A Perfect Voice For A Perfect Time
Countless tributes have been written about Barney Hall since the news of his passing was announced, and rightfully so. Hopefully there's room for at least one more. His death is a loss felt by countless NASCAR fans, those who were fans before the days when every race was televised. For most, his voice was the only connection to the sport they had for many years and what a voice it was.
Radio has been called the theater of the mind. Listening to live sporting events requires the fan to think. While television broadcasters explain to the fans what they're seeing and thus, often already know, the radio play by play man is the sole conductor of all information to the fan. Barney Hall was a superconductor. Men like Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck and Mel Allen became as important to baseball fans in the days of radio as the teams themselves. Theirs were voices that ebbed and flowed with the games and seasons, with their own nuances and cadences that fans not only became familiar with but came to rely on. Barney Hall and his voice did the same for NASCAR fans and like those previously mentioned broadcasters, he never forgot that he wasn't the show. His duty was to give sight to the blind.
The "ESPN-ization" of sports has hurt broadcasting. Too many announcers are focused on becoming and being the star attraction. They invent and overuse catch phrases and often talk to much. They try too hard to prove to their audience that they are the all-knowing experts for that sport. Perhaps it came from being a son of the Depression but Barney Hall never did that. Folks from his part of the country that were part of that generation were more focused on the task and hand and just getting the job done. The job Barney did was much more involved than the job of baseball announcers. He didn't have the luxury of lulls between pitches or innings. He was a maestro, knowing when to turn it over to a partner in the turns or on the backstretch and knowing when to take the lead himself and he did it all so seamlessly, yes so perfectly.
It's only fitting that Barney came from the same hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina that gave birth to the sport of stock car racing. His voice was southern, not hillbilly, backwoods southern but smooth and classy southern. It was a voice as warm and inviting as that of your favorite uncle. The more you listened, the more you wanted to listen. In the frenetic action of racing, it was calm and reassuring. While an announcer in turn two might excitedly and quickly describe an accident as it happened, Barney's voice was the one that soothed and restored order to the proceedings. You came to rely on it, to count on it being there for you.
Barney Hall was the one you listened for while your dad drove the family on a summer vacation and your mom slowly turned the radio dial. Once you heard him through those small, tinny-sounding speakers, it didn't matter how many more miles were left in the trip. He was the one talking in your ear through the earpiece from your transistor radio as you raced your bicycle and recreated with that bike and your vivid mind what he was describing to you. Since most races weren't on TV and people spent more time outside, it was Barney's voice which was the soundtrack of those Sunday afternoon cookouts with your family and friends.
When you went to college in the fall of '88 and decided to major in Communications, you planned for a career in radio broadcasting, hopefully in sports. While you did play by play for women's basketball and added color commentary for baseball, it wasn't Dick Vitale or Jon Miller you hoped to emulate but Barney Hall. You hoped you could be that soothing yet authoritative in your delivery.
The Daytona 500 has been televised since 1979. The date of Derrike Cope's 1990 win might not be easily recalled but his second win that season came at Dover on June 3. You remember that because you were leaving southeastern West Virginia driving across the turnpike. You had just left a girl you wondered if you should think about getting married to but now you weren't sure when you'd see her again. Somewhere near Beckley though, you found Barney's voice calling that race from Dover. By the time you made it to Huntington, he'd told you all about Cope's win. You weren't thinking of that girl anymore because you were thinking of all the Earnhardt fans who said Cope's Daytona win was a fluke. Well, he'd just done it again and Barney Hall had spent the afternoon telling you about it.
A year later, you were driving with another girl. She was your girlfriend at the time. Leaving Cincinnati, you knew they were racing at Talladega so you scanned the stations until you heard that voice, his voice. As soon as that girl realized you planned to listen to a race on the radio, she voiced her displeasure. Even as you tried to explain what was involved and how exciting Talladega races were, you knew in your heart you wouldn't be dating her long but that was OK. More importantly, Barney Hall was describing how Dale Earnhardt won the race in part because Davey Allison couldn't find any drafting help at the end. That's what mattered.
When you attended your first Cup race in person, it was there at Talladega in the spring of 1992. As you watched Davey win in front of the home crowd, you listened to Barney and the MRN crew through that goofy Winston radio headset that seemed so cool at the time. As years went by and you moved farther into adulthood, more and more races made their way to television but you still found the opportunity to find the action on the radio. You'd work in your barn or pretend to work just so you could still let that understated delivery of his offset your emotions as you got caught up in the action.
Now though, instead of just enjoying the particular race coming to you, you were now at a stage in life when Barney would tell stories of races and drivers you remembered from your childhood. Was he getting old or were you? You spend a lifetime gathering memories without even realizing it until those moments arrive when they're unleashed like the thistle seeds you made wishes on in your childhood. You smile to yourself when your wife gets in the car on Sunday morning and wants to know why the radio is turned up so loud when the signal isn't very strong. "Who listens to static" she asks. She doesn't understand that when you were driving alone the night before, that signal wasn't weak. Barney Hall was bringing you the action from Richmond as clearly as the old 50,000 watt AM stations used to deliver years ago.
Born the same year that the Motor Racing Network was created, you don't know a time when it and its "voice" weren't around. Nothing against the Performance Racing Network, but you never felt that same easy comfort you felt when Barney Hall was calling the races. When he announced his retirement in 2014, you were a bit saddened but you knew he was still around. His voice was still heard from time to time on introductions and voice overs. Then when you woke up on a Wednesday morning to the news he was gone, you began to feel old. Something and someone you knew you could count on for as long as you can remember is gone,gone quickly just like that. But would we really want a warning? Would we really want to know a part of our past is crumbling?
Then, as the day unfolds, you read and hear the tributes pour in. They come from officials, drivers, owners and fans. They come from every corner of the country and every corner of the sport. That's when you truly comprehend the magnitude of his talent. The man was able to make all those other people feel the same way he made you feel for all those years, welcomed, informed and content, as if you were the only one he was talking to on those countless Sunday afternoons. Then you realize what a small world we're a part of and it comforts you. So it's only fitting now that using the same words he would use in recognizing a great performance, that we, "give a nod to" Barney Hall.