“The 1979 Daytona 500,” Justin St. Louis says with a sigh.
It may be Ken Squier’s greatest achievement in the national eye, the moment stock car racing transcended its regional roots and became a national sport. It is a touchstone for those who knew Squier through the television. It captures so much of the legacy of an iconic broadcaster.
St. Louis sighs not to diminish its importance, but because it merely scratches the surface.
For what made Kenley Dean Squier an icon was not his presence on motorsports’ grandest stages, but his dedication and investment not only in racing, but in his community and his Green Mountain roots.
Roots that Squier was never too proud to acknowledge.
The Waterbury, Vermont native’s health challenges drew to a close Wednesday evening, with close friend and protégé Dave Moody delivering the news via Twitter. Squier was 88 years old.
To a national audience, Squier was the long-tenured anchor of NASCAR racing broadcasts. In 1970, Squier and NASCAR patriarch Bill France co-founded the Motor Racing Network to provide radio coverage for NASCAR events. Squier’s vision earned the 1979 Daytona 500 flag-to-flag national TV coverage for the first time; circumstance and conflict made it a national spectacle. Squier would call races for CBS, TBS and other networks, bringing a new sophistication and a vibrant vocabulary to the sport’s presentation.
Those contributions alone were worthy of Squier’s induction into numerous motorsports halls of fame as he stepped away from a full-time broadcast career.
As important as he was to stock car racing’s upper echelon, Squier held the same gravity closer to home. He had a hand in opening two Vermont bullrings, Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre and Catamount Stadium in Milton. In 1979, Squier and business partner Tom Curley reacquired Thunder Road and launched the NASCAR North Tour, the organization that would become the American-Canadian Tour in 1986 under Curley’s leadership. Squier and Curley remained business partners, ultimately selling Thunder Road shortly before Curley’s passing in 2017.
Squier’s reach extended beyond motorsports, too. Radio was Squier’s heritage; his father Lloyd owned a Waterbury-based station, WDEV, that Squier inherited in 1979. Squier grew and nurtured the station, adding FM coverage and balancing an eclectic blend of local and professional sports coverage, talk and music. Squier sold the stations in 2017, but retained an on-air role until illness forced him to step back in late 2020.
And Squier was a curator of talent, schooling aspiring broadcasters, announcers and writers in the finer points of sports storytelling.
St. Louis, a fellow Vermonter, was one of those pupils. Along with fellow Squier disciple Tom Corbett, St. Louis runs Uncommon Media, a podcasting network with a present focus on Vermont sports. Their flagship program, the motorsports history podcast “Uncommon Deeds,” borrows its name from one of Squier’s classic lines.
“Have you ever heard Dave Moody talk about being educated by Ken?” St. Louis asked. “He tells the story about, ‘Here’s the 900 things you did wrong and the two you did right by accident.’ And then next week, show up with a list of ten ways to say side-by-side, or ten ways to say nose-to-tail, or whatever. That is absolutely the experience that I had, and it is absolutely the experience that Mike Joy and Dick Berggren and Allen Bestwick and everybody…”
He paused. “Everybody who has ever picked up a microphone in the Northeast, at some point, has come across Ken, and he has given them that lesson.”
Formerly the director of media and marketing for Devil’s Bowl Speedway, a dirt oval near the New York border, St. Louis recently became the owner of the Sprint Cars of New England circuit. But in 2003, he was a struggling Thunder Road regular, a nineteen-year-old who needed a dime.
“I had run out of money with my street stock, and I walked into Tom Curley’s office,” St. Louis remembered. “And I asked Tom for a job, and he sent me over to Airborne, and said, ‘You’re gonna be my announcer, and write my press releases.’ And I said ‘Sure.’ You know? I had no experience with it, other than posting on message boards. So he sent me over to Airborne and had Ken follow me around and take notes.”
Airborne Speedway, a dirt half-mile in Plattsburgh, N.Y., was a pavement track at the time, operating under the oversight of the Squier-Curley partnership.
“Monday morning, I got my ass handed to me for all the things that I did wrong, and ‘you screwed up and did this right a couple of times, and I know you didn’t do it on purpose.’ And he tore my press release to shreds with a No. 2 pencil, circled three words that I did right, and everything else was, you know. No prepositional phrases, hometowns are important. Where he started and where he finished doesn’t really matter, but how did he get there?”
Squier was exacting, but there was an underlying message to be taught.
“He taught us how to tell a story, and how to appreciate the people involved in the sport,” said St. Louis. “The guy mopping the floors in the high school on Thursday afternoon. On Thursday night he straps into a race car for a couple hours, he’s a hero. Treat him with that respect, he’s a hard worker and he’s putting in as much effort as the actual governor of the state of Vermont, who’s also a race car driver on Thursday nights. Those two people are equals on Thursday night when they’re behind the wheel of a race car, and you need to treat them that way. They may have vastly different stories, or have traveled down different roads to get there, but the end result is the same.
“I don’t know if he ever hyped the David-versus-Goliath angle, but in a way, that’s certainly what he taught.”
