WNPR

The Daytona 500 And The Art Of The Public Address Announcer

Mar 2, 2017

The job of a public announcer is unique. Joe Coss of Connecticut Public Broadcasting was making calls at Daytona 500 last week, and fresh off the plane, he came into our studio to talk about it.

Coss is director of operations at Connecticut Public Broadcasting and a public address announcer at Daytona International Speedway. He also announces at auto racetracks in Connecticut.

We wanted to find out more about the job of a public address announcer, so we invited Coss to talk about it, and how he got started.  

Joe Coss: You’re there, really, to entertain. And that’s really the exciting part about it. A lot of people go to the racetrack and many have come for years and years and years on end, and then there’s others who show up to the racetrack for the very first time.

In the case of this year’s Daytona 500, it was a sellout crowd. We had folks there from every state in the United States of America, and 41 different countries. And so there’s a lot of backgrounds.

You look at 40 cars running around the racetrack. And unlike other sports like basketball or hockey or baseball, [where] you can actually see the athletes perform, you see machinery and metal. And you’ve got to peel back the layers a little bit, and then tell people who that person is behind that wheel.

WNPR's Diane Orson: Did you grow up going to car races?

Yeah, my dad never took me to baseball games and basketball games. He was a machinist, and worked in factories. And so I spent time going to the racetrack.

At a young age I developed a passion for it, to be able to announce, and to just be in that environment -- always wanted to have the opportunity. So as a young kid, I would watch the Daytona 500 and other races from my couch in my living room. And I would practice, and I would rehearse.

And one opportunity – I was interning at the Stafford Motor Speedway, and they just happened to say, “Joe, I need you to go up and set the microphones up today.” And I did. And somebody had rented the facility for the day. And so for my mike check, instead of counting – we typically, count for a mic check – I told the story of the driver and almost announced his practice session.

Well, Jack Arute -- and the Arute family who owned the Stafford Motor Speedway -- was an ESPN broadcaster. And he just happened to overhear that particular mic check. And from there, he gave me an opportunity to announce, which then, ultimately down the line, led me to Daytona International Speedway.

How do you announce when there are serious accidents? Things can sometimes be quite dangerous on the racetrack.

Well, you have to be sensitive. You have to be sensitive to the folks that are around you.

I had one experience several years ago where it just happened that the mom of one of the competitors who were out on the racetrack, was sitting with me in the public address announce [booth] as an official to the event. And her son was involved in a very serious incident on the track and ultimately lost his life in that incident.

In those moments, you think about [how] the ones around you are going to respond. There are loved ones in the fans. There are people connected to drivers, connected to people of the sport. It’s a very tight-knit community, so you really have to take it in a delicate manner.

Because oftentimes, you know information that at the time, you may not want to share to 100,000 people, or even a smaller crowd, depending on the venue. So you’ve got to do it with a level of delicacy every time you run into one of those situations.

So part of what you do is informing people about what’s happening, entertaining them while it's going on. But you’re also educating people.

Absolutely. A lot of time, you come to the racetrack, and you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and what all the rules are, and how quickly they can change tires, and the speed limit that they have on pit road, or all the different nuances of a race. And so you can bring that to life.

The worst thing that can happen is you can go to an event or an experience, even if it’s a concert or a play, and you’re not connected with what’s happening. So I take pride in connecting the audience, the spectators that are there, to what they’re seeing unfold before them. And maybe giving them just enough information, so that way they can start to put the pieces together on their own, even if they’re a first-timer.

And maybe, because it’s a little bit of entertainment along the way, you leave them with a bit of mystery. Maybe ask a question that you don’t necessarily answer, and it allows them to formulate the answer on their own.

And sometimes, when you can do that, that’s the real genius of a public address announcer.