Let Passion Lead You

by Rachel Stern

If you want to get technical about it, Dave Calabro graduated from Butler University in 1985… and-a-half.

It was the spring of 1985, and Calabro, a senior radio and television major, needed to pass math. But, it was the spring. More specifically, it was May. May in Indianapolis. Which means Calabro—who grew up an approximate 2.3-mile bike ride away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who knew that if he crawled through the creek he would wind up in Turn 2, who knew where to jump the fence in 1977 when A.J. Foyt won so he could catch a glimpse of him on Victory Lane—had other things on his mind.

The race was about a week away. It was also finals week at Butler. Math stood in Calabro’s way of graduating. Then he got the call.

“Can you fill in?” Calabro says, recalling being asked to work at IMS during that 1985 spring. “I was actually being asked to work at IMS during race week. I basically grew up at the track. Some people have baseball, we had the track, this is home for me. It was my sandbox. Sure, I needed to pass math, but I figured I would just take the test later.”

Calabro did take the test later. He got an empty diploma at commencement, took math in the summer, and as he says, “the rest is history.” Thirty-three Indy 500s later, it looks like it wasn’t a bad choice. Calabro is now the official voice of the race, serving as the track’s Public Address Announcer. He has only missed five days at IMS since that 1985 spring—his wife’s grandfather died, his mom had heart surgery, there was another death in the family, and his son graduated from college. Decent excuses.

But, it is not that his education and a degree were not important to him, Calabro insists. And it is true. His mother got her master’s degree from Butler. His brother, Kevin Calabro, graduated from Butler and is now a sports broadcaster for ESPN. He comes from a family of, “900 educators and two sports broadcasters,” he jokes.

But one thing Butler taught him, he says, and he lives by to this day, is to follow your passion. It just so happened, on that week in 1985, passion conflicted with his math final. And, passion won.

“I’m a firm believer in going with your heart and your passions and letting those lead you,” Calabro says. “You never know when opportunity will come, and if it presents itself, that one chance, that could be it. That could be your chance to make it happen for yourself, so you have to take advantage of it. That’s what I was doing and what I continue to do and believe in. Always let passion lead you.”

Danica Patrick and Dave CalabroIt’s about 8:45 AM on Tuesday morning and Calabro is gearing up to interview Danica Patrick. For some reporters, this might be a nerve-wracking experience. He’s about to ride shotgun in the pace car around the track, as Patrick drives about 110 miles per hour, reflecting on her career before her last Indianapolis 500. But, Calabro seems as relaxed as ever. He greets Patrick with an enthusiastic, “Gooooood morning!!” as he gets mic’ed up. He hops in the car and proceeds to reminisce with Patrick. He’ll ask her about her first race at IMS, about how she feels just weeks before her last race, and about boyfriend Aaron Rodgers (even though he doesn’t want to, he says, he knows his viewers are curious).  

Dave Calabro fell in love with racecar driving while sitting in his elementary school classroom.

He grew up about a mile-and-a-half from IMS on Indianapolis’ West Side, and would hear the roar of the cars during spring testing.

“I always wanted to know what that noise was,” Calabro says. “It was like a magnet. Where I’m from, racing is just in your blood.”

His first official trip to the track came when his first-grade class took a field trip to see the Hall of Fame Museum. Calabro remembers walking out of the backside of the oval and catching a glimpse of Art Pollard whiz by. He was instantly hooked.

Calabro attended his first Indy 500 with his mom, dad, and two brothers in 1969. He was seven. They sat at Turn 4.

“They were lousy seats, but were great to me. I was so excited to be there,” he says. “I remember everything about that day. Mario Andretti won and I just remember feeling like my eyes were going to pop out of my head. The day was magical. There are so many things I love about the Indy 500, but one is the tradition and routine.”

Calabro and his other brother, Kevin, the broadcaster for ESPN, were always into sports and would provide running commentary to their backyard bicycle races. They would beg their parents to drive home from vacation at night so they could que up sports radio. Calabro’s father was a “yellow shirt” at the track, or track Safety Patrol.

When Calabro went on to high school he convinced the public relations staff at IMS to allow him to get a radio line so he could broadcast for his high school radio station. He set his sights on Butler because he was enamored with radio and sports, he says. His brother was already at Butler and he knew the size would work well for him.

“The personal approach to teaching and knowing that I would have the opportunity to really follow my passion of broadcast in a smaller setting attracted me,” he says.

While at Butler, Calabro had to take acting classes and voice lessons. At the time, he says, he didn’t understand why, but it helps him so much now. He knows how to properly use his voice. That certainly helps, considering that in addition to serving as PA Announcer at IMS, he is the Sports Director at WTHR-Ch. 13. So, essentially, he has two full time jobs that require him to speak constantly, and if he loses it, he is not too useful, he says.

