55 Years in the Spotlight: Honoring “The Voice of the NHRA” Dave McClelland

Mar 18, 2013

With a career that spans 55 years and a voice that’s instantly recognized by any NHRA fan, Dave McClelland has certainly made his mark on the racing world.

In honor of his contributions to the hot rod and drag racing industries, McClelland was presented with the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award  March 15 during the Grand Opening Breakfast of the 2013 Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show.

The award, which recognizes the true pioneers of the hot rod and restoration industry, has been given out annually at the HRR Trade Show, with McClelland being the twelfth recipient.

He joins Wally Parks, Carroll Shelby, George Barris, Vic Edelbrock, Andy Granatelli, The Ford Family, Alex Xydias, “Speedy” Bill Smith, Jack Roush, Jack Chisenhall and Ed Iskenderian on the award’s recipient list.

MUSIC & FOOTBALL

As a small town kid growing up outside Kansas City, Missouri, McClelland knew he was meant to perform.

The outgoing teenager was active in extracurricular activities at his high school, participating in drama and music productions, in addition to playing on the school football team.

While sports and theater don’t usually go together, McClelland says that participating in both activities played a major role in his future career.

“The football coach and the music teacher, they were totally different, but they both encouraged me and helped to shape me,” he said. “The two activities had nothing to do with each other, except that I took a personal interest in both.”

After graduation, McClelland headed to a state college, with the goal of becoming a football coach.

“I was majoring in Physical Education and minoring in Music, which was not a good mix for the macho football guy but I didn’t really care. I loved music,” he said.

It only took a few weeks for McClelland to realize that he wasn’t really cut out to coach sports.

“I had every intention of being a football coach,” he said. “I thought that would be the neatest job in the world. Unfortunately the reality was that it was totally different than I imagined it to be.”

McClelland decided to pursue music, and in 1955, took an experimental radio and television course offered by the college.

“To be honest, I only took it because I thought it would be really easy!” McClelland admitted. “I had never been intimidated to speak in front of people or be on TV or radio, so I thought it would be a snap course.”

Soon, McClelland was thriving in the course and began to seriously consider a career in front of the camera or microphone.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that someone would pay me money to sit and talk,” he said. “Over the semester break I told my folks I wanted to do that as a career and change colleges.”

His father, who worked in the insurance industry, just happened to have a friend that worked as a news broadcaster in Kansas City, so he arranged for his son to meet him.

The news broadcaster told McClelland that if he ever wanted a job in radio or television, he was going to need experience-”and lots of it.

“He suggested I find a college that offered a Radio and TV major,” said McClelland. “At the time there were only two major colleges that had good programs for that major: Northwestern in Illinois and Iowa State. Since my folks couldn’t afford Northwestern, I went off to Iowa State.”

For the next two years, McClelland completely immersed himself in the school’s radio and TV program.

He completed every class the school offered on the subject and excelled.

However, he had little interest in his other courses and his grades suffered as a result.

“I never went to class,” he said. “I just worked at the school’s radio station. My first job was working as a DJ on the FM radio station. I then started working-”for actual pay-at the school’s TV station, while taking all of the production courses I could.”

ANNOUNCER LOOKING FOR WORK

Eventually, one of his instructors advised him to quit school and just go to work in the radio and TV field.

McClelland did just that, heading to Little Rock, Arkansas, to work as a TV studio cameraman.

However, McClelland knew he wouldn’t be happy working behind the scenes.

“I enjoyed it but I really wanted to announce, so I started to look for work,” he said. “One weekend I got in my car and drove south. I cold-called every small town radio station and told them ‘I’m an announcer looking for work, do you have any?'”

Although he got a lot of rejection, his perseverance finally paid off when a small radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana, agreed to give him a shot.

Although McClelland only stayed at that station for about a year, the job would end up playing a significant role in his life.

