that resonates with fans and listeners worldwide. It’s his genuine love of motorsport, the indelible chemistry he’s created with his listeners across three decades, and an uncanny ability to stretch those somehow not-yet-strained Northern English vocal chords to the point of prolapse as action, a pass or a smash on-track dictates.
John Hindhaugh just IS the voice of endurance racing. Right?
“No,” the man himself explains with a grin. “It’s very simple: I’m A voice IN endurance racing. It’s a lovely compliment, but there’s no one person who’s the voice of anything. At one point, in the UK, Murray Walker was the voice of Formula 1, and for a very long time. But is he still the voice today, when you’ve got guys like Martin Brundle, Ben Edwards and David Croft doing such a great job? Probably not, and Murray would most likely agree.
“I’m very fortune because [at Radio Show Ltd], we have an excellent team that is exceptionally talented. There’s Jonny [Palmer], there’s Joe [Bradley], Nick [Daman], Bruce [Jones], Diana [Binks], Shea [Adam], and so many others behind the scenes. Not one of us can exist without the other. So, no, I’m not the voice of endurance racing, but I am very fortunate to be A voice IN endurance racing.”
Why then? Why, amidst the growth of radiolemans.com and the increased profile afforded each of its presenters and analysts in the process, to say nothing of every other motor racing pundit worldwide, does this phrase continue to follow John Hindhaugh across the globe like an unflinchingly loyal golden retriever?
“I can’t remember a time when I haven’t loved motor racing. I was born in 1962, and as I grew up in the UK during the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, it was the radio I was more interested in than the television. In those days, motorsport was almost all on the radio, or in magazines, so the names I grew up with hit a special chord. I mean, in Formula 1, there was Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill – two of those three sadly no longer with us – and in sports cars, there was Derek Bell. In fact, Derek became a massive hero of mine, and I’m delighted and very honoured to say that he has become a friend of mine. Or as I should say, he’s allowed me to become a friend of his!
“I remember being transfixed by radio broadcasts from guys like Eamon Andrews: when he reported on a boxing match from Las Vegas, I had a picture in my head of every left hook and every jab, as clear as anyone sitting in that stadium. So I’ve always had massive respect for this profession.
“What I didn’t know until relatively recently was that my father, when he was in the Royal Air Force, worked on the radio at his training camp and even when he was on active duty in the Middle East. So I guess you could say it was in my blood!”
All the more ironic then that John’s introduction to ‘the business’ was an obscure one. A fan of football from a young age (dreams of playing for his beloved Sunderland FC have yet to come to fruition, but hey, there’s still time…), an overly ambitious tackle one day landed a then 14-year-old John in hospital with blown cartilage in his knee.
“While I was in hospital, I volunteered for their in-house radio in Sunderland. I spoke with a guy called Graham Anderson – I still remember– and said, ‘I’m interested in doing some of this hospital radio.’ He showed me the studios then out of the blue said, ‘sit down there, and when the red light goes on, read this,’ and handed me a script. I thought it was some kind of test. What I didn’t realise was that, on the very first night I was there, I was live on air! Within two weeks, I had my own music show. It was a fantastic grounding.”
Following his unorthodox ‘audition’ in Sunderland, John, now in his late teens and with little interest in the myriad jobs he’d already half-pursued – “I left school when I was 17 to work in a bank, and within 21 days, realised I’d made a hideous mistake” – continued his rite of passage on Sunderland Royal Hospital radio, intercutting his time on-air with a growing managerial role off it. True, there were brief tenures as a security guard, a marketing consultant, administrator at his local government offices, and even an application to follow ‘the family business’ and join the police (“can you imagine: ‘your line through that last roundabout was shockin’, sir, licence and registration please!’ ”). But it was already too late. DJ-ing at his local pub, a young Hindhaugh was hooked.
