Dana Hunsinger Benbow
INDIANAPOLIS — Bob Jenkins was the iconic auto racing broadcaster who called the Indianapolis 500's closest finish and who, off the track, was a music aficionado. He was a humble rarity in a media world of egos who always said of his career, "I was just a race fan who got lucky."
Jenkins died Monday after an 8-month battle with brain cancer, according to Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles. He was 73.
Jenkins was a kid from Liberty, Indiana, whose older brother first told him about the Indy 500. A race with cars speeding around a track for 500 miles sounded magical to Jenkins.
Not long after, his dad took Jenkins on a trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for qualifications in 1958. Two years later, he went to his first Indy 500 and, until his cancer diagnosis, Jenkins missed only two races – 1961 and 1965.
In 1961, he wanted desperately to go, but he was 13 and didn't have a ride.
"I should have put an ad in the paper, shouldn’t I?” Jenkins told IndyStar in February when he announced he was battling brain cancer.
He missed the 1965 Indy 500 because he was on his senior trip to Washington, D.C. While classmates left the bus to tour the Washington Monument and other sites around the nation's capital, Jenkins stayed on the bus with a transistor radio to his ear listening to the race.
That a kid obsessed with cars whizzing at 200 miles an hour got to eventually be the "Voice of the 500" and work in IndyCar and NASCAR for ESPN and NBC Sports, was always a wonder to Jenkins.
"I always have been and am now a race fan who got lucky," Jenkins told IndyStar in May. "I did not put myself on a pedestal just because I had a high-profile job on radio or television. That does not make me better.
"All I want to be remembered as is a race fan who got a job in radio or TV. And for some reason, people liked me."
Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 winner, was one of those people. Jenkins was such a fixture at the track, he can't exactly remember when he first met Jenkins.
"Bob Jenkins, over the years, he was just a figure that was always there and very much front and center in Indianapolis," said Andretti. "His voice is just absolutely unique. I would always know who was talking."
"He was just one of those that developed his career alongside ours, you know," Andretti said. "He was one of us in every way."
'What a thrill'
Jenkins was born Sept. 4, 1947, in Richmond, Ind., and raised in nearby Liberty. He graduated from Short High School in 1965 and Indiana University in 1969. The only thing Jenkins loved more than racing was music.
He had an expansive collection of 45 records and knew, it seemed, every song ever produced, even if if was a one-hit wonder by a 6-member Dutch band, said Jake Query, a friend of Jenkins and turn announcer for IndyCar.
"It was amazing, amazing to be in the car with him going to and from racetracks from the hotel," he said. "We’d put on "'60s on 6" or "'50s on 5" on (Sirius) XM radio and literally every single song, it was a challenge for everyone but him. He would name within five notes the artist, the song and the year."
Out of IU, radio disk jockey was the gig Jenkins wanted. He took a job as a radio news reporter instead to get his foot in the door.
Paul Page, the play-by-play commentator for the Indy 500 for 27 years in radio and TV, caught wind of Jenkins as his local radio career flourished. Before the 1979 Indy 500, he asked Jenkins to join the IMS Radio Network.
Jenkins started the first two years calling action of the backstretch. From there, he moved to Turn 4 from 1981-89 before joining the famous motorsports fraternity of those dubbed the “Voice of the 500” – a role he served from 1990-98.
From there, he turned to TV, then IMS PA announcer.
Jenkins' most famous on-air moment came in the closing seconds of the 1992 Indy 500, the first of two won by Al Unser Jr. The victor prevailed in a seven-lap battle following the final green flag of the race in a sequence where Unser Jr. zig-zagged up and down the track trying to break Scott Goodyear’s draft.
The two came to the final straightaway with the eventual runner-up closing in on Unser Jr. to create what is still the tightest finish in the Indy 500: 0.043 seconds.
Longtime announcer Bob Lamey handed off the mic from his spot in Turn 4 that afternoon.
“Al Unser Jr. has the lead, one more turn to go. Here they come, coming to the finish line. Bob Jenkins, who’s going to win it?”
“The checkered flag is out. Goodyear makes a move. Little Al wins by just a few tenths of a second, perhaps the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Al Unser Jr. has become the first second-generation driver to win an Indianapolis 500. Al Unser Jr. has done it, holding off the challenge from Scott Goodyear.”
Listening back to that call, Jenkins said in February, still gave him chills.
“I just don’t know who to thank most for giving me the opportunity to be part of the Radio Network and the closest finish in history,” he said. “What a thrill."
'He pinched himself every single day'
Through his career, Jenkins also worked in television, calling IndyCar and NASCAR for ESPN/ABC and NBC Sports.
Terry Lingner began working with Jenkins at ESPN in 1980. The two were also partners with Speedweek, one of the longest magazine style shows in ESPN’s history.
"I can’t even count the number of shows that I had the privilege to be in his ear," Lingner said. "Love is not a big enough word. Damn cancer. "
He often heard Jenkins talk about being lucky when it came to his career.
"Lucky only pertains to a circumstance," he said. "After that moment, you better have the skill."
Jenkins had the skill and so much more, said Doug Boles, president of IMS.
"Part of the reason that Bob is so loved is that the race fans knew Bob was a fan," he said. "You could tell by the way he told the stories. His passion came through in everything he did."
And there was his unpretentious character that also endeared him to fans.
"There has never been a day Bob Jenkins walked into a room and said, 'Hey, I'm Bob Jenkins, look at me.'" said Boles. "He still doesn't get it. He never understood what a big, big deal he was."
When Jenkins' TV contract expired, he went from anchor to doing turn announcing. Query remembers wondering how someone that had been at the pinnacle as an anchor could come back at what would seemingly be a lower position.
"Then the very first race he was on, I realized I was the dumb one there," Query said. "He did it because he loved racing. He had no ego whatsoever. There was no one I ever worked with that was less impressed by his rank than Bob Jenkins.
"He pinched himself every single day."
Jenkins was inducted into the IMS Hall of Fame in 2019, alongside the late Dan Wheldon.
“Bob has brought to life some of the most memorable moments in IMS history — the closest ‘500’ finish in 1992 and Jeff Gordon’s victory at the inaugural Brickyard 400 immediately come to mind,” Tony George, president of the IMS Foundation, said at the time. "His contributions to the Speedway are many."
That induction was the most emotional Query ever saw Jenkins