“At this station we used to do a show in which people would call in to participate in a contest. If you won the contest, you got to come down to the station on the weekend and have the opportunity to be on the air with me as a disc jockey,” he said. “Well one Saturday, the winner of that week’s contest arrived at the station, accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous woman named Louise. I was completely enamored.”

McClelland and Louise began to date and, six months later, on December 14, 1957, were married.

They continued to live in Shreveport, where McClelland went to work for radio and television stations.

THE START OF A CAREER

A few years later, in 1959, another chance occurrence would change the course of McClelland’s life.

“In 1959, I went to a race in Carlisle, Arkansas and the opportunity presented itself for me to get a chance to announce a drag race,” he said. “It was sure luck, I was just at the right place at the right time. The manager at the track liked my announcing, and I had the time of my life, so I began to wonder if anyone else would be interested in having me announce for them. That unplanned experience started what turned out to be a 55-plus-year career!”

At the time, McClelland was working full-time as a program director at a Louisiana TV station, but was beginning to get offers to announce other races.

“In 1961, I was invited to join the NHRA announcing staff at a big national event,” he said. “I ended up announcing that event for the next 43 years or so.”

In 1969, McClelland, who was now father to three kids-”Kevin, Michael and Melissa, decided to get out of the television industry and take a job as the general manager of the Dallas International Motor Speedway in Texas.

Just after the family had adjusted to life in Texas, the racetrack was sold, and McClelland was offered a job in California working for the NHRA.

“I had just obtained the pinnacle of the industry,” he said.

While McClelland loved working at what he called his ‘dream job,’ it didn’t come without sacrifice.

“I was basically never home. I would guess out of a year I was probably gone for 35-38 weeks,” he said. “The kids turned out to be good solely because of my wife because I just wasn’t around. I was talking to other racers recently and they were lamenting the same thing. The travel takes its toll on you, your wife and your family.”

“THE VOICE”

In 1978, McClelland left the NHRA to go to work for Argus Publishing, selling ad space in Popular Hot Rodding magazine.

However, he realized, once again, that he was meant to be in the spotlight.

“It just wasn’t my thing,” he said. “Sales and I didn’t get along very well!”

Although his ad sales career was short-lived, McClelland managed to use his time at Argus Publishing to create an industry event based on one of its magazines, Super Chevy.

“I took the magazine to the bosses and told them that we really needed to create an all-Chevy event,” said McClelland. “I got their approval and started an event series called Super Chevy Sunday in 1981. It’s still in operation, and has about 18 events now. It was an overwhelming success. I ran that company for about four years.”

In 1985, McClelland left the publishing world to be a freelance announcer, which he’s “been doing ever since!”

“I have done practically every form of announcing there is-”from live track announcing, radio, TV.  I’ve done every type of motorsports announcing, from Formula 1 all the way down to tractor pulls, motorcycles and off-roading races.”

McClelland also continued to announce NHRA drag racing events. Known for his extensive knowledge and trademark voice, he eventually became known as “The Voice of the NHRA.”

“In the early days, most of the [information I was announcing] was done from memory,” he said. “I had to memorize the racers’ previous accomplishments, names, stories-”you didn’t have time to look it up. If you were doing an NHRA National Event, you just had to remember it. Today, they have all of that information displayed on computer screens in front of them. But back then, you just had to have it in your head!”

FICKLE BUSINESSES

McClelland had no trouble finding work as an announcer.

In fact, he was announcing so many races in the 1980s and 1990s that he would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time.

“I was just never home. The kids grow up without you; the grandkids grow up without you. It goes with the turf,” he said. “It was a means to make the income that paid for them then and gives us the opportunity to live the life we live today. Had I not done it, I don’t know where I’d be. Radio and TV are very fickle businesses.”

“Because I was both the track announcer and a TV host [for the NHRA Drag Racing series], I’d work at the event site, then fly home, and then fly to the post-production site which was always in Syracuse, Nashville or St. Petersburg,” he said.

“I’d come home, spend the night and then get on a plane the next morning to fly to one of those locations. Then I’d fly back home for three or four days, and then fly to the next event site.”

