Bill Marvel. John Mahoney Photo

Remembering Bill Marvel

There are times as a writer when you stare at a blank screen, drum your fingers on the keyboard and try to figure out a way to get started. Sometimes you are just blocked, but at other times the enormity of the task at hand stymies you.

Right now, I’m simply overwhelmed.

I have been deeply involved in the sport for well over three decades, and in that time I have met and interacted with scores of drivers, crew members, officials, and other media members. I like about 95 percent of the people I have met in racing, and there are those at the top of the pyramid that I feel particularly close to.

Nonetheless, in my official capacities as a writer or announcer, it is incumbent upon me to be as objective as possible. That’s a central aspect of being a professional. It is a standard we all hope to uphold as steadfastly as we can, knowing that there are times when we slip.

I am making no pretense of being one bit objective here. This work is very personal, because few men in racing did as much for me as Bill Marvel.

My story is nearly like a fairytale. Like many of my generation, I love the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and remain reverential about the Indianapolis 500.

As a devotee of sprint car and midget racing, I too can be guilty of bemoaning the state of the IndyCar Series, but that never detracts from the feeling I have when the opening ceremonies begin on race day.

Early in my announcing career I was working a USAC race at Missouri’s I-44 Speedway when I was approached by Bill. He noted that it was obvious that I liked what I was doing, and that I had a fund of knowledge about USAC. I shared with him my love of open-wheel racing and racing history, which prompted him to remark, “We need to get you back in Indiana.”

It was at that point I told him I was a candidate for a position at Indiana University. What he said next was one of the most stunning things I have ever heard. Bill turned to me and said, “Would you be interested in working on a crew at the Indianapolis 500?” It was then, and remains to this day, a pinch me moment.

I would eventually assume many of Bill’s roles in Public Relations at IMS as a part of the event workforce. Most of that time involved working to get quotes from drivers and moderate the range of press conferences that are held nearly daily.

It led to the opportunity to interact directly with current and past stars of the NASCAR and IndyCar world, and when I found myself doing one-on-one interviews with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher on several occasions, it affirmed that this was the rarest of privileges.

Bill in his USAC office
Bill in his USAC office in March of 1984. (John Mahoney photo)

This all happened because of Bill Marvel, and I am only touching on one sliver of the myriad things Bill did for me.

The issue here is that I am far from alone. Bill helped a whole lot of Pat Sullivans over his legendary career.

Bill was first introduced to the sport by his father Clem, who also served as a racing official. Marvel attended qualifications for the 1935 Indianapolis 500, and his first actual race in 1941.

If there is any way to adequately convey what a giant this man is in the sport, it is captured in what went down in this crazy 2020 season. The minute it was made clear that only essential personnel could attend this year’s Indianapolis 500, my thoughts turned to Bill. I personally wrote IMS President Doug Boles imploring him to let Bill in.

Marvel was not only a friend of Doug’s, but he had been friends with Boles’ father for decades.

Meanwhile, veteran Indianapolis scribe and media personality Robin Miller contacted new IMS owner Roger Penske with the same request. It was really a no-brainer. Marvel got in to the race and essentially had the run of the place.

So, let this really sink in. The 2020 Indianapolis 500 was Bill’s 76th consecutive race.

Bill first became formally involved with IMS in 1953, when he was invited to join the PR staff by Bob Laycock Sr.

Marvel was still working at Indiana Bell, but he would spend two weeks toiling without pay with the Speedway staff during the month of May. From that point on, racing became even more central to his life.

The late Hall of Famer Dick Jordan would work alongside Marvel for years, but he loved to recall the days when Bill would venture out on the National Championship trail and call in reports to a local radio station as the race progressed.

Jordan remembers moments in his childhood being hunched over a transistor radio yelling, “Come on, Bill!” as he waited on reports from Trenton, Milwaukee, or Springfield.

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