Tales Of Ray Melton, NASCAR’s First, And Zaniest, PA Announcer
There should be a requirement made of every corporate 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, Melton, 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, three decades later, I can still hear him at the tracks where he manned the microphone of the public address systems: "Gennnnnnn-tulllllll-mennnnnn, star-ttttttt, yo-uuuuuur ennnnnnn-ginessssssss!"
Melton comes to mind this week because the Sprint Cup teams are at Daytona International Speedway, beginning a new season this weekend with preliminary events leading to the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
He is among the cast of racing’s colorful cast of special characters that I fondly remember annually at this time of year.
NASCAR is rich in history, and some of that lore's most amusing tales involve 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:
Melton 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 so he phoned the PA booth with an order to Melton: "Plug the International Scouts.”
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 in addition to Daytona.
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!"
Melton 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 Melton 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!"
Melton 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."
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 Melton hasn't yet made it into the NMPA hall of fame. However, if a category ever is created for NASCAR's zaniest, he should be among the first inductees.