Brian Lohnes returned to New England Dragway on Friday as the lead announcer for the NHRA on FOX. It marked a different kind of homecoming for the New England native, who lives 30 minutes south of Boston. He got his start on a microphone at Lebanon Valley, another small track Northeastern track. Lohnes eventually got a gig in Epping as a tech inspector just to get him to the track so he could spend some time on the microphone.
“When I get done in the tech department, I go up and announce on Wednesdays and Friday nights,” said Lohnes. “I was a, you know, an SFI certified tech inspector and I would inspect the cars for safety equipment to make sure they were legal to run.”
Joe Lombardo, who ran the track at the time, called Lohnes up to the booth when it was time to hop on the mic. From there, Lohnes worked on his craft with the same zeal as a comedian putting on a new stand-up show. Anyone who listens to Lohnes on FS1 or has spent any time in the crowd while he calls Sportsman categories, knows what they’re in for.
When the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series movies to Epping, expect references to the 1908 World Series. The event is happening over July 4 weekend? Then, he might work in the names of George Washington’s Vice President (John Adams, for the record). Hanging out at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte? We might hear a little about Kurt Busch and Richard Petty, both of whom have Cup Car and drag racing backgrounds.
“The way the track was configured when I first started working there was a set of grandstands that were like literally right next to the tower and so you were almost close enough to like touch the people like they were that close and so to me it was like the best place to learn,” said Lohnes. I think I really helped me figure out how to do this because: One, nobody told me what I was supposed to do or say other than like hey you know tell everybody that the concession stands closing in ten minutes but like other than stuff like that like nobody told me like you need to say things this way or do things that way.
“So, the more I did it and the more I liked it, the more I realized that those people were so close I could watch them react. I kind of worked on an act like comedians and stuff doing a club. I would say stuff and would and write it down on these Wednesdays and Fridays and see if the crowd, what little of it there was would actually react to it and it was cool it was the most satisfying thing when you thought something up and said it and as soon as the words came out over the speaker people were laughing or they were staring up at the building wondering what idiot just said that.”
Lohnes went on to announce for the IHRA before eventually landing a job announcing both in the both and trackside for the NHRA. That came thanks to a chance encounter with Bob Frey at a Heritage Series race in Kentucky just a week before the first NHRA New England Nationals in 2012. Lohnes started announcing the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Series show on FS1 a few years after that and was offered the lead spot on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series show during the past offseason.
That meant, in part, spending a lot of time with fellow announcer Tony Pedregon, who has been the other broadcaster in the booth since FOX took over the show. Lohnes and Pedregon became fast friends, something that shows up anytime the two are on camera – and frankly, whenever they’re together.
“Obviously I knew Tony before getting the job but like, I never hung out with him, I never talked to him on the phone,” said Lohnes. “I'd seen him at the races and exchanged pleasantries or asked him questions, but never had any kind of in-depth conversation. I can tell you very thankfully that we hit it off immediately when we started talking and we made a strong effort over the winter to spend a lot of time on the phone.
“We share the same sense of humor and being brand new with this you know I feel like the right move for me and my own personality is that I need to have that relationship with the person I'm working with. I don't feel like I can be genuine when I dislike the person you're sitting next to except when the TV cameras are turned on. So genuinely I like Tony and we have a great relationship and you know it's that part of it that has been super cool. We'll go out and eat after we spend the whole day together.”
Lohnes leaned on legendary NHRA broadcaster Dave McClelland for advice before taking over the gig and says the relationship with FOX Sports has been vital to his growth as a broadcaster. The learning curve, while steep, isn’t always particularly apparent when Lohnes and Pedregon are beamed into living rooms and onto laptops across the world because they appear to be having so much fun doing it.
And that…kind of makes sense. It’s a fun job and talking about NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing is, ostensibly, a fun thing to do. Lohnes’ breathless enthusiasm is something you couldn’t take away if you tried and he’s turned it into one of his greatest strengths. When he got the job, the outpouring of congratulations turned towards him was honest – not just because he’s a good person who the NHRA community wants to succeed; but because it felt like the world was about to learn a very well-kept secret.
Well, the secret’s out. Welcome home, Lohnes.