By TOM HIGGINS
There should be a requirement made of every corportate executive, screen star or other VIP selected to give the command to start engines at major NASCAR races:
Prior to undertaking the duty, they would have to listen to a tape of the late Ray Melton performing that chore. And then they'd be asked to emulate it as closely as possible.
No one, before or since, has said, shouted or sing-songed "Gentlemen, start your engines" with the flair and gusto that Ray Melton did from the 1950s into the 1980s.
With great exaggeration, Ray, a gravel-voiced former Marine sergeant, prolonged every syllable of "gentlemen" and "engines." Heck, he even turned "start" and "your" into multi-syllable words.
Even now, almost three decades later, I can still hear him at the tracks where he manned the microphone of the public address system: "Gennnnnnn-tulllllll-mennnnnn, star-ttttttt, yo-uuuuuur ennnnnnn-ginesssssss!"
Melton comes to mind this week because the Nextel Cup teams are at Richmond Raceway, among the tracks where this colorful character "performed" earliest and endured the longest.
NASCAR is rich in history, and some of that lore's most amusing tales involve Ray Melton, a native of Virginia's Tidewater and a man with a deep drawl that seems particular to that area.
My favorite of these anecdotes:
Ray was a friend of NASCAR founder-leader Bill France, Sr., and as such was the PA announcer at Daytona International Speedway, which France opened in 1959.
One season in the 1960s the speedway was using International Scout trucks as utility vehicles. France wanted to give the trucks some special publicity during the Firecracker 400 week so he phoned the PA booth with an order to Melton. "Plug the International Scouts," Ray was told.
Melton yammered on and on with no mention of the Scouts. France phoned again. Still no mention.
Finally, an exasperated France sent a high-ranking aide to the PA station above the track with an explicit message: "Mr. France says to plug the International Scouts or else you're fired!"
With stentorian voice, Ray grandly proclaimed, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have with us today a group of International Scouts! Stand up boys so we can give you a hand!"
The faux pas was so humorous that Big Bill France led it slide.
Melton had a passel of favorite sayings--some of them quite corny--that he regularly intoned over PA systems at Bristol, Darlington, Richmond, Rockingham and many other tracks. One of his staples: "And here David Pearson (or whatever driver was on the track at the time) comes off the fourth turn, flat out and belly to the ground like the true champion that he is!"
Ray was proudest, though, of his distinctive version of "Gentlemen, start your engines!" For many years, most tracks simply had the PA announcer give the order before bestowing the honor on VIPs.
Once at Richmond the drivers flipped their ignition switches before Ray could give the command. Through the roar of the engines he could be heard shouting, "Cut them off! Cut them off! I haven't said it yet!"
Ray remained angered about his missed cue throughout the race. After the race was over he keyed his microphone and apologized that his command to start the show couldn't be heard. "For all of you who came to the track today just to hear my words, here goes again," he said. "Gennnnnnn-tulllllll-mennnnnnn, star-ttttttt yo-uuuuuur ennnnnnn-ginesssssss!"
As Melton's career and life were winding down, he wrote a letter to the president of the National Motorsports Press Association, ostensibly to extol the reasons that an announcing associate should be inducted into the group's Stock Car Racing Hall Of Fame at Darlington. "Modesty," read the last sentence, "prevents the writer from listing his own qualifications."
Ray Melton was a good guy and a fine man, but modesty wasn't one of his characteristics. Why, the cars he drove usually had "NASCAR's Chief Announcer" emblazoned on the sides.
Ray hasn't yet made it into the NMPA hall of fame. However, if a category ever is created for NASCAR's colorful characters, he should be among the first inductees.
September 6, 2005 in Sports | Permalink
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Tracked on May 1, 2006 11:40:23 AM
My Ray Melton memories of him calling the qualifing
"and he touches the wall - ever so gently -" the car would be wrecked.
> The old Richmond fairgrounds mid seventies he would start before the
> first person came thru the gates pushing some denture clinic that gave
> him a set of teeth. The big speakers hanging all down the front stretch
> fence seemed excessively loud on hurting heads that were trying to get
> the ice and snow off race cars and tool boxes, pit road was our garage.
Thanks for the memories Tom....and Ray.
Posted by: Mike | Sep 7, 2005 9:38:48 AM
You wouldn't have a sound bite of that would you? It would be a great windows startup. And it would be a Great addition to the HOF wherever it goes.
Posted by: Keith | Sep 7, 2005 10:40:30 AM
What great insight Tom! And I do hope someday he gets his wish to be inducted, what he did was probably much closer to the true meaning of journalism than most of the scripted TV talking heads we get these days.
Posted by: Allison | Sep 7, 2005 4:37:21 PM
Tom you need to put this stuff in a book sorry we missed you this last time in town
Posted by: mickey | Sep 7, 2005 6:46:22 PM
I went to the North Carolina Motor Speedway many times in the late 60's and 70's. Section B, Row 4, seats 24 and 25. One of the highlights of those Carolina and American 500's was Mr. Melton. He did it like no one else! "through the deep part of the fourth turn Richard Petty wheels the STP special!"...and before the start..."race fans, get on your feet and stomp your feet..and send them on their way!"
Posted by: Ken | Sep 13, 2005 8:56:53 AM
Great article Tom. I remember one of his opening remarks that went something like this: "From the teeming tunnels of our nation's freeways to the country crossroads and stands comes the drivers of NASCAR's elite Grand National Division." I would love to find a sound clip of that intro as well as the start command. Keep the good stuff coming. A lot of us oldtimers love to hear these stories again and again.
Posted by: Dennis | Sep 18, 2005 7:16:57 AM
Not on this subject, but I have grown up loving Nascar races, but the last race I will attend is the 2005 UAW in Charlotte, due to Bill France and Nascars discriminating ways. They have forbidden the confederate flag to be flown at tracks in the south, and now those tracks are banning the flying of one even in the parking lot and camp areas. Glad to know that the NAACP and Bill France's Nascar is trying to change history by wishing the flag would become extinct. Truth is our fore fathers here in the South wanted to break away because all the revenue coming into the Federal Gov. was being used for improvements in the North because they had the greatest and most dense population. Well once again thanks Bill France! Hope Lil Pistol grip and Tone Loc have fun at the races. Nascar...let's get gangsta!! lol
Posted by: Derrick | Oct 17, 2005 9:32:36 AM
MET RAY MELTON AT THE DOG TRACK SPEEDWAY,MOYOCK.THE ANNOUNCERS BOOTH WAS NAMED "THE CROWS NEST" IT WAS ABOVE THE GRANDSTAND.I HELPED HIM IN THE CROWS NEST EACH RACE UNTIL THEY STOPPED IN 1966.I REMEMBER THE WHITE TROUSERS,I WAS A TEENAGER AND MADE MY MOM BUY ME A PAIR, SO I COULD BE LIKE HIM.OTHER MEMBERS IN THE CROWS NEST ESCAPE ME,BUT THE MEMORIES ARE VIVID AND GREAT.MISS YOU,YOUR FRIEND, JIM
Posted by: JIM HALL | Mar 15, 2006 2:51:18 PM