Hall of Fame announcer Roger Huston will make a return appearance to the place that launched his career when he visits the Champaign County Fair on Tuesday, Aug. 7.
Huston, 76, will call harness races for the fair, just as he did back in 1965.
“Basically, they asked me to. I’ve started going back to Xenia and I went back to Wilmington last year. As you get older, they bring you back, I guess. It’s a sentimental thing for me. I got started in Urbana. There’s a lot of fond memories,” Huston said.
Huston called races at the Champaign County Fair as a teenager when, as the story goes, his uncle left him in charge of the microphone for a bathroom break. Uncle Don, however, never returned, leaving Roger to work the races alone. One thing led to another and Huston ended up spending his life behind a microphone.
“I carried out groceries, I had a newspaper route. I worked for the radio station while I was going to college. I was actually going to be a school teacher. The day I got my diploma from Wilmington College, I got hired to go to the Red Mile and I never taught school. One thing led to another and it became a full-time career,” he said.
Huston has now called over 178,000 races and still averages between 2,500 and 3,000 per year. Next week, his schedule is going to be packed, driving six hours from his gig in Pennsylvania to Urbana, then going back to Pennsylvania for more calls before heading to Dublin, Ireland.
“You just do what you’re scheduled to do. It’s going to be a hectic two or three days. I guarantee, if it’d been any other place other than Urbana on that Tuesday night, I wouldn’t have taken it. I wouldn’t have considered going any place other than Urbana. It’s special,” Huston said.
Huston’s successor at the fair, Doug Ballinger, took over in 1974 and has been calling the races ever since.
“This is my 44th year at Urbana and my 44th year at Greenville. Those are my two longest-running fairs,” Ballinger said. “It’s just a great part-time job. I didn’t do it full-time like Roger did. I’ve had opportunities to go full-time, and just never really had any interest in it.”
Instead, Ballinger worked for 42 years with Reynolds and Reynolds and worked 40 nights per year as an announcer.
“My wife Nancy and I spend the winters in Florida. I thank Roger Huston for this every day. There’s many winter mornings when I’m driving my golf cart to the golf course where we live on a warm, sunny morning, and if it wouldn’t be for him giving me my start for this great part-time job, I probably wouldn’t be spending my winters in Florida,” Ballinger said.
Ballinger said in 1969, he was 16 years old and grooming a horse named Katfish for the races when he heard a booming, vibrant voice over the speakers.
“I’d always been fascinated by race announcers, but had never dreamed about or had any desire to be an announcer. I probably wanted to ride horses,” he said. “When we got to the track, I heard this announcer and it was a voice like I’d never heard before. It actually gave me chills.
“Katfish won the race that night, and Roger would tape record the races and send a congratulations card to the owners of the winners. You could purchase a recording of the race, so the owners purchased that and they let me listen to it. I actually made a copy of it and I would play it over and over and over. I knew word-for-word his race call and I would pattern myself after him and try to sound like him when we’d race our bikes.”
A chance encounter at Scioto Downs years later led to Huston and Ballinger meeting and Huston mentoring Ballinger and partnering with him to take over many of the fairs in the area.
“I do about 14 county fairs throughout Ohio now and I’ve probably called 25,000 races in my lifetime. I also have been filling in as a backup announcer at Hoosier Park in Anderson, Indiana. I fill in some at Miami Valley Gaming and Hollywood Casino in Dayton,” Ballinger said.
With such a seasoned pair of voices on hand to call races, Tuesday night should be harness racing heaven for enthusiasts and laymen alike.
Reach Justin Miller at 652-1331 (ext. 1776) or on Twitter @UDC_Miller.