CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The weekend was a time of reflection for Ken Squier.
Along with Pocono Raceway founder Dr. Joseph Mattioli and longtime NASCAR executive Jim Hunter, the veteran broadcaster was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame Saturday night in a ceremony at Charlotte’s University Place Hilton.
Squier, who was the co-founder of radio’s Motor Racing Network and served as CBS television’s lead broadcaster from 1979-97, got his start as an on-air radio announcer in his native Vermont at age 12.
Television producer Patti Wheeler, who gave Squier’s introduction speech, called him the undisputed dean of motorsports television journalism.
“He did what Howard Cosell did for boxing, what Vin Scully did for the Dodgers, what Keith Jackson did for college football, setting the scene for big NASCAR events,” Wheeler said. “He knew when to speak and when to “lay out,” which is a television term, a nice way of saying when to shut up.”
Now 78, Squier is famous for nicknaming the Daytona 500, the “Great American Race,” and for the phrase describing auto racing as “common men doing uncommon things.”
While his work with the CBS broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500 has been widely credited for making NASCAR a major sport beyond the Southeast, Squier disputes that notion.
“I never believed it,” Squier said. “I thought the years preceeding that, the race had elevated. Then, CBS let us spend so much money promoting it. But, the Petty-Pearson finish three years earlier, it kept building and building.
“It was going to happen anyway. Someone was going to take the sport to the nines.”
Working first with ABC’s Wide World of Sports and later hired by CBS to be a sports version of Charles Kuralt, Squier covered the largest events -- the Olympics, championship boxing matches and the NFL -- as well as those on the fringe like National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner, N.C. and the Calaveras Frog Jumping Contest in California.
He even recounted going to Australia to work alongside Arnold Schwarenegger for the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest. Schwarenegger, who was scheduled to be his broadcast partner, decided at the last moment to come out of retirement to win his seventh title.
“The plan was for Arnold to go over there and help me with the broadcast,” he said. “Once we got over there, he was like, ‘I can win this. I won’t get the first-place votes, but I’ll get enough of the second and third-place votes to win.’ I was like, ‘You’re crazy. You haven’t been training like those guys or have that smell of eating tuna fish for two straight months.’ But, he was right and he won the darn thing.”
Even to this day, Squier stays active in other sports. His radio station, founded by his father in Waterbury, Vt., still broadcasts high school basketball games.
In racing, however, Squier was able to do his greatest work, showing a human side to the men inside the cockpit.
“You had real honest-to-God heroes,” Squier said. “This is not a children’s game played by adults. This motor sports business, these men were committed to taking the risks. These were common people doing uncommon deeds.”
Outside of his occasional television appearances, Squier runs the radio station and a sheep farm with his Australian-born wife. He also owns Thunder Bowl International Speedbowl, a short track in Barre, Vt. he built in 1961.
Still, he is most remembered for the one magical moment, telling the story at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, a race seen by a record audience since most of the Northeast had been snowed in. There was the wreck between leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison on the last lap and the fight between Yarborough and the Allison brothers which later broke out. As CBS focused on Richard Petty beating Darrell Waltrip to the finish line and the post-race celebration, Squier explained it was by chance the fight even got on the air.
“The show was over and the Goodyear blimp was headed to the airport,” he recalled. “The cameraman zoomed in, and that’s when they were into it. That whole day, it was fateful.”