For over 40 years, Wayne Adams (left) was the announcer at Blue Island's Raceway Park with Jan Gabriel handling the microphone chores at Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs. [Phil Rider Photo]
Remembering Jan Gabriel
by Stan Kalwasinski
Chicago , Ill. -The voice was distinctive, the delivery was unique and anyone who ever heard Jan Gabriel announce a race program at Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs will always remember the style and entertaining manner of the longtime Chicago area announcer. Gabriel, 69, passed away on January 10, suffering from polycystic kidney disease.
Art "Fireball" Fehrman of St. Charles , Ill. Had known Gabriel since the late 1960's when Fehrman was a rookie in the stock car action at Santa Fe and Gabriel was the new announcer at the "Track of Clay." Fehrman was a front-running competitor in Santa Fe 's sportsman division before moving into the faster late model ranks in 1973. Fehrman drove his last late model race and won it in 1992 and came back to run a modified stocker for a bit in 2004 before calling it "quits." More recently, Fehrman has been guiding his successful Illinois Vintage Racing stock car organization with his "back in the day" stock car tour visiting numerous race tracks in the Midwest.
With Gabriel's passing, Fehrman reminisced about his friend.
"We became friends when I started racing at Santa Fe ," commented Fehrman about his 30-plus year friendship with Gabriel. "My dad (Art Sr.) use to have a racing party every year in the middle of January and Jan would always make it. He never let my dad down, driving through snow and ice storms just to get to my dad's party. He'd fly in from California just to make it.
One night at Santa Fe during a half-mile show, a car hit a pole on the road outside of the track and the electricity was out for two hours. The place was packed and that man entertained the people in stands for those two hours. I don't know where he got it, but Jan came up with a big megaphone and drove around the track in the pace car, shouting at the fans on both the main stretch and back stretch grandstands. He was holding a contest between the two grandstands to see who could light up the stands the most using their cigarette lighters and matches."
Fehrman continued with his Jan Gabriel stories.
"There was one night Jan was walking through the pits and his faced and neck were all scratched up. He really looked terrible." Fehrman said. "I asked him, 'What happened to you?' He started laughing and giggling and, as proud as he could be, said that he had a great time going "coon hunting" with driver Lee Byers and car owner Don Ward.
He had been going around to all the guys that raced, their garages and that, figuring he would get to know them better and that would make him a better announcer. Well, Byers and Ward took him hunting way out west somewhere. They told him to sit on the hood of their old pickup truck one evening as they went hunting with their dogs. As they went around trees and through heavy brush, Jan got scraped up pretty good. When they stopped, he jumped off into a marshy area and ruined a pair of Gucci shoes. He said that he had the best time of his life. When asked about their hunting trip with Gabriel, Byers and Ward laughed, 'We were foolin' with him. That city boy didn't know nothing about coon hunting with a bunch of hillbillies.'"
Fehrman commented more about Jan Gabriel. "He could entertain people," Fehrman said. "He use to introduce every driver for the big half-mile shows down at trackside and never used a piece of paper or notes. He knew all the sponsors and knew everything about the drivers-where they were from, championships won, things like that.
One of the most exciting times, at least for me, was when I'd be in my car on the pace laps and Jan would get the fans cheering and waving all around the track. It was all Jan Gabriel. He was a showman.
He was at my wedding. He was at a party my dad had before I went overseas (with the Air Force). You name it and he was there and always supportive even helping me with my driver introductions for the vintage races. One thing about him, he never forgot where he came from, his roots. You could always count on him to be a close friend."
Born in Wisconsin and raised in the Chicagoland area, Gabriel was the track announcer at the once-popular Santa Fe dirt oval, beginning in 1968. For 14 consecutive summers, Gabriel handled the microphone duties at the speedway - working as many as four-nights-a-week, doing stock car races, motorcycle races, demolition derbies and other special events.. Gabriel had branched out to TV producing and other promotional adventures when the track closed after the 1995 racing season.
Gabriel was part of the Indianapolis 500 track announcing team for three years in the early 1970's. He produced his nationally syndicated "Super Chargers" TV Series for 12 years. As a young disc jockey, Gabriel worked for WJOB Radio in Hammond , Ind. And hosted "sock hops" at local high schools and teen club dances. He personally wrote over 1,000 commercials for the old Chicago-based Community Discount stores.
In recent years, he organized and promoted the Team Demolition Derby shows at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet . Gabriel called the events "roller derby with automobiles." Amazingly, Gabriel was still promoting even though he had to have both of his legs amputated a few years ago because of health issues.
Gabriel's voice became nationally famous when he began doing radio commercials for the U.S. 30 Dragstrip, which was located east of Interstate 65, right off of U.S. Highway 30 in what is now considered Hobart , Ind. With the powerful Chicago-based WLS radio station carrying the commercials, listeners, literally throughout the United States , heard Gabriel shouting, "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday at smoking U.S. 30 Dragstrip," which was part of the "high-speed" advertising script for the popular dragway.
Gabriel's wife, Teresa, and daughter, Amanda, held a party this past Sunday to celebrate Gabriel's life with friends and fans packing the Gabriels' Lombard home. There were a lot of people there, just like there should have been for one of racing's great showmen. R.I.P., Jan.
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