MOUNT VERNON — In 1960, Neil Marshall came to Pacemakers Dragway Park as a teenager who wanted to race cars.
Today, Marshall is still at the historic track as the longtime, “Voice of Pacemakers.” As Marshall celebrates his 50th anniversary at Pacemakers, he reminisces about the many changes he has seen from the window of his vantage point on the upper floor of Gunner Tower.
“All of the changes that have occurred to the track over the last 50 years, from the width and the length to the guardrails, to the speeds they are running now,” said Marshall. “The performance of the cars has changed. We went from running classes all the time to ET brackets, which facilitates a more competitive situation. It’s not quite as expensive to run an ET bracket car as it is to build a car specifically for a class and have to run that class.”
ET (elapsed time) bracket racing leveled the playing field and provided a handicapping system that allowed different classes of cars to race head-to-head on the same track.
“The ET bracket seems to be a better way to go and pretty much, that’s what NHRA does,” said Marshall.
It was one of Marshall’s first jobs at the Pacemakers which helped lay the path that took him to the announcer’s chair at the historic quarter-mile by 1966.
“When I first got here, I remember that, when they needed you to fill a spot, that’s where they would put you,” recalled Marshall. “When I was 16 years old, the first thing that I worked on was classifying the cars. Each car had to go into a class. Each car had to be classified and then they were allowed to come in for the time trials. Now, you’re in the class already. You know what class you’re going to run today. It was more complicated years ago. I knew the type of carburetor that was on the car, the type of engine, the suspension, so that was a good lead into announcing.”
It has been a long road for Marshall, who can recall that Pacemakers still used flagmen at the finish line when he arrived on the scene.
“With the announcing, over the years, I learned different things,” said Marshall, who has been a member of the NHRA Announcer’s Guild for about the last 15 years and shares information with other track announcers. “I go to (NHRA) meetings a few times a year and that is a big help to anybody who is an announcer. After you’ve been doing this for a time, you just know what to say. It’s repetition. You pick it up as you go. You listen to other announcers talk and you get it down.”
Marshall is more than a voice. He can be a vital link in the safety chain that keeps drivers and spectators safe. He is particularly good at spotting cars that are in distress on the far end of the track. He is quick to get officials to stop the action and attend to getting the end of the track cleared for the next race.
“The announcer controls a lot of things,” said Marshall. “He doesn’t have a say over what is going on, but once you know the system and the sequence of events, that helps. Usually, I can spot something going on down beyond the finish line and I can let everyone know. You can see things if you watch the cars going down past the finish line, but you have to be prepared to go back from that to announce the next race.”
It was in Marshall’s own living room that one of Pacemaker’s biggest innovations was incorporated — the starting lights or the so called “Christmas tree.”
“It was set up in my living room,” said Marshall. “All the lights. Then, we had to figure out — the whole group of us — how to wire in the old clocks we had. We couldn’t afford to buy new clocks. We figured out a way to wire them and we utilized the old tube speed clock as a second ET clock. The way that worked was, the numbers would stop. The old tube clock would stop on the left side and the ET clock would stop on the other side and we had to wire all that in. So, that was a project that lasted the winter time.”
Of course, the best innovations always have to do with safety.
“I must say, over the years I have been here, there have been very, very few accidents,” Marshall said proudly. “Even the worst accidents only involved a few broken bones.”
With the advent of the 21st Century, Marshall has gained a computer monitor and a partner in the announcer’s booth. Pacemaker’s computer specialist, Cristina Hubbell, continually feeds Marshall information that he can interpret for the fans and drivers. This has done much to enhance Marshall’s enjoyment of his job.
“In the morning, before the racing starts, she enters all of the cars into the system,” said Marshall, whose long day of Saturday racing can stretch past midnight. “She dials in all the cars. She handles all of this — the computers the screen the printers — she’s irreplaceable.”
So, after 50 years, does the passion for racing ever grow dim?
“I started in it when I was 16-years-old and I have done it all these years,” said Marshall, who worked out of town for 12 years and was not involved with the track. “As soon as I got back into town, I got back into racing again. It never gets out of your blood. Once you start racing, you’ll be racing. If you go away, you will come back. A lot of former racers say, ‘I just wont go to the track because, I know if I go, I’ll get the itch.’ You never lose the desire to get out there and do it.”