Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on his or her career path. Up next: Johnny Gibson, the voice of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
What do your duties entail as part of your current job?
Basically, I am the series announcer. My job is to provide information and help the fans at the racetrack understand and enjoy what they’re seeing and to describe everything to the people watching and listening at home on DIRTVision.
How did this all start for you? Did you grow up as a race fan, did you grow up wanting to be an announcer?
Grew up as a race fan, never had any thoughts or really any real ideas of being an announcer. Started going to races very young in Pennsylvania with my dad, met people involved in racing just from being around as a fan. Met more people through the people I met originally, and one thing led to another and I started going to World of Outlaws races and helping them sell programs.
There was a gentleman named Bill Woodside who was selling the programs at all of the Outlaw races. I moved from Pennsylvania to Indianapolis in 1994 and started going to the Outlaw races to help Bill sell programs. I had met him through Kevin Eckert, who I had met as a race fan. Started walking through the stands (saying), “Hey, get your program here.” It was a way to get into the races for free, maybe make a couple of bucks.
I went to help him at a race at I-96 Speedway in Michigan on the Monday after the King’s Royal in 1995, so that would have been July, and Bill wasn’t there. And the Outlaw merchandise people said, “Hey, can you sell programs tonight? We haven’t heard from Bill, we don’t know what’s going on. Can you do the whole thing tonight?” Sure, I can do that.
By the end of the night, they said, “We still don’t know what’s going on with Bill. We race Wednesday in Memphis, Houston on Friday, and Devil’s Bowl Speedway on Saturday. Can you come and do those races for us?”
I really didn’t have anything pressing going on at the time. Let me back up just a second. At that point, I was a musician. I was playing in rock bands and working like a series of day jobs that were pretty much dispensable. If I had a gig come up and had to leave a day job and worry about the next one when I came back, that’s what I did.
What were you playing in the band?
I played drums. And actually at that time I wasn’t in a band. I had played in bands in Pennsylvania and moved to Indy with the idea of just a change in scenery and getting in a different band there. And while that was sort of in the process of happening, the Outlaw thing sort of happened.
So I decided to go to Memphis and Houston and Dallas to do those races and by the end of the night, that Friday at Houston, they said, “Bill has definitely resigned. Do you want to do the program gig from now on?” And so basically I’d be traveling with the World of Outlaws full-time selling programs. Thought about it for about a half a second and said, “Sure.”
So I did that for the remainder of ’95 and for all of the 1996 season. Back in ’95 and ’96, World of Outlaws was televised on TNN. So when I was done selling programs, I’d go work for the production company and maybe be a spotter for a cameraman or be a runner or whatever. That’s how I met Bobby Gerould, who was doing the pit reporting at the TNN races, and Bobby was doing a lot of PA announcing in California.
So in September of ’96, we raced at Kings Speedway in Hanford, California, and Bobby came up to me before the races. He was on the mic that night, and said, “When you’re done selling programs, come up to the booth. I’d like to do an interview with you about what it’s like being on the road with the World of Outlaws and seeing all the races.”
So I went up to the booth and talked to Bobby for a little bit. One of the things that Bobby had learned about me, just from being around me, is that I had taken notes on the races from the time I was a really little kid. I had just always done that as a way of keeping up with what happened and keeping a little bit of a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
So in the process of this interview, Bobby says, “You take notes on all these races, you know these guys, you know the sport — have you ever thought about being an announcer?” And I said, “Not really.” And Bobby hands me the microphone and says, “The first heat race is coming up. Give it a shot.”
Really? Just like that?
Just like that. I had never ever called a race, never done any announcing, nothing at all like that before. So I did the one heat race, and Carlton Reimers, who was still the series director for World of Outlaws, was at the race that night. He went back and talked to Ted Johnson, the founder and president of the Outlaws, and they decided to make me the announcer.
Ted called me into the office three weeks later and said, “We’re going to do something different next year” — which at the time I thought meant, “I guess I have to go get a real job.” Until he said, “You’re going to be our announcer.”
The Outlaws didn’t have a full-time announcer at that point, they just used the track announcers wherever they went. And a big part of the reason for me being hired full-time had nothing to do with my ability to call a race or anything like that, it was solely for the purpose for making sure the sponsor reads got done at every racetrack. They have a list of a series sponsors and all of their PA stuff, and sometimes the local announcer wouldn’t take care of the sponsors the way that the Outlaws wanted them to. And so my original reason for hiring was just to make sure all the sponsor stuff got taken care of.
It seems like you’re a total natural. Is it something that you have honed and perfected over that time?
Sure. I mean, it’s been 22 years now, so I’ve kind of developed as I’ve gone along. The biggest thing was when Ted told me that I was going to be the announcer starting next year, I spent a lot of time that winter watching the videos that Greg Stephens of Motorsport Video put together with the sound turned down and trying to call the race and trying to learn.
But looking back on it now, it is nearly unfathomable to me that a major series like the World of Outlaws took a chance on somebody who had never done any broadcasting or anything like that.
