Announcer Warren Ruffner Recognized by Hall of Fame
By Steve Barrick
The career contributions of racing announcer Warren Ruffner will be recognized by the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame on Thursday, July 25, in ceremonies at the Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport (NY) Speedway.
From the first time he took the microphone in 1955 at Pennsylvania’s Reading Fairgrounds until he called his last race at Susquehanna Speedway in 1994, Warren Ruffner defined what it meant to entertain the racing public.
"Hot shoe" was Ruffner’s most famous phrase, which he used to ignite rapt fans before the main event, asking, “Who's got the hot shoe tonight?" and then calling out the names of a dozen contenders.
Warren Ruffner came to work for Lindy Vicari at the Reading Fairgrounds in 1955 with the fledgling Reading Stock Car Association (RSCA). He was handling the RSCA advertising account for a local radio station, and Vicari and Ruffner hit it off. Ruffner became the RSCA’s first President, working under Vicari.
A few weeks into the first season, Reading’s announcer was a no-show. Faced with a night of dead air, Vicari recruited his RSCA President to pinch-hit. From that point forward, every RSCA-sanctioned race -- at Reading, Penn National, Harmony, East Windsor, Bridgeport or Nazareth National -- was called by Warren Ruffner.
He became known as "The Voice of the RSCA."
Warren had a distinctive voice, a commanding presence that conveyed information. He knew the importance of correctly pronouncing each driver’s name and relaying their hometowns. He understood the role he played in enhancing the fan experience by relating anecdotes about the on-track RSCA personalities.
He knew the nuances of showmanship, delighting in over-enunciating the names of the track favorites -- TOW-BEE Tobias, Gerald CHAYM-berlain, Bobby GARE-hart — and bestowing enduring nicknames on others, christening Kenny Brightbill "Mr. Excitement," Carl Van Horn "The Belvidere Bandit," and "The Temple Tornado" Meme DeSantis.
Ruffner took time to announce in meticulous detail the starting lineup of each race. He knew how to keep the air fresh and captivating without being self-indulgent or overly commercial. Inside jokes, randy banter or snide remarks were not part of the Ruffner repertoire.
To get all of this right, Ruffner arrived early at the track, mingled in the pits before warmups began, and made notes on what was happening in the lives of the RSCA family.
Thunder on the Hill Series promoter Bob Miller worked with Ruffner at Reading, and later at Bridgeport Speedway. He has high praise for "The Voice."
"Warren Ruffner did a lot for the sport. He built up the drivers, gave each an identity, a clever nickname, and the drivers loved it," Miller recalled. "The best one in my mind was Earl Derr: 'The Mighty Man from Mertztown,' Ruff called him. Earl never won a feature but he was a big crowd favorite -- and that was due to the attention Warren gave him.
"He understood the importance of building up the drivers, making then larger than life. Because of that, drivers, fans and the promoters all benefitted," Bob concluded.
Miller noted that Ruffner had a steadfast policy when he called the races.
"Ruff had one rule that he enforced when he announced [at Reading]. He never, ever gave up the mic to someone else, even if it was to announce the license plate of a parked car that was going to be towed," Bob related. "He believed in having absolute control over what was going out to the spectators. Nobody even so much as touched that mic. He refused to work with an assistant."
Miller recalled Ruffner’s natty personal appearance which caused some tension with Lindy Vicari.
"He wore white patent leather shoes and dress pants to Reading and often got the shoes covered in mud and his pants dirty crossing the track," Miller said. "He hated that."
Warren’s son Allen (Al) worked with his mother Helen in the concession stands at Reading, and also served as a scorer. He noted that his father’s chummy relationship with Lindy Vicari was not always so.
"My father had some disagreements with Lindy. At least once, he threw the mic at him and walked away! But overall they worked well together," Al explained. "The disagreements were professional, not personal. His family and my mother’s family grew up as neighbors in Reading. We were always close."
Al Ruffner admired his father’s dedication and ability to rise to an occasion. He specifically recalls a difficult situation his father had to address.
"The night [starter] Rudy Gaenzle got hit on the track was bad. My father knew just what to say and what not to say. My father also helped Rudy in many ways after the accident.
"He was like that with a lot of the people who raced at Reading. He stayed close to the drivers and their families. He thought a lot of them," Al observed.
Although Ruffner is most always identified with his work at Reading, he announced at more than 40 tracks in his career, including Pocono Raceway and the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse.
It was there at the Syracuse mile that DIRT announcer Joe Marotta had the pleasure of sharing his mic with Warren. Joe particularly remembers the 1979 race, when Jack Johnson became the first New Yorker to win the Super DIRT Week classic.
"We were both doing the play-by-play, going back and forth calling laps — he'd take 10 laps, then I’d call the next 10, and so forth. Getting down to the end, Jack was leading and I was getting all fired up. I was psyched! Warren was supposed to call the final 10, but when I handed him the mic he put his arm around me and said, 'Take it the rest of the way, kid.'
"Along with Jack Burgess, Warren was a great mentor of mine. I listened to him and picked up a lot of his traits. I still use a lot of Warren’s sayings," Marotta said. "He was magic on the mic."
Warren Ruffner retired from calling races in 1994. He was 90 when he died in 2011.
There are few announcers whose work is even remembered, much less respected. Ruffner set himself apart from his peers to the extent that a quarter of a century after his last race call, his words and his ways are recognized as Hall of Fame worthy.