Remembering Bob Jenkins

Most of my childhood heroes are gone now. That’s one of the problems with growing old; all of the people you looked up to as a child are no longer around. AJ, Mario and Big Al are still with us, but Father Time spares no one. I consider my adulthood to have started when I went off to college in the fall of 1976. Many of those that I have looked up to as an adult are still with us, although even some of them have been taken from us, far too soon. One of those left us on Monday, when Bob Jenkins passed away at the age of seventy-three.

We’ve all read a lot about Jenkins over the last couple of days; how Paul Page gave him his start on the IMS Radio as an announcer on the backstretch for the 1979 Indianapolis 500. Later that same year, he joined the fledgling ESPN to cover motorsports, as the new network was desperate for any sports-related content.

My first recollection of Bob Jenkins was when he hosted SpeedWeek, which ran with Jenkins as host from 1983 to 1997. I can’t remember exactly when I first started watching SpeedWeek, but I know it wasn’t from the beginning because I could not afford cable in 1983. But somewhere in the mid-eighties, I started watching and Bob Jenkins was a big reason. I can remember comparing him to Walter Cronkite at the time. He had a friendly face and a silky smooth delivery that made you think he was speaking directly to you.

You could also feel his passion for the sport. He wasn’t a talking head reading from a script, nor someone screaming at us just to try and generate excitement. You could feel the genuine excitement coming from him, even in his modest and slightly understated passion. Viewers and listeners could also feel his true appreciation to get to do what he did for a living.

I didn’t watch NASCAR much in those days, but when I did – it was because I was channel surfing and if I heard that familiar voice of Bob’s, I would stop and watch.

At the time, I had no idea he was an open-wheel fan at heart. He came across as an expert on NASCAR, although he never spoke authoritatively to fans – it was more like he was letting viewers listen in to a racing conversation he was a part of in the booth.

When he succeeded Lou Palmer as the “Voice of the 500” in 1990, it fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams. Some of his calls on the IMS Radio Network during his tenure from 1990 to 1998 are some of the most iconic sound clips in the history of the Indianapolis 500. From 1999 through 2001, Jenkins was the booth announcer for ABC for the Indianapolis 500, before stepping into the host role in 2002.

Newer fans will recall that Bob Jenkins was the TV voice for IndyCar beginning in 2009, when the series began their new association with Versus, which later morphed into NBCSN. His voice gave the new network instant credibility. Unfortunately, Jenkins announced in 2012 that he would be stepping away from the booth at the end of the season in order to take care of his wife, Pam, who was suffering from brain cancer. She died in October of that year.

Throughout the rest of the decade, you could always hear that velvety smooth voice of Bob Jenkins on the IMS PA. He was inducted into the IMS Hall of Fame in 2019. This past February, Jenkins announced that, like his wife a decade earlier, he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He discussed his diagnosis and his career with IMS President Doug Boles shortly afterward, in an emotional interview from the IMS Museum.

Robin Miller claims that Bob Jenkins was the only person he knew of that nobody hated. I guess that’s a unique way of saying he was beloved by all. I can certainly see that.

Back in 2010 when this site was less than a year old and I was an eager young(er) lowly blogger, covering my first race with media credentials at the Inaugural Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Not that I know what I’m doing now, but I sure didn’t back then. On the Friday of the race weekend, I felt the need to go up and introduce myself to all of the people I recognized, which is totally against my nature. Most people that day, who will go unnamed, blew me off totally. Three people took the time to actually talk to me that day and carry on a conversation; Curt Cavin, Kevin Lee and Bob Jenkins.

No offense to Curt and Kevin, because I had not been listening to their voices for very long at the time. But when I heard that voice of Bob Jenkins, the one I had been hearing on TV for most of my adult life, talking directly to me and actually asking me questions – I will admit I got star-struck, and I’m sure he could tell it. But he was thoughtful and kind, as he tried to help me muddle through the conversation.

From what we have all heard over the last two days, the words “thoughtful and kind” sum up the man that was Bob Jenkins. It sounds like Robin Miller’s assessment was right. Throughout his wonderful broadcasting career and his long association with IMS, thoughtful and kind are probably the most appropriate and best things anyone can say about Bob Jenkins.

As we all grow older, I think it is only natural for each of us to think about our own mortality and what people will say about us when we are gone. I certainly have, since cancer invaded our household a little over a year ago. From all accounts, Bob Jenkins deserves every ounce of praise that he has received this week and for his entire life. He lived his life with dignity and he died with dignity. Rest in peace, Mr. Jenkins. You’ve earned it.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Remembering Bob Jenkins”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Jenkins was always pleasant and professional on air, but also always clearly passionate. That’s a hard balance to pull off: trying to be too pleasant can make you come across insincere, too professional can seem disengaged, and too passionate can come out as shrill. A lot of racing announcers I like and respect actually stumble into these categories from time to time, but Bob never really did. Even his occasional gaffes were endearing rather than frustrating (“Sao Paolo, Brassiere”), because he always showed us he loved the sport as much as we did.

    I loved hearing his voice slip through from the PA into the practice and qualifying broadcasts and I’m sad that he is no longer with us. I am glad he was able to make it to the 500 earlier this year.

  2. James T Suel Says:

    RIP Bob JEnkins..your point about so many of our heros passing really hit home with me. I can still remember being at Salem Indiana and watching Troy Ruttman on the highbanks.i eReader well when we lost Bill Vouchvich, I was only 5 but my farther was a fan so I always followed his lead. It’s tuff seeing all that have passed. At 71 iam getting old with them.

  3. Beautiful tribute George. It seems so simple in retrospect, but there’s something to be said about looking at someone’s life when they pass and realizing that person did it the right way. I admire that. RIP Bob Jenkins!

  4. Bob was definitely part of my childhood. He and his good friend Paul Page were the voices of racing I remember from my early years. Few could match Bob’s enthusiasm, and no one could question his credibility, though the late Benny Parsons sure doubted his relationship with numbers.

    Though I feel sad upon learning about the death of any racing figure I was familiar with, I don’t often shed tears. I sure did when we lost Bob.

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