“Music was a huge part of my life growin’ up, even though I couldn’t play a musical instrument to save me life. I actually thought I’d be a music teacher, or on Radio 1 in the UK. So after the hospital and various other jobs, I started worked for a regional radio station in the North East of England where I lived” – the commercially-based Metro Radio, for whom John worked as promotions and marketing manager in Newcastle-upon-Tyne – “I never expected to be involved with talk radio or sports, it was the music that interested me. You could say that’s ironic, given how things turned out, but the skills that I learned, trying to get there, were transferable, and vital, when it came to working in motorsport.”
In fact, Radio 1-aspirant John’s professional affiliation with motorsport only began in mid-1988, thanks to a chance encounter with Anthony Landon, a senior at Studio Six Marketing under whose umbrella Radio Le Mans operated at the time. Impressed with John’s zeal, and his enthusiasm for the Silk Cut Jaguar jacket Landon happened to be wearing that day, the Studio Six executive put John in touch with the ‘father of Radio Le Mans’, Harry Turner, on the off chance a spot with the team would free up for the upcoming ’89 24 Hours of Le Mans. Just a few weeks later, John Hindhaugh was on his way to work at La Sarthe for the very first time. Not, as it turns out though, as a presenter.
“In ’89, I went to Le Mans to play records and cover the downtime between race reports. We had advertising breaks every so often – that’s how the radio station was paid for in those days – and I was the guy sitting in the studio, working out, what’s called, the traffic: ‘so Sponsor A, they get however many plays during the 24 hours. Sponsor B, so many plays,’ etc, and I’d tick of each advert as they went. That was my first job with Radio Le Mans.”
An eye-opening one it was too. A rented Dodge Ram van towed the 35ft caravan that doubled as the Radio Le Mans studio – and John’s bedroom – for the duration of the ’89 Le Mans weekend (he’d upgrade to the front seat of Harry Turner’s Range Rover in the years that followed). Equipment setup was back-breaking, as was wrangling the “ex-military radio set” and lethally top heavy aerial that doubled as the microphone for lead commentators Ian Titchmarsh and relative new boy Paul Truswell, the latter of whom remains a radiolemans.com favourite to this day.
Again, John, doe-eyed on the not-yet-chicane-struck Mulsanne Straight with Canon camera in-hand, was hooked. Ironically though, it would be another 10 years before John’s first lead commentary gig at the event that, many would argue, defines his career.
“I’ve never been to Le Mans without working there, and since 1989, the only race I missed was in 1991. That was the Mazda-winning year with Johnny Herbert [the former British Grand Prix winner who teamed with Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot], and that was also the year I decided to catch chicken pox!
“Then in ’97, I think it was, Don Panoz was at the track and I met him for the first time. He’d started the American Le Mans Series in ’97, and was putting together the first-ever Petit Le Mans for 1998.” – The 24-hour race, using rules established by the ACO for Le Mans, is hosted at Road America in Georgia, USA, and remains an IMSA staple to this day – “A few months later, I get a phone call asking if I’d like to go and do the commentary. I thought it was a wind up at first! But I went, we put on a great show, and Radio Le Mans got picked up to do the full [American Le Mans Series] season for 1999. Only after I’d done America did I have my first lead commentary role at Le Mans when I got back in 1998.”
So, just how big an impact did ‘the lad from Sun’erland’ have on his new audience, both at Le Mans and in the USA? Or rather, how big an impact did his accent have?
“That’s a good question because, as a 15-year-old kid back in Sunderland in the North East of England who wanted to be on BBC radio, having an accent like mine just wasn’t acceptable. So the first thing I had to do was learn how to talk properly: ‘Hullo, my name is John Hei-nd-orf, and you are list-en-ing to the BBC. I think back to the audition tapes I sent out when I was in my early ‘20s, and I’m not sure I could listen to them now!
Back then, there was a prejudice, I ‘spose you could say, against regional accents in broadcasting, and particularly in motorsport. By the late ‘90s though, I’d given up trying to use the ‘BBC voice’ and starting talking much as I do now. So, from it being unacceptable, when I finally did get on the air, it became a point of difference. In fact, one of the reasons Don Panoz asked me to do Petit Le Mans was because I was the working class lad from Sunderland with a working class accent. So from being a complete and total block when I was younger, it became one of my biggest selling points.