On one episode of “Uncommon Deeds,” St. Louis recalled a story from fellow Vermont writer Tom Haley, who told of Squier attending and covering a local high school game only days after one of his NASCAR broadcasts. When someone questioned why he gave such priority to a local sport when he had big-league responsibilities, Squier’s response was simple: “The audiences care the same.”
“That’s such a huge lesson to teach anybody,” St. Louis said. “[WDEV] used to cover the Vermont State Snowplow Championships. Can you think of anything worse? But those people trained for this, they prepared for this, and they’re pretty damn good at it, and let’s give ‘em some recognition, you know? They devoted an afternoon to this on live radio. And it teaches you how to recognize that everyone’s working toward something. The wins may not necessarily be first-place, but seventh-place is pretty good sometimes, too. What did it take for them to get there, and why did ten people show up to watch? Because those ten people give a damn, and they deserve to be recognized for it.”
Squier’s schooling went beyond the craft of storytelling. “It altered my outlook on life, not just motorsports, or work. You look for something good in everything.”
That level of attention mattered whether Squier was covering a local ball game, the Daytona 500, the Acapulco Cliff-Diving Championships, or even in an uncredited role calling the climactic BMX bike race in the cult classic film “Rad.”
“Ken cared about everything, and found a way to make you care a little about it, too,” St. Louis said.
Through the radio station, Squier was actively involved in his home state’s affairs. “He was also the chair of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra for a long time. And he was going to the country fairs, and helping with broadcasting stuff. He was very much a Vermonter through and through, and that wasn’t limited to motorsports by any means. He was so deeply involved with WDEV, and politicians, not that he was ever pro or against any political party or affiliate…I couldn’t tell you what his politics are. But every sitting governor in my lifetime knew that Ken was one of the first people to talk to when he or she had a message to get out.
“The relationship with Ken and the public, and its public servants, was so ridiculously deep.”
So deep that Squier could even coax the governor into singing a Christmas carol.
“When I worked for Tom Curley, the ACT office shared the building with the WDEV radio studios,” St. Louis said. “They would come over and have us do voiceovers for commercials sometimes if they couldn’t find somebody. One day, somebody from the station came over and said, ‘We need a couple of people to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ for a Christmas commercial.’ I said ‘okay, sure.’ I get over there, and Ken is in the recording studio with Governor Jim Douglas. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, you need someone to sing ‘Jingle Bells?’ The governor’s here!’ But that was how important Ken was, and forever will be, to the state, in every single walk of life.”
Squier understood the significance of local charm, something he perfected with his radio programs and translated effortlessly to his national role.
“‘Music To Go To The Dump By,’ the Saturday morning program, was the dumbest thing in the world on paper,” St. Louis said with a laugh. “But it had huge followings. And it was the same stupid songs over and over … They’re all ridiculous. Everything is very tongue-in-cheek and hokey, just over-the-top, you’re shaking your head as much as you’re laughing. And at the end of the show, they would have the hymn. They’d say ‘All right, listeners, if you’re driving, pull over, it’s time to place your hands on the radio and seek salvation, and join us in our weekly hymn.’ And they’d always play the song ‘Will You Be Ready At The Plate When Jesus Throws The Ball?’ And Ken would sing along!
“It was just kind of a backwoodsy way of life that he portrayed. Listen to the NASCAR races, his call on CBS. And he would work Vermont vernacular in there. He’d say ‘sugars off.’ ‘The battle for the lead sugaring off down the backstretch as Earnhardt pulls ahead by three car lengths.’ Well, anybody outside of Vermont who doesn’t tap maple trees, they don’t know what the hell that means. But he would bring his hometown down into the American lexicon, at least for that moment.
“He always used a lot of World War II fighter plane references, like ‘a squadron of B-52s.’ He would say things that people could identify with, no matter what part of the country or world you’re in. Nobody else does that anymore.”
One of Squier’s classic expressions was the declaration of race car drivers as “common men doing uncommon deeds.” It was that phrase that was the inspiration for the motorsports podcast St. Louis and business partner Corbett host today.
“Tom and I both worked for Ken separately and then together on WDEV,” he said. “Tom did more stick-and-ball sports, and I was a racing guy. So we worked together for years. But during COVID, we kind of got bored and said, let’s do a podcast and talk to people. And it took us about thirty seconds to come up with a name. It’s a cool name, but it’s because of Ken, and his guidance and influence on us.”
But St. Louis and Corbett needed Squier’s blessing. By then, Squier, sidelined by a bout with COVID, had even stepped back from “Music To Go To The Dump By.” So St. Louis reached out to Ashley Jane Squier, Ken’s daughter and the wife of veteran racer Robbie Crouch.
“So I called to get permission, and I spoke with Ashley,” he recalled. “And we said, I don’t know how you guys feel about this, but we want to start a podcast and we want to use ‘Uncommon Deeds’ as the name. She said, ‘Dad would love it. Go for it.’ No hesitation at all.”
Crouch was the first guest on “Uncommon Deeds,” with Ashley taking the mic to share a brief update on her father’s health struggles.
