Milwaukee Talks: Racing commentator David Hobbs
You may not recognize David Hobbs but if you've lived in Milwaukee long enough – or watch racing on television – you've certainly heard his voice.
You might even have purchased a car from him.
Hobbs, 72, is a broadcaster with Speed Network. Previously, he did work for CBS and ESPN. He's covered all kinds of racing, from open-wheel to NASCAR and now focusing primarily on Formula One events.
In a few weeks, Hobbs will make his big screen premiere when he provides the voice of David Hobbscap, a 1963 Coombs Lightweight Jaguar E-type, who has retired from racing to become a broadcaster.
In addition to television, Hobbs is also the owner of David Hobbs Honda here in Milwaukee, a dealership he's owned for 24 years.
On the eve of the Milwaukee 225, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Hobbs to ask him about his racing background, his career as an announcer and how an Englishman with a need for speed wound up selling cars in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where are you from originally?
David Hobbs: I'm from England originally.
OMC: How did you end up in Milwaukee?
DH: Well, I used to come over here a lot for racing. Mainly, Formula 5000, in the late '60s and '70s. We went to Road America a lot and towards the end of my career, in the '80s, I spoke to a guy from Honda. He used to be part-owner of a NASCAR team, a chap called Jack Billmeyer. He was a top executive at Honda and I asked him about the possibility of a Honda dealership. He said we like having drivers own dealerships.
OMC: So Milwaukee was partially a business move then.
DH: Yes. We had some backers. It took a few years to get going. But eventually, we started getting close. I went out to California and I told them I didn't want to buy (a dealership). I wanted a new one. The biggest one they had available was going to be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That suited me just fine. I had been here so many times racing at Road America. Though I hadn't taken into account the winters. I'd never been here in the winter. That was a bit of a shock. It still is. They're so damn long! A lot of Americans say to me 'you live WHERE?'.
OMC: It seems to have worked out well for you, the weather not withstanding.
DH: Oh, we love it here. We do. It's been great. The summers, the lakefront ... it has a lot of European feel to it.
OMC: A lot of people say that about the city.
DH: The sidewalks, the tree-lined streets ... and a lot of the buildings, of course. There's just a very European look. A lot of the houses look like what you'd see in Europe. I like it. I think it's a great city.
OMC: How long have you been here?
DH: The dealership has been here 24 years. It opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1987. I had a team of people running the store at the time and that didn't really work out very well in the end so I had to come over and help manage it. That was in '91 and I've been here since.
OMC: You've spent a lot of time around the sport both as a racer and now as an announcer. What have you enjoyed about it over the years?
DH: Probably the same as the drivers. We all like racing. I started out driving like an absolute idiot driving on the roads in England. In those days, it was so cheap to go racing at a low level. I took my mother's sedan car, bought a license and paid an entry fee which was about five bucks as opposed to know when it costs probably a couple of thousand dollars. I drove it to the race and hoped to drive home.
OMC: And how did it go?
DH: The first race, I had to have it towed home. The engine had kind of a hiccup.
OMC: So it all kind of took off from there for you.
DH: Yes. That's how I started. I figured, if I was going to drive fast on the highway I might as well race on a track. I raced dad's (Jaguar) then I drove in Lotus Elite. I was very successful in the Lotus and then I got asked to drive other people's cars. They always used to pay you in those days. It's not like to today when they ask you to drive a car and then ask you 'how much money can you bring in?'. Then, it was never a question of bringing money in. If they asked you to drive their car, they offered to pay you money. It might have only been $100 or something but in those days, $100 was pretty good money. I ended up being a professional driver for 30 years.
OMC: When did you retire?
DH: In 1990 but, you know, I haven't officially retired yet!
OMC: Did you move right into broadcasting?
DH: Actually, I started broadcasting in '76 with CBS. I did my first race, it was a USAC Indy car race, before the spilt. A guy named Roger McCluskey, was with CBS but he wanted to race so CBS got me instead. They asked me to do it and one way or another, I did every race CBS did until 1996 including the Daytona 500. We started that in 1979 and I did the Daytona 500 17 times
OMC: When did you move to ESPN?
DH: That was in 1987. I started working for them as well, doing both. That's when Formula One really started for me. We did a few Formula One races with CBS. In '87 I started doing Formula One regularly for ESPN and basically, I've been doing it ever since.
OMC: How did SPEED come along?
DH: In '96, a guy by the name of Roger Warner, an ex-CEO of ESPN, had gone off on his own, working a couple of years for a cable company. He could see the possibility of a racing-only network. He started SPEED Network and I was on of the first guys that went to work for him.
OMC: You're on the big screen, too. How did you end up in "Cars 2?"
DH: The movie ... our producer went up to Montreal last year for the Formula One race. He came back all excited and said 'Pixar really wants to talk to you so I gave them a number and your email.' They called me and asked if I want to be in "Cars 2" and here I am. I went out in November and put the voice track down.
OMC: The Mile has had some troubles in the past. Are you happy to see racing return this year?
DH: Oh, I'm very happy. I think Chris McGrath and those guys to decide to just pick it up, that's not the easiest thing in the world to do. They've done an amazing job. I hope he gets a good crowd.
OMC: Is Milwaukee a good racing city?
DH: I think so. I think it's a very good racing city. Honestly, I had heard about Milwaukee while I was living in England. The Milwaukee Mile, it was a very famous race track. I think it's very appropriate that Indy cars come back here.
OMC: Do think people here realize how historic that track is, how well-known that track is in racing circles?
DH: I guess the short answer to that is I don't think they do, no. A lot of people are surprised when you tell them it's the oldest racing track in the world. They think of Indy and other famous races which have been around for years but the Milwaukee track is very historic. Very unique.
OMC: Did you ever race here?
DH: I didn't, no.
OMC: You're around the sport a lot, though, so what do drivers tell you that makes it a special track?
DH: I think it's the shape of the track. Low banking. The first race I saw here, Niger Mansell won. I thought this is the kind of place I'd like to race. It looks like good fun to drive. There's a wide groove. You can overtake someone on the outside, you can go low, you can go high ... it's a really good race track with amazingly high speed for a mile-long track.
OMC: Was it an easy decision to get involved with the Milwaukee 225 – did you have any affiliation with the previous promoters?
DH: I was one of the sponsors but I never got involved. Chris came to us fairly early on and spoke to my son – he runs the dealership now. He and Greg got together and came up with the idea of us putting cars out on the street for six or seven months all dolled up in the IZOD Indy series and Mile logos. We got the agreement to do the Indy Lights race, the David Hobbs 100. We've helped out quite a bit. Obviously, I'd like to be able to sign a check for 100 grand, but it's just not possible. I wish them all the luck in the world and I hope to see them back here next year.
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