One of the great things about the recent Memorial Day Springfield Mile was the fact that Dave Despain was on hand being honored as Grand Marshal. For years Despain, considered by many racing enthusiasts the greatest voice ever to call a motorcycle race, was the man calling the Springfield Mile. Now he was back at one of his favorite racing events signing autographs and hearing from hundreds of admirers their favorite Dave Despain story.
Of course, Despain is much more that a racing announcer, although he calls that one of his favorite jobs. He is also the best-known television personality in the history of motorcycle racing. He was a Motorcycle Hall of Famer (until he resigned under protest for the way the institution was being managed back in 2012). And today he’s one of the cherished treasures of our sport and a newer generation of fans got a glimpse at Springfield of why Despain is so beloved when he got on the mic at Springfield. It brought chills.
Despain never got into race announcing, radio and TV for the adulation, but man was it on full display at Springfield and you could tell he enjoyed it just a little bit.
As much as an institution Despain once was to the Springfield Mile, to the best of his recollection, it had been around 20 years since he’d been to the iconic race.
“I don’t remember exactly,” he said of the 20-year absence. “That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s been close to that. It would have been prior to the Wind Tunnel show which kept me in Charlotte every Sunday night for 11 years, and then there were three years at Mav. It all kind of runs together. I don’t remember the last time I was here. Part of the problem is that I don’t remember a lot of things. That’s why I had to give up being the announcer. Some people were disappointed because I’m not announcing the race today. The reason I got out of the television business, calling races, is I can’t see the numbers. I can’t hear the director, and I can’t remember the leader’s name. At that point, you really need to stop. It’s time to be retired. So I’m just basking in the glory of being grand marshal today.”
He’s only just retired so he’s still getting the feel for having free time on his hands. And what does he do with his newfound freedom beside letting his hair grow out?
“Trying to keep all my motorcycles serviced and running,” he laughs. I’ve sold a couple so I think I have nine now, and several more for sale. So, if you’re looking for a slightly-used Gold Wing with 130,000 miles – it’s been to Springfield many times – I’m your guy. I try to ride every day, but I have a lot of motorcycles that just don’t get ridden. If you’re not going to ride them, get somebody else to ride them.”
Thankfully Dave says he is enjoying retirement.
“Absolutely. It literally got to the point, the last couple of races I worked, it was really uncomfortable because I just didn’t have it anymore. When you get to that point you need to stop. How many guys do we know that have retired from racing that stayed too long or tried to come back and it went badly. You really need to know when it’s time to just pull the plug and be happy with whatever you accomplished. I got no complaints.”
What many folks don’t realize is that Despain was one of the biggest advocates of getting motorcycle racing on TV. And he knew the people who could make it happen. There’s a lot of motorcycle racing that got coverage thanks to it being Despain’s first love, both as a fan and even a competitor.
“My goal from day one was to have a motorcycle show,” said Despain, who once worked as communications manager for the AMA before he got into TV. “I ended up twice with motorcycle shows, and both times for complicated reasons those shows did not survive or did not survive with me as host. I kept getting “promoted” into the auto racing world because in the television world that’s a higher priority. Why would you want to do motorcycle races when you can do car races? Well, because I like motorcycle racing better than I like car racing. That message never registered. So, I went to Speedvision. I left ESPN after five years and went to Speedvision to do a motorcycle show called Bike Week. It was just wonderful. It was the most fun I ever had.”
Turns out the powers that be at Speedvision (later simply called Speed) knew what they had in Despain and they also didn’t want him simply doing motorcycle shows so that led to him hosting one of the premier shows on the network.
“What they really wanted was for me to do a talk show about all kinds of racing, and that was Wind Tunnel. So that ended up having an 11-year run, which was pretty remarkable by almost any standard. I don’t think anybody expected it to have that kind of life. Then they shut down Speed channel, and suddenly we were without an abundance of racing. That was when I went to Mav TV and finished out my career there. So, I hit most of them. I worked for NBC, CBS, ABC. My first television show was Wide World of Sports. Not many people can claim that. Then I worked most of the cable channels that covered racing. I came at a good time and I was very lucky.”
And what was it like for Despain to return to Springfield, one of the races that helped shape his career?
“It frightens me a little bit because so many of the people that I remember are not here anymore. But that’s just the way the world works,” he says. “If you stay away 15 years and then come back, faces are going to have changed. Fortunately, the essence of it doesn’t change. It’s the same. It’s dirt and you need a miracle worker to prep it, so it’s as good as this racetrack always is. Then you need heroes to go out there and do what they do. It’s just spectacular. It’s every bit as spectacular now as it was the first time I saw it. “