Moody, the former Thunder Road announcer who followed Squier’s path to a career with MRN and satellite radio, was up next. And in over 100 shows since, St. Louis and Corbett have interviewed a range of racing heroes, including Vermont favorites Bobby and Beaver Dragon, Canadian veteran Jean-Paul Cabana, drag racer and Vermont native Shirley Muldowney, motorcycle-racer-turned-NASCAR-wheelman Dale Quarterley, and motorsports writer Mark “Bones” Bourcier.
St. Louis wanted to get his former boss and the show’s namesake on the air, too. “We asked for almost a year to get him on the show,” he said. But Squier’s health would be the determining factor. “Ashley was kind of like, it’s gonna be a wait-and-see.”
Ultimately, they met with Squier for an interview, unsure how long Squier would be able to chat. “The moment that Tom pressed record and I asked him the first question, he was back. And there was just something about it. We were talking about Sam Nunis, who was the promoter of fairgrounds races in the ‘30s and ‘40s, like it was yesterday.”
Squier recorded a nearly ninety-minute interview for the program, which was released in early 2022 as Episode 53. St. Louis remembers the interview fondly.
But there are other tales that St. Louis says paint a better picture of Squier, from start to finish.
“In 2004, I was announcing at Airborne on a Saturday night,” he recalled. “It was an awful show. Maybe 200 fans, maybe 45 or 50 race cars in the pits. One of the drivers had a problem, and stopped his car on the frontstretch right on the start-finish line to basically throw his arms up at the tower and say, ‘what the hell?’ And so the race director sends the tow truck out to get the car off the race track. We’ve got to keep the show moving.
“So the kid is in his race car, and the tow truck comes out, and they back up to the car at the start-finish line and the tow truck guy gets out and he pulls the hood pins and he opens the hood. Well, the kid climbs out of his race car, helmet on, and starts beating on the tow truck guy, slams the hood, throws the guy to the ground, and then there’s a wrestling match and they’re punching each other.
“Me being the announcer, and 20 or 21 years old, not knowing what to do, I just cut the mic off and let the fans watch.”
It was a late night, but the weekend was far from over.
“I get home at 2:30 in the morning,” he said. “Ken comes to my house at 6am to pick me up. There’s an ACT race in Kawartha, Ontario on Sunday. Joey Laquerre was out there, and Jean Paul Cyr, and Joey Pole [Polewarczyk, a future ACT Tour star] was fourteen. It was the first race that Curley ever let him run.
“So Ken picks me up at six in the morning, and I’m on three hours of sleep, I’m exhausted. And his first thing was, ‘How was it last night?’ And I told him about the fight with the tow truck guy. And he goes, ‘Well, what did you do?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I just shut the mic off, the crowd was pretty rowdy, I didn’t want to get ‘em going.’ He said, ‘You missed an opportunity there! What are you doing? You call that like it’s Ali and Foreman! You did that all wrong! You have to entertain those people, that’s what they’re there for, and if they want to see a fight, give them a fight!’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, man!’ And it clicked with me.
“So then he throws on this jazz CD. We’re driving in his Audi, and Ken is a horrific driver. He’s driving his Audi and it is absolutely pouring rain. We go up through Burlington, we go up through Montréal. And he’s talking about jazz. He loves, loves jazz. He and Tom [Curley] owned a couple of steakhouses back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they had Dixieland jazz bands, and some jazz musicians. And there was a dinner jazz program on [WDEV]. He’s explaining the style of the piano player. ‘He’s such a minimalist, listen to him, he only plays the notes when he has to, he doesn’t even hold the keys down for very long, just listen to him.’
“Well, we’re in Montréal, we might be in Mirabel. We’re in this massive intersection, and it’s probably nine o’clock in the morning now. Crazy traffic, pouring rain, and he’s explaining this jazz musician to me. And all of a sudden, he puts his blinker on, and pulls over on the side of the road in the middle of this intersection outside the airport. He opens the door and gets out of his car, and turns facing traffic, and takes a ninety-second piss! And then gets back in the car, and he’s like, ‘So, did you hear that solo?’ I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”
St. Louis laughed, pausing to catch his breath. “That’s the Ken Squier that a lot of people don’t know,” he said.
“So we went all the way to Kawartha, eight and a half or nine hours each way. It rained out. We were there for 15 minutes, we took one slow lap in the rain around the race track and we left. I don’t think we ever got out of the car. We turned around and went home. And that was the greatest trip I’ve ever had to a race track.”
Squier, who made his career telling of the uncommon deeds of common men, spoke of what he knew.
“He is a common man, let me tell you,” said St. Louis with a chuckle.
A common man, but one whose fingerprints remain indelibly upon not only national motorsports, but grassroots racing as well.
Such is Ken Squier’s legacy. Not only did he cultivate an incredible presence, but he shared that gift and cultivated future generations, preparing people like Moody, St. Louis, Corbett, and countless others to give back for years to come.
With a sense of pride, St. Louis said, “He made us who we are, man.”