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Marc Urbano

JOHN HINDHAUGH stands at a large audio-mixing console, manipulating sliders like a deejay. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a panoramic view of Daytona International Speedway, where loud and loudly painted race cars snake around the track on their final pace laps. The Rolex 24 is about to start.

Alongside him in the cramped, stuffy IMSA Radio booth are play-by-play announcer Jonny Palmer and color commentator Jeremy Shaw. But Hindhaugh (pronounced HIND-hof) is the rock star of Radio Le Mans—not only the public face of the broadcast, but also the man whose soothing British burr, often deployed in a state of elevated excitability, is the voice of endurance racing for millions of fans around the world.

Hindhaugh is hyping the race with rhapsodic enthusiasm when his voice suddenly changes timbre. “There has been ! Left front of the 58 car is destroyed! Absolutely destroyed!” he says, climbing to Hindenburg-disaster levels of horror. “Into the pit lane and straight behind the wall. We haven’t even got to the green flag, and the drama has been ramped up to 11 coming down to the Bus Stop on the first formation lap.” He shakes his head. “Oh, my goodness! Who writes these scripts?”

Not Hindhaugh, obviously. Technically, he’s just a glorified fan with overdeveloped vocal cords and an oversized soapbox. As the centerpiece of the broadcast, he’s a lightning rod for criticism—over the top, won’t shut up, too opinionated. Yet for those reasons, Hindhaugh is often more entertaining than the action he’s describing. He is one of those rare announcers who have a following of their own, and there are listeners who tune in to hear him even when they might otherwise tune out the race.

“He is the heart and soul of Radio Le Mans,” says John Chambers, Hindhaugh’s former boss. “His knowledge of the sport is unsurpassed. He gets emotional about it. He got married at Le Mans, for f*ck’s sake. He’s like a comfortable pair of slippers. When you go to Le Mans, you listen to Hindhaugh.”

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Marc Urbano

NOBODY OUTSIDE THE RACING WORLD has any idea what Radio Le Mans is. In fact, to the general public, the concept seems laughable: flag-to-flag coverage of a 24-hour race? On the radio no less? But for diehards, Radio Le Mans is indispensable, and over the last 30 years, it’s grown from curiosity to cult to institution.

The very qualities that make endurance racing so fascinating–the driver changes, the pit-stop strategies, the assorted classes—also make it a bear to follow. Even today, when timing and scoring are generally available to the public in real time, and live blogging and Twitter updates are commonplace, it’s virtually impossible for even the best-informed and most proactive fans to keep track of the many variables that determine how a race plays out.

The opacity of the sport is magnified, ironically, at the racetrack, where spectators can see only a sliver of the circuit and much of the critical action takes place in the pits. Which is why so many racegoers wear earbuds and listen to Radio Le Mans via FM, satellite radio, the internet, or a racetrack scanner. It’s also why many television viewers turn off the sound from the video feed and focus on the words beamed by Hindhaugh and company.

Fans aren’t the station’s only obsessive followers. The best way for race teams to keep abreast of the competition and see the larger picture is to tune in to Radio Le Mans. “They know all the racers, and they do their homework,” says Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan. “I listen to them because they tell you what’s going on. Plus, Hindhaugh can make a tire change sound exciting.”

Although Radio Le Mans is synonymous with coverage of the world’s most prestigious 24-hour race, it’s only a small portion of the broadcast empire ruled by Hindhaugh and his wife, Eve Hewitt. Since creating Radio Show Limited (RSL) in 2005, they’ve expanded its scope to include most of the major endurance-racing series. This year, they will cover everything from Le Mans and the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring to the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and all of the IMSA support series, the FIA World Endurance Championship, and the European Le Mans Series. In most cases, RSL offers not only radio coverage but also audio for television and streaming video.

Hindbaugh and Hewitt are the co-owners of RSL. They operate three radio feeds from a studio in their home in the East Midlands and a satellite facility in London. At racetracks, they work with a changeable cast of broadcast professionals. Here at Daytona, a handful of guest commentators join Hindhaugh in the booth. There are also four vastly experienced and exceedingly nimble pit-lane reporters. But Hindhaugh is the engine that makes the broadcast go.

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Marc Urbano

Hindhaugh, 55, has an unruly shock of dark hair. Still, his most memorable feature is his mellifluous voice, a legacy of having been brought up in Sunderland, in North East England. Hindhaugh insists his accent was tempered by misguided efforts in younger years to earn a living in commercial radio.

When he wants to, he can do a perfect gloss on an anodyne BBC accent. But Americans can’t get enough of Hindhaugh’s singular patois, and many would happily listen to him recite a page from an instruction manual—an assignment Hindhaugh would likely undertake. “John can talk forever about nothing,” Shaw says.

Early in his career, Hindhaugh tried to rein himself in—his accent, his enthusiasm, his volubility. But the man race fans love—or loov, as it sounds when he says it—is Hindhaugh unchained. “It all became a damn sight easier for me when I started being myself,” he says. “Because, ultimately, if you are playing a part, you can’t keep it up. You’re going to trip yourself up eventually, whether that’s being unnecessarily enthusiastic or unnecessarily critical. What I do is pretty easy. I say what I see, and the emotion is real. It’s how I feel at that moment.”

Still, there’s undoubtedly skill to what he does. What sets Hindhaugh apart from his broadcast rivals is his ability to temper the emotional with the rational. “You learn to turn down some things from 11 or you sound like a ranting fool. And I’m putting up my hand here,” he says. “I know I’ve sounded like a ranting fool. But it’s not rocket science. If I find it interesting, the audience will find it interesting. Our job, whether it’s down in the pit lane or up here in the booth, is to ask the questions the fans would ask. [Pit-lane reporter] Joe Bradley said it best many years ago: We’re just spectators with microphones.”

Hindhaugh grew up with only one BBC television station in his house. Radio was king. “It would always be on,” he says. “It was my soundtrack growing up.” As a kid, he pretended to be a disc jockey, and he started working at a local hospital radio station as a teenager. When he was hired by Radio Le Mans in 1989, it wasn’t to call the race; it was to spin records to fill the downtime between race reports. He quickly proved himself indispensable, first on the marketing side and then as an announcer/producer/jack-of-all-trades. Before long, he emerged as the most distinctive and memorable voice of the broadcast.

By that time, Hindhaugh had cycled through several jobs—bank clerk, employment-office counselor, security guard, marketing consultant, children’s TV show host, government drudge, nightclub deejay. But he found his métier while working for Radio Le Mans. To begin with, he was a lifelong car guy with a serious jones for racing. More than that, though, he had an instinctual feel for the possibilities of radio, and he used the broadcasts like a painter filling a blank canvas.

“The pictures are better on radio,” he says. “They are! On TV, the pictures should be doing all the work, and so you should be adding to the pictures, not describing what you can see. On the radio, you can’t say, ‘Ooh! Look at that! I’ve never seen anything like that in my life before. Have you seen anything like that before, Jeremy?’ If you were listening to that without the pictures, you’d rightly say, ‘What are they talking about?’ Whereas, if I say, ‘Fernando Alonso has gone of. He’s rolled the car into a small ball down at Turn 5. I’m standing on my tiptoes to see it,’ people immediately have conjured up that image for themselves, and they don’t have to be sitting at a screen to see it. I love radio for that, and once I understood it, I found it quite easy.”

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Marc Urbano

DAYLIGHT HAS FADED.

Beneath the broadcast booth, Daytona shimmers with the brightly lit Ferris wheel pulsating in the infield. “This is the time of night when the race starts to come alive,” Hindhaugh says into his microphone.

In addition to being the principal voice of the broadcast, Hindhaugh is also its conductor. He generally decides who will speak when, based on reports from the pits, the TV crew providing the video feed, and Shaw, who maintains old-school handwritten lap charts. (Paul Truswell, who works with state-of-the-art statistics programs, isn’t here this weekend.) Hindhaugh mutes his mic and tells pit-lane reporter Andrew Marriott, “Stand by, Andrew.” Then, over the air, he says, “Andrew Marriott in the pit lane with Jordan Taylor, and then let’s go to [driver] Gunnar Jeannette with [pit-lane reporter] Shea Adam. Andrew, what do you have?”

Four hours later, Hindhaugh is still conning the show. “Welcome to coverage of the whole race, flag to flag, with zero interruptions on IMSA TV and the IMSA app on all three major operating systems,” he says. “Also on Sirius 13 and XM 202, and at RadioLeMans.com and IMSA.com. RS2 and IMSA Radio is your first choice for all IMSA content and the only broadcaster to have a full trackside crew for every round of the season. And what a start to the season this has been!”

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Marc Urbano

THE IDEA BEHIND Radio Le Mans seems today like both a no-brainer and totally absurd. It made sense only because, as Chambers, a longtime motorsport-magazine executive puts it, “Le Mans is a British race that happens to be in France.” A British Bentley won the second race, in 1924, and the so-called Bentley Boys became the first heroes of Le Mans. Jaguar and Aston Martin claimed six victories in the Fifties, Jaguar scored wins in 1988 and 1990, and Bentley won in 2003. It’s estimated that 80,000 of the nearly 300,000 fans who attend Le Mans annually come from the U.K. And after midnight there, it seems like three-quarters of the spectators lurching along pedestrian pathways are draped in Union Jacks.

Despite the massive British presence at Le Mans, the French organizers traditionally didn’t make much of an effort to accommodate fans from across the channel. Once an hour, a brief English-language update was broadcast over the public-address system, but if a gaggle of cars happened to be roaring past the speaker at the appointed time, too bad. So, in 1986, British car maven Michael Scott—who ran the Club Soixante-Douze du Mans, which led an annual pilgrimage to France and hosted epic bacchanals at the circuit—decided to take advantage of the recent relaxation of radio regulations and broadcast the race to the U.K. “I bought an old Koni shock-absorber mobile-service wagon and transformed it into a studio,” he recalls.

The first year, celebrated British announcer Bob Constanduros provided commentary alone. Yep, he was the entire crew, giving updates between musical interludes, rather than flag-to-flag coverage. The next year, sports-car racing enthusiast Harry Turner, whom Hindhaugh calls “the father of Radio Le Mans,” lined up sponsorship from the Silk Cut Jaguar team. Broadcasts were rudimentary, but the panache of the Jags and the success of Tom Walkinshaw Racing dramatically raised the profile of Le Mans in the U.K., and Radio Le Mans graduated from bit-player status. Haymarket Media Group, which had been giving the broadcast advertising space in Autosport, then took the reins and negotiated licensing fees with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which runs Le Mans.

Truswell, famed for his detailed statistical analysis (and for remaining at his microphone for 24 consecutive hours), joined the team in 1988. Hindhaugh arrived the following year. By the mid-2000s, tuning in to Radio Le Mans was a rite of passage for any serious fan of endurance racing.

Then the wheels almost came off.

After the 2005 race, Haymarket and the ACO couldn’t come to terms on a new contract. By then, Hindhaugh was overseeing the broadcast for Haymarket while moonlighting doing radio commentary for the American Le Mans Series. But he understood that his reputation was inextricably tied to Radio Le Mans. So he found a financial backer to underwrite the project. At the last second—“pretty much the eleventh hour and 59th minute,” he says—the funding fell out.

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Marc Urbano

“It just so happened that I’d sold my house,” he says. “Everybody thought I’d buy some kind of race car with the money. I said, ‘No, no, that’s my pension. I’ve got to put that away.’ But when our backer pulled out, I sat down with Eve and said, ‘If we don’t do this, and Radio Le Mans doesn’t run next year, we’ll never get it restarted.’ To her credit, she said, ‘Be damned for something you’ve done, not for something you haven’t done.’ So I put every bit of money that I had saved up on the line. I went to Paris just before Christmas in 2005, had a very nice lunch with the ACO, and did a deal that handed over all the proceeds of my house to them. The invoice came in between Christmas and the new year, to be paid by the end of January.” With no sponsors and no commercial partners, he called up David Ingram of Audi UK, with whom he’d had a commercial relationship, and told him the situation. “He said, basically, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”

Hindhaugh and Hewitt—whose background is in marketing and event planning—immediately ditched traditional 30-second advertisements in favor of branded content. To this day, sponsorship pays much of the freight. Thus, at Daytona, there are reports from the Continental Tire pit lane, and the race is preceded by the “Michelin Countdown to Green.” During the race, PR handlers squire corporate executives across the track to the broadcast booth for on-air interviews that straddle the line between editorial and advertising.

It’s a reminder that nothing in life is truly free, even on the internet. These commercial tie-ins provide Radio Show Limited with funding to hire unusually savvy pros. Shaw is the former editorial director of On Track magazine. Marriott’s been a fixture in the paddock for the past half century. Bradley is an ex-race-team manager. Adam’s mother was a news anchor, and her father is long-time racing driver Bill Adam.

The crew has been around for so long that the race teams treat them more like family than media. In the middle of the night, for example, after Harry Tincknell finishes his turn in the Mazda DPi car and does a lightning debrief, he immediately consents to a live interview with Diana Binks—whose career includes a stint in Formula 1—before toweling off, getting a drink, or talking to a patiently waiting print reporter. “Beautiful, people, beautiful,” Hindhaugh murmurs of-line back in the booth, complimenting Binks on the good get.

Although Hindhaugh is an old-school radio geek at heart, RSL’s success is predicated largely on digital innovation. Far more listeners find the broadcasts streaming online than over the airwaves. “The whole internet thing came about because we needed to find a way to get to a bigger audience,” he says. In 1996, he orchestrated a “very quick and dirty” online broadcast with the help of s in London. Some 750,000 people tuned in, he says. “This was back in ’96! All of a sudden, everybody realized that we had something to develop.”

The internet exponentially extended Hindhaugh’s reach. The Le Mans broadcast alone drew millions of visitors to the website last year and reached 182 territories. Altogether, RSL produced more than 3000 hours of live programming in 2017, including a weekly podcast. All free to consumers, by the way. “There’s a democracy to radio,” Hindhaugh says. “We put it out there in the ether, and anybody who has the requisite equipment can listen in. We’re like the British National Health Service—free at the point of use.”

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Marc Urbano

WHAT HINDHAUGH LOVES about endurance racing, he says, is that “there’s a soap opera behind every garage door.” This year’s Daytona 24 unspooled without many surprises; the winning Cadillac prototype led for the last nine hours, and there were no final-lap fireworks in either of the other classes. Even as the grueling race concluded, Hindhaugh’s own work carried on. He and Hewitt had to catch a fight to Australia to broadcast the Bathurst 12-hour race the following weekend.

“In 2016, I did 56 long-haul segments—over five hours apiece. And I don’t like flying!” Hindhaugh says. “But once I get to the track, it doesn’t matter. If it has wheels, and they keep score, I’m interested. It’s dead easy for me to keep the enthusiasm going.”

And that, perhaps, is Hindhaugh’s most endearing attribute—that he still manages to get amped up for each event, no matter how small or far-flung, after all these years of following the same circus through the same towns. In fact, he seems genuinely surprised that anybody would question his passion for working some 40 race weekends a year.

“I’m a petrolhead from Sunderland,” he says, “and the guys that I work with and the work we do are integral to some of the biggest motorsports events in the world. I’ve done things and been places that people would give important parts of their anatomy without any form of anesthesia to do. What’s not to like?”

He can’t think of anything. And so, for one brief moment, John Hindhaugh is speechless.

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