As more events were added to the schedule, McClelland found himself sometimes doing as many as three races in a row and was often away from home for nearly a month.

“This is the type of work that you can’t do any other way,” he said. “It’s hands-on and you’ve got to be there, whether it’s live announcing or the TV show. You’re at the mercy of wherever they need you to go.”

Finally, McClelland decided it was time to scale back his workload.

After working as a television host for 27 years, McClelland retired.

“That was the first thing to go,” he said. ” At the end of the 2000 season, I requested that my name be taken out of consideration [for announcing NHRA national events]. They were going to ESPN in 2001 and all 24 were going to be on the same channel. I didn’t want to travel that much anymore. We had been working to lessen the number of national events that I was the track announcer.”

For the next three years, McClelland steadily reduced the number events he announced and, in 2003, the regular announcers took over full-time.

“The 2000-2003 seasons were the end of it for me,” he said. “I haven’t announced a race since. Every year the phone rings about a dozen or so times, with people offering me announcing jobs, but I politely decline. I haven’t kept up with it enough.”

These days, McClelland enjoys spending time with Louise, his children and six grandchildren, one of whom is named in honor of him.

While he is retired, he still can’t resist the opportunity to get behind the mic every once in a while.

“I still do a lot of Master of Ceremonies jobs. I like live audiences. I describe it as putting a little in the bank and feeding my ego. I’m not really sure which is more important, but probably the ego!”

In addition to MC’ing all of SEMA’s events, McClelland is still active doing voice-over work. (He estimates that his is the voice on as many as 80 company phone systems across the country!)

THE PEOPLE THAT MADE YOU SUCCESSFUL

“I was gone so long [during my career] that it’s a pleasure to stay home,” said McClelland. “I still play with cars. I have a 1955 Chevy, a 1970 G455 convertible and a 2005 C6 convertible, which is the best car I’ve ever owned.”

He and Louise, who creates quilts to raise money for the Drag Racing Association of Woman (DRAW), which assists injured racers and their families, are often seen at local car shows.

McClelland is still in touch with many of the industry’s major players, so he was not surprised when Barry Meguiar called him up a few months ago to ask him to go to dinner.

“He called me up and we agreed to meet up one night,” he said of the night he found out that he was to be the next recipient of the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I arrived and saw [HRR Publisher] Travis Weeks and [Petersen Automotive Museum Executive Director] Terry Karges, but I didn’t think it was odd that they were there. All during dinner, Barry was talking about the show, and the award, and the more he talked, the more I thought he was going to ask me to MC the event.”

McClelland was shocked to find out that the real reason Meguiar had asked him to dinner was to inform him that he had been chosen to receive the prestigious award.

“I was dumbstruck. Literally, my first thought was ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!” said McClelland. “Of course, I was and still am honored and humbled. I knew all of the people that had [previously] received the award and I don’t consider myself in that same category! I couldn’t put myself in the same category as Wally Parks, the Ford Family, Isky, Carroll Shelby, all of the previous inductees. I’ve known every one of them that’s been inducted and I know their significance [to the industry].”

“Until I read about it in the magazine, I thought they were kidding and I was the butt of the greatest practical joke of all time!” he added.

Although his long career has allowed him to do amazing things, including interviewing an American president, covering the Kennedy assassination and hanging out with the biggest stars in racing, McClelland says it’s the people he met along the way that was his favorite part.

“I’ve worked with basically anyone that’s been involved in drag racing in the last 55 years. That’s the ironic thing about this type of career: your best friends are the people you see when you go away from home.”

“I’ve interviewed everyone from President Lyndon Johnson to a homeless person,” he said. “I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I’m accessible and if someone comes up and asks for an autograph, I’ll be right there. It’s been my philosophy, that the people that want a photo or autograph are the people that made you successful, so why would you reject them? “It’s been an interesting life. I’ve had the opportunity to know and become friends with the most incredible people in the world and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.”