I never ran across the track to hop in a race car at Le Mans.…
You may not recognize his name or his face at first glance, but if you’re an addict of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you surely know his voice. John Hindhaugh has spent more than 30 years behind the mic of some of the world’s greatest racing events, and in that time he’s branched out as one of the early adopters of virtual racing and the growth of organized competition behind it.
If cars are his first love, the art of radio broadcast is surely his second, as his career has spanned the gap from local hospital jazz hours to becoming one of the leading analysts in motorsports journalism. Behind that suave North English accent is a caretaker of the sport, one that’s determined to propel the sometimes anachronistic racing industry into the modern world. Hindhaugh offers a perspective forged under every facet in racing, whether it’s a pack of radio-controlled buggies bombing down an indoor track at 70 mph or a fleet of prototype aero warriors burying their tachometers in top gear roaring down the Mulsanne Straight.
How did the “Voice of Le Mans” get started in commentary?
In the late ’60s through the ’70s, there wasn’t a lot of motorsport television in the U.K. So what coverage there tended to be was on radio, some of it was live but not very much. But I do remember this thing on the BBC, on a Sunday afternoon and hearing the report from the Grand Prix Monaco and things like that. By the mid- to late ’70s, I knew a little bit more about Le Mans because of the movie, Le Mans, which I saw in a school movie club.
I left school at 16, while many of my friends stayed on to do further education and go to college or university. I went to work at a bank and had free time on my hands, so I went to volunteer at the hospital radio station. When I talked to the guy, Graham Anderson, he sat me down in front of a microphone and asked, “Can you read that?” And when the red light came on, I read what was effectively the news and the continuity announcement, which I thought was some kind of voice test or audition. And in fact, he put me live on the radio!
That’s basically how I started doing it. So, I was presenting music shows and magazine shows, I was going around the hospital, talking to the patients and getting their vinyl-record requests and things like it. So I fell into it that way and later found out that I had an ability to find sponsorship early on. We started doing outside broadcasts, and we had to do all of our own fundraising. I learned I have an aptitude for that [fundraising]. So literally at age 16, I fell into it and I stayed there for a while before I went to work for a local independent commercial radio station
For a radio commentator, what’s a unique problem that you have that other hosts don’t on a different medium, say TV?
There are things that you do on the TV when you’ve got pictures to fall back. You have to be more descriptive on the radio. The other thing I learned is that radio is far more dynamic and direct in some respect—it’s a terribly personal thing. And in my later life, I’ve found that commentating solely for TV is very different from commentating for radio. Although you can [syndicate] radio commentary [to other media] you can’t multi-task TV commentary into just audio-only. It just doesn’t make any sense. And so in some way I’m really pleased that I’ve got the radio grounding before I’ve gone on to visuals.
When we do motorsports commentary on radio, you are taking the audience part of the way on the journey. They have to use their imagination to actually create the picture. So no two people who listen to any of our commentary see things exactly the same, even if they know the tracks, even if they understand that the 911 Porsche that I’m talking about is driving down the Mulsanne Straight toward the second of the chicanes. Not everybody will see that in their mind’s eye in exactly the same way, which makes it intensely personal and of course it’s coming directly into your ears, without a filter.
From hospital to commercial DJ, you then took a turn for Radio Le Mans in 1989, correct?
The reason that I got involved was because while I was at Metro Radio running the sales, promotion, and marketing department, I got a phone call from a chap who wanted to come and talk to me about doing a promotion in New Castle. We had a good reputation at that time for what we did with our DJ presenters and our promoters.
I get a phone call from this guy, called Antony Landon, and he asked me if I’d like to meet him. I went to New Castle and had lunch, and he arrived wearing a Silk Cut—who were Jaguar sponsors in the Group C era—Radio Le Mans jacket and I said, “So I’ve just been reading about that in Motoring News,” which was a weekly motoring newspaper. He says, “Yeah, yeah, my company, Studio 6, we do that.” I said, “Oh really, that’s fantastic. Listen, whatever else happens, if you ever need anybody, I’ve got a big record collection, I’m happy to bring them down, I’ll sit and play records for you, whatever you need me to.” He said, “Alright, I’ll bear it in mind,” and we shook hands, that was in the summer. Never heard a word from him, until following May when he called me up and said, “So, do you still want to go to Le Mans?” That was 1989, I had less than a month’s notice and drove down there. I slept on the floor of the studio the first two years.
How did Radio Le Mans get its start?
Still, by far, the biggest single group [at Le Mans] in terms of nationality would have the Brits and particularly the English. And the drive down there, long before the channel tunnel and the advent of cheap European air flight, in your classic car or whatever you could get your hands on was a part of the enjoyment and the challenge of the event as a spectator. And you pitched a tent, drank the strange French beer, and ate the strange French food—and apparently there was a motor race going! Probably a goodly proportion of the Brits out there would have neither known nor cared who had won the race until they got back to read Autosport or the Motoring News the next week because there was no English-language commentary on the P.A. It was an event and it was fun, but the racing was almost incidental.
It became obvious in the late ’80s and the early ’90s that in order to maintain interest from Brits, it would make sense to give them an opportunity to follow along with what was going on. It might even expand the amount of Brits who would go, and that’s how Radio Le Mans was born. So it didn’t suffer the slight malaise that hit sports-radio broadcasting because it wasn’t available to anybody outside of the track. It performed for a specific and unique niche for English-language speakers who didn’t understand what was being said on the French P.A. system.
And so the service became established as part of that event as much as the German Baker in the village was at that time; as much as the French pancakes, the crepe stores—that sold fantastic Grand Marnier and cream crepes—all of that, it became part of the mythology and part of the event. So in some ways, it was in a better position to start the revolution, and it did start the revolution, of Internet broadcasting
You’ve played a large role in professional eSports as organized events have come together, but when did you first pick up a virtual racing wheel?
The first game I remember really getting into, like buying a steering wheel and pedals for, was Sports Car GT. The biggest coincidence was in the sound-effects part of the game. The commentator, whom they sampled in the background, was a gentleman who became a great friend of mine—and I use “gentleman” in every sense of the word—Jim Martyn. He was the first person I worked with in the States, at the 1998 Petit Le Mans. From the very moment I started working with him, it was as if I had known him all my life! It took me until halfway through the next season to realize that he was the voice I had been listening to on Sports Car GT!
We competed in leagues, but back then, there was no online racing. So what you did was you did whatever the race was for that week, the race would last like three hours, and you then sent your game file at the end of that, and then two or three days after it, they came up with a set of results and points.
There are people who argue that virtual racing and other forms of eSports aren’t legitimate forms of racing and competition. What do you think of that notion?
The matter of which we abide at Radio Show Limited is a simple one. We commentate for the most part on endurance racing, but we do sprint races as well. We also commentate remote-control scale-model racing, right up to the world championships. Another on our team is one of the foremost producers of R/C racing TV content and streaming in the world, and he does all the big European and world championship events. And our mantra as I say is simple: the platform, the skill, whether in the real world or virtual isn’t any different.
Because the car could be full-size, they could be 1/12th scale; they might be internal-combustion engines, they might be electric; they might be real-world races or they might be virtual, and so might the tracks. But what is always real, very real, is the skill, the talent, the dedication—and more important—the competition. The competition is always real and everything else that goes into it. If you’re going to be good at something, the amount of time that you put in, particularly in motorsport, where the hand coordination you have to have, the skill that you have to have sitting in Argentina when the guy that you’re racing is sitting in Australia, and the server is in Boston, and you’re racing millimeters apart at 180 mph hour down the Döttinger Höhe at the Nürburgring Nordschleife… The skill that you have for that, along with the time and dedication that you have to put in, that’s all real. So it’s the essence of the competition. It’s real racing! And to cover it any other way than how we do our “day job” with Radio Le Mans would show a lack of respect for those people involved.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put eRacing in the spotlight, will real-life racing take note?
It’s no secret that NASCAR in the real world has been concerned about its demographic and how much older it’s gotten, and how there’s no one coming in at the bottom. On the network shows in the U.S. of NASCAR eSports, they are increasing the 16 to 34 demographic to the point where it’s bigger than it was in the real racing. Both in real terms and percentage terms, NASCAR is doing better with an eRacing on network TV than it is doing with its own product. That has got to be a siren call for the series, that it can reach an audience that currently it isn’t reaching, for whatever reason. Here is an opportunity for Formula 1, for IMSA, for IndyCar—for any of the international and regional series to reach a new audience who currently they’re not reaching. And that alone should be enough for them—and their partners, let’s not forget—to ensure at the end of this that we keep some of this momentum that eSports has got going and use it as a stepping stone in the same way that going to the junkyard or going to Saturday night short-track racing used to be.
We’ve got to accept that the world is changing, and I think that is the opportunity for it. It’s a two-way street here and I think it’s gotta be seized, it has to be saved. Otherwise, we will have missed a phenomenal opportunity.