“The excitement helps too! I remember Sebring one year, Emanuele Pirro – lovely bloke – made an outstanding overtaking manoeuvre into the hairpin at turn seven and went down the inside of about three people. I saw it in real time, leapt in the air, and said, ‘close the line, stop the press, don’t bother voting, THAT’s the best overtake of the year.’ Remember this was the first race of the season! Then, and I’ve no idea where this came from, I said something like, ‘he was decisive, he was incisive, THAT was like a thermic lance through a scone.’ A lot many people quote that one back to me. I’ve even seen t-shirts!”
Not that being play-by-play for Radio Le Mans has been without its troubles, of course. Many tend to forget that, together with wife Eve Hewitt – producer, social media manager, and deservedly lauded ‘responsible adult’ of the radiolemans.com team – John once used the money he’d earned selling his house to establish Radio Show Ltd, pay for a broadcasting licence AND take over both the running and commercial concerns of Radio Le Mans in its entirety in 2005 to stop the world’s most famous sports car radio program disappearing altogether. Again, because passion.
Other problems are more recurrent though. Popular as John Hindhaugh is, shooting from the hip during live broadcasts in sometimes disparaging fashion against some of sports car racing’s most beloved names, is always going to ruffle some feathers. Be it with drivers, team personnel, or the fans themselves. Hey, if even Murray Walker had his haters…
A pragmatic and experienced Hindy though knows that hot water is inevitable when it comes to motorsport broadcasting and its learned, passionate, and often times vocal fan base. It can be awkward. It can be brutal. It can even, as we found out at Le Mans in 2013, be downright tragic. Critically though, it’s necessary. It’s always professional.
“The beauty of what we do at Radio Show Ltd. is that we call the action the way we see it, and if we’re right, that’s great. If we’re wrong, we put our hand up and say, we’re really sorry. And that’s all you can do, because it’s live and it’s in the moment.
“The most famous one I got in trouble for was with Joe Bradley many years ago. We were commentating on a kart race in the North East of England, sitting on the top of a double decker bus – yes, we actually did that! – and some incident had happened on the track. We could see the father of a driver who’d been involved walking towards the clerk of the course with money in his hand, a fee, to make a protest, so we announced it over the PA system. About 10 minutes later, the clerk came up, asked us to turn the mics off, and absolutely ripped us apart: ‘How dare you say that, that’s not for you to say’, etc. Then Joe said something that has stayed with my forever, and has become part of radiolemans.com’s mission statement: ‘we’re just spectators with microphones.’
“That’s just a fantastic way of explaining what we do, and has stayed with me all these years. But that doesn’t mean we don’t respect the responsibility it gives us.
“I remember when Allan McNish had his big accident at Le Mans, when the car flipped over and ended up off the track [in 2011 at the Porsche Curves]. That affected me greatly because I genuinely thought I’d seen a friend of mine killed. I was commentating at the time, and all I could think of was talking to his wife, Kelly. So as Allan was getting out of the car – I can’t remember this – I said, ‘don’t worry Kelly, he’s out of the car, he’s fine.’
“This was two years before Allan Simonsen was killed at Le Mans.” – The Dane, driving a works Aston Martin Vantage GTE, lost his life at Tertre Rouge on the third lap – “I knew Allan, and we’d talked a lot, but when there’s a big accident, you don’t speculate. You’ve got to be professional. When we got the official word, I remember having to go back on the air – I didn’t want anyone else to do it – with a piece of paper from the ACO saying that Allan Simonsen had died. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but it was our responsibility to relay that message. At the end of the race, and again, I can’t remember this, I apparently said, “at this moment, we’re not Audi, we’re not Peugeot, we’re not Porsche, and we’re not Corvette. Today we’re all Aston Martin, and we’re all Danish.” That just came out, and that’s how I’ll always be in the booth.”
Knowledgeable. Passionate. Respectful. Don’t expect that to change for John Hindhaugh. Not should it. After all, that’s what made him a voice in endurance racing.
*John Hindhaugh was speaking with Jolijn Jongenelen and James Gent