It was the summer of 1980 and the late, great Larry Rice and I were walking into Whitewater Speedway to get ready for hot laps in the USAC midget show. We were stopped by two fellows and a cameraman and asked to make some comments on that night’s race. One of the guys was Larry Nuber, who sold advertising for Channel 13 in Indianapolis, and the other was Bob Jenkins, the farm director of WIRE in Indy, who had been a backstretch reporter for the IMS radio network the past couple Mays.
They explained they had taken a job for a new network that was going to cover sports 24 hours a day, and in need of programming, ESPN had chosen USAC racing. “We’re not sure this interview will air, but we’re just getting a much material as possible,” said Jenkins.
Driving home after the race Rice asked if I thought ESPN would make it. “Not a chance,” I replied. “I just hope those guys didn’t quit their full-time jobs.”
Well, nice call Miller, because as we all know now, not only did ESPN become a daily staple of American life, but Jenkins became one of the most recognizable voices and faces in motorsports for the next three decades.
How a farm reporter got to become a national television presence in auto racing is a story that’s almost as unlikely as how he got his gig at WIRE.
“I had worked at a couple AM stations in Fort Wayne and Valparaiso and then this job opened up at WIRE,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about farming or agriculture or hog prices, but it paid more money than I’d ever made, and I got a company car. Hell, I figured I’d spent the rest of my life right there.
A friendship with WIBC reporter Paul Page turned out to be Bob’s gateway into racing.
“I owe so much to Paul, because he got me started,”continues the 73-year-old native of Liberty, IN., referring to the longtime voice of Indy 500. “Paul got me on the IMS radio network, then we formed the USAC Radio Network, and then he got me hired at ESPN. And Terry Lingner has done so much for my career, and is also one of my best friends.
Lingner was on the ground floor of ESPN and blossomed into one of racing’s best producers/ideas men for the next 40 years, while also launching SPEED WEEK, Thursday Night Thunder, the FastMasters series and getting Jenkins into stock cars.
“It was a wild time because you had Turner, the Nashville Network and ESPN splitting up the NASCAR races, so early on I got Larry and Bob to call Darlington and Rockingham,” says Lingner. “There was a little pushback at first because we were all northerners, but Bill France Jr. was very supportive and gave us a shot.
“I kinda talked Benny Parsons into retiring and coming to work with us, and a lot of people pitched in to help Bob learn about NASCAR, and with Ned Jarrett it turned out to be a magical booth.”
And, as much as it pains the open-wheel devotee, Bob, Benny and Ned helped increase NASCAR’s popularity to unimaginable heights, starting in the early ‘80s all the way to its zenith in the early 2000s.
“It’s crazy because I had zero interest in NASCAR and I’m not sure how it happened, but I imagine Terry (Lingner) was behind it,” recalls Jenkins. “I was afraid NASCAR wouldn’t accept me because of where I was from and what I really liked, which was Indy cars, midgets and sprints.
“I got paired with B.P. and Ned and we had such a good chemistry, just sitting around talking about the race. There wasn’t a whole lot of play-by-play or analysis, just three guys shooting the breeze at a race track.”
Of course Bob’s real desire was to call the Indianapolis 500, and he got to do it on the IMS network from 1990-1998, and then on ABC from 1999-2003. In between his TV work he was always a presence on the IMS public address system. “Since 1979 I’ve never not had some kind of job at IMS,” he says proudly. “Be it radio, TV or PA system.
“My dad took me to Terre Haute, Eldora and New Bremen and I’ve always been such a fan, so this whole career has been amazing because I had no idea this could happen. I’ve been so lucky.”
Well, ‘lucky’ is a relative term. He beat colon cancer in 1983 and then lost his wife, Pam, to brain cancer in 2012. Now he’s battling brain cancer with chemo and radiation treatments, but maintains a positive attitude: “I beat it once, and I’m going to beat this too,” he says.
A long time ago, Jay Baker, Dave Scoggan and I had a weekly racing radio show called The Truth. It was a little sadistic and we weren’t real popular at the time, so one night we wondered out loud if it was possible there is anyone in racing that wasn’t hated? Our conclusion was that Bob Jenkins was liked by everyone, and Bake anointed him the “Beloved Jenks.”
And that’s never been more obvious than the past few weeks after his cancer diagnosis. Very few of us are lucky enough to be able to make a career out of what we love most, but Bob did it with talent, a little help from friends,a lot of charm and an undeniable passion for people and racing. And that’s helping him right now.
“It’s so humbling to have race drivers text or tweet about how they’re pulling for me, and the nicest one I got was from Simon Pagenaud, who I don’t really know that well,” he says. “He said my voice was like a hug to those coming to the Speedway every May, and that just broke me up. My family is the people I’ve heard from in last two weeks, they care for me, and it means everything.”