After graduating from Butler, Calabro started his career in television news in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He then went to Dayton, Ohio and covered news and sports there. All the while, he continued to travel back to Indianapolis in May to work at IMS. Then, in 1992, he started working at Ch. 13 covering sports full time. Since then, he has covered eight Olympics, Pacers playoff runs, Colts Super Bowls, and in the last year alone has been to Los Angeles, West Virginia, Chicago, New Orleans, Florida, North Carolina, to name a few.

His favorite event to cover? That’s easy.

“There is nothing like the Indianapolis 500,” he says. “The mixture of people from all walks of life that I get to interact with is unlike any other event. One minute I am talking to someone from Team Penske, and the next I am catching up with someone I grew up with from Ben Davis. One minute I am interviewing President Clinton, then President Bush. You get to see everyone at this track.”

Dave Calabro and Jim NaborsIt’s around 10:15 AM and Calabro is now bopping to his second home. Well, first home, depending on the time of year. But at IMS, it’s his second home. Under his perch in the pagoda is a tiny room under the stands that houses the working quarters for Ch. 13. As he weaves through traffic, Calabro knows almost everyone. “Hey dude,” he yells out. Calabro whips open the door and asks for some tape from his ride with Patrick to be cut. Then, his eyes are drawn to a small television in the corner of the room. Indianapolis 500 highlights are on. He is glued. Right away Calabro is reciting where he was and what race the highlights are from. “That was 1992, it was a cold one.

There was the time Jessica Simpson was stuck in the elevator before she was going to sing the National Anthem before the race. Calabro already introduced her to a raucous crowd, then heard the panic in his earpiece. She was caught in an elevator and he was told to stretch, and stretch some more. So, he pulled out his trusty binder full of various statistics–traditions, milestones, key dates, fun food facts, rain on race day—and told the crowd about 6,000 hot dogs would likely be eaten that day.

Calabro’s job is a strange balance of months and months of preparation, yet knowing when race day arrives there is no way to predict what will unfold.

“It’s like juggling chainsaws,” he says. “The vast majority of what I do is off the cuff and it definitely doesn’t always go right. You just have no idea what is going to happen, what the story will be, once the race starts. But being here every day helps you be prepared for anything and you know to be engaged and energized no matter what. That takes decades of preparation.”

Calabro’s race day starts around 4:30 AM. He is live, on-air for Ch. 13, doing a pre-race show until 8:30 AM. Then, he’s off to his PA role, doing pre-race ceremonies, driver introductions, calling the race, and after the race, jumping in the pace car with the winner. Then, he’s back on television with Ch. 13 for a post-race show. He is usually in his car driving home around midnight, with the windows wide open and music blasted in an effort to stay awake.

During the month of May, Calabro is at the track nearly every day, covering stories for both Ch. 13 and IMS, as well as announcing practice, qualifying, Bump Day, Carb Day, and the list goes on.  

Dave Furst, who is the Sports Director at Ch. 6, has known Calabro for about 20 years. Though they are in the same position at competing networks, they work closely together at IMS, as Furst assists with getting interviews up and down pit row.

 “The speedway has a way of bringing people together,” Furst says. “People might listen and think, wait a minute, Ch. 6 and Ch. 13 guys are having fun together, but I have enjoyed listening to Dave on the PA for years and years. It is humbling for me to be a part of it. He and I have developed a friendship over the years and I truly respect all the work and perseverance that goes into what he does.”

Calabro reached out to Furst and asked if he would be interested in helping out at the track after Carnegie’s death.

“I jumped at it immediately and was honored that Dave thought highly enough of me to ask me that,” Furst says. “Dave’s style is different from my style, but, ultimately, you want to come across as comfortable and relaxed and the best compliment you can get is if you meet someone and they are the same exact way in real life as they are on television and it is not some façade. Dave is definitely that person. What you get off air is what you see on air.”

It’s about 11:00 AM and Calabro rushes back to the pagoda to hop on “Indy 500 Now” for about 15 minutes with partner Bob Jenkins. He takes a quick cookie break, and then launches into announcing the last practice session of the week. He stands the entire time, shouting out the elementary school class that is visiting the track, reeling off the top speeds. He is zeroed in on each drivers’ car, specifically the winglets, as this is his last practice session, too. “I am always looking for ways to identify the cars whizzing by, either by their helmets, or something specific. This is great practice for us to pick out cars, too.” He reminds the crowd to wear sunscreen, in between updating them on the fact that a large bolt was found on the track and, therefore, practice was halted. The only time Calabro sits is when he answers a text message about an assignment from his other job. Calabro is surrounded by five screens, which still amazes him. When he started, drivers’ speeds were taken with stopwatches. Now, one screen gives him the speeds, the other has a television feed, another has where the drivers are at on the track.

Calabro sees himself as the connector between drivers and fans. That is what he loves so much about his job. Well, both jobs.

There was his streak of 23-straight years landing the first post-race interview with the winner. Then, there was the time that he heard through sources that Hélio Castroneves was in trouble for tax evasion. He dropped everything, flew to Miami, no hotel room, no toothbrush, and broke the story. Castroneves later told Calabro he knew things were serious because Calabro was there to cover the story.

Then, there was the time he raced from his son’s soccer game to give Danica Patrick a tour of IMS’ museum.

It was 2003 and Calabro heard that Patrick might race in the next Indianapolis 500 and she would be attending a women in racing event in Indianapolis. People in the racing community were starting to talk about Patrick, he said. So, Calabro attended the event and introduced himself to her. He told Patrick that he was the PA Announcer at IMS and the Sports Director at Ch. 13 and gave her his card.

Later that year, Calabro was at his son’s soccer game and his phone rang. It was Patrick on the other line. She told Calabro she was in Indianapolis and was wondering if he could give her a tour of IMS’ museum. So, he grabbed his son, still decked out in shin guards and all, and gave Patrick a tour.

“I have worked hard over the decades to build genuine relationships built on trust,” he says. “That has been most important to me.”

These relationships extend beyond just racing.

Dave Calabro and Tom CarnegieCalabro’s mentor, Tom Carnegie, taught him the importance of treating everyone he comes across the same. Fans, drivers, yellow shirts working at the track. Everyone.

Calabro met Carnegie in 1985. At the time, Calabro was an intern at Ch. 6 and Carnegie was the Sports Director, as well as the PA Announcer at IMS. Carnegie had just retired from Ch. 6 and Calabro picked his brain.

“I looked up to him big time,” says Calabro, as he starts to tear up. “I think about him a lot. I learned so much from him. What to do, what not to do, how to treat people. He didn’t care if you were the president of the U.S. or someone from the farms of Indiana. I try to do the exact same.”

Sure, Calabro learned when to annunciate, when to hype up the crowd, when to be playful, and when to be serious, from Carnegie, but it was so much more, he says. It was about relationships and being a connector for a young fan to his or her favorite driver.

Carnegie was the PA Announcer from 1946 to 2006. Calabro interned with him at IMS since 1985. It was Carnegie on the mic and Calabro chasing down interviews. He hardly saw any of the race back in those days, Calabro says. He was by the garages, which were wooden then, working to get updates on injured drivers, before gradually helping out with the PA Announcer role. Carnegie died in 2011.

Around 12:47 PM Calabro is in line for lunch. It is the first time he has come up for air and as he walks into the lunch room he sees a yellow shirt he knows. Because, well, he knows everyone. Before she can even say hi, Calabro engulfs her in a hug. Right after, his eyes dart toward the photos on the wall. Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, he has stories about all of the photos. He knows about the moments they were all taken. “It’s the stories within the stories that I love the most.”  

Around December or so, Bob Jenkins, Calabro’s partner in the booth, knows to start looking for the text message.

“Dave will send out a text that says, ‘are you ready? It is getting close,’” says Jenkins, who has worked in covering the race in various capacities since 1979, including anchor, ABC TV, IMS radio, and public address. “This is the best job I have ever had at the speedway, and one of the major reasons why is Dave.”

Jenkins also worked closely with Carnegie, who he says was one of a kind. And following a legend is nearly impossible. But Calabro, Jenkins says, has carried Carnegie’s legacy on to the fullest because they were so close.

“I know Dave thinks about Tom every time he goes on mic, and because of that he respects the job he did, but he also is his own person and does his own thing. That balance has led to Dave being able to take on this role in a way, quite frankly, no one else would have been able to do,” Jenkins says. “The number one thing I think about when I think of Dave is his passion. Dave brings to the PA an energy and we all feed off of it.”

It’s around 2:15 PM, Calabro revs up the golf cart and he is off, swerving in and out of IMS traffic. It’s one of the last practice days at IMS, and Calabro heads to the garages. He likes to check out the atmosphere, and what drivers and their crews are up to any chance he gets. So, he takes off. On the way, he points out nearly everyone. That yellow shirt, he says, has been at that post for decades. That dude right there, he says, that is ‘whistle man.’ He directs traffic into the garage area, Calabro explains. And sure enough, ‘whistle man’ has about 12 whistles around his neck. Calabro, despite being in a golf cart, is stopped about a dozen times. People want to chat with him, take photos with him, shake his hand, and catch up. He pretends to drive the golf cart into three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser. After he makes the rounds, talks with some engineers in A.J. Foyt’s garage, it is back in the driver’s seat. After all, Calabro is in a rush, he has to get back to Ch. 13 for meetings about this fall’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of Operation High School Football.

Let Passion Lead You

If you want to get technical about it, Dave Calabro graduated from Butler University in 1985… and-a-half.