Again, it was kind of a gradual process where in that first year, there were some nights I did all the announcing, there were some nights where the local announcers still called the races and I just did the sponsor reads. It took a while to develop it to where it is now.
The other thing is for having no experience in that first year, I had gotten for what most local announcers be five or six years of experience because we were racing 100 nights. So I was on the mic 100 nights, where a local announcer might do 20 a year if they’re lucky. So I got a ton of experience right off the bat.
If there’s somebody out there who’s like, “Gosh, I would love to do that someday,” where would you recommend if people wanted to get started, doing some announcing?
Basically, I would say go talk to your local racetrack and see if they have an announcer, if they’re looking for someone else, if they know any other tracks that are. It might not be a bad idea, especially with the technology available today, to put together a bit of an audition tape, run a race video and record yourself calling the race over top of it. Just get your name known. Even if it’s not announcing yet, offer to come and volunteer at the track or work picking up trash or something like that. Be around. That’s what happened to me. I was in the right place at the right time.
I feel like you have such a natural voice, too — you have a booming announcer voice. Did you have that when you were selling programs as well?
Probably. I think that’s something that came from it, just being out there and being, “Hey, get your program here!” It’s not a whole lot of difference.
I even saw this video recently where Kyle Larson had Owen playing with his cars, and he’s imitating you. That’s got to feel kind of cool.
It is. It seems so surreal at time. This is just me and what I do, and it doesn’t really strike me that people recognize it. I don’t know. I don’t feel like I do anything special. I’m just the luckiest race fan in the world. I get to see the best sprint car drivers night after night and I get to talk about it.
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) July 15, 2018
What it is that you love so much about this where once you got in this role, you thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I’m sure there other things you could have done and I’m sure you’ve been approached by other people over the years. But it seems like you really love this.
It is. Other career paths may have been an option. I definitely have been contacted by other forms of motorsports. But this is where my passion is. This is what I love. I’m not a NASCAR person. I couldn’t tell you who the NASCAR champion last year was. I don’t really watch it. I understand people love it and that’s fine for them — I’ve been to NASCAR races, it just doesn’t thrill me like the sprint cars do.
I think if anything, what I bring to the announcing is my passion for sprint car racing, and I think if I tried to do anything else, that passion wouldn’t be there. And in the very worst care scenario, I’d be faking it. I don’t ever want to be accused of that.
Part of this genuine enthusiasm, as I mentioned, it’s not a World of Outlaws race if you’re not doing the famous four-wide salute phrasing. How long have you been saying that same catchphrase before these races?
I honestly don’t know. Again, it evolved over the first couple of years. I’d say probably by the end of the second or sometime during my third season is when I kind of started to coalesce what I do for the four wide, and then I’ve added little bits and pieces here and there. I will admit that the “often imitated, never duplicated” part of it came during 2006 when the NST was a rival sanctioning organization, so it was kind of a little dig at them.
You were trolling them!
Exactly! Before anybody knew what trolling really was. (Laughs)
My other question would be, because you are having to react so quickly to things that are in front of you, you’re having to see things with your brain, process them and then have it come out in an announcer way. Have you ever messed up really big?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, any announcer will, especially in a high-speed environment like this. I say this probably in more of a joking way than I should, but I probably have the only job where having a bit of ADD kind of helps because I do process things rather quickly, I talk quickly and this is just my normal way of talking. It’s not just the way I call races. If you talk to me on a Thursday afternoon away from the racetrack, I still probably talk like this.
But I just kind of have this ability to look at something, decide what I’m going to say about it while looking for the next thing that I’m going to talk about. And again, maybe it’s just the fact that I have grown up around sprint car racing and I’ve gotten used to watching races in a certain way.
Can you close by telling us something about your life? Because I think that your life on the road constantly, you don’t really get to go home much…
Actually, my home is now parked on the outside of Turn 2 here. I lived in Minneapolis for four years most recently and then decided to get a nice motorhome and live in the motorhome year round. The last apartment I had in Minneapolis, I was home 89 nights that year. So it didn’t really make sense.
I was in the process of moving, I was going to look for a different apartment, and I found a really cool place right in downtown Minneapolis, walking distance to the Target Center and all that kind of stuff. And I started to think about the money I was going to pay for it and the amount of time I would be there and I thought, “You know, for that kind of money, I can actually put that toward a really nice motorhome and be able to have home with me all the time.” And I wish I would have done it 20 years ago. I really enjoy that. That’s made it new and fresh for me again after 20 years of traveling up and down the road with a little variation, but for the most part seeing the same places and the same thing year after year.
And that’s why it’s really cool to go and do things with people who are maybe out on the road for the first time and see things through their eyes, they see something you’ve seen year after year and don’t really recognize anymore, but to somebody with fresh eyes they’re like, “Oh this is so cool!” Then you remember, “That is pretty cool. I just kind of take it for granted now.”
But as far as about my life, again, I am just the luckiest race fan in the world. I get to go to races and talk about it, and drive down the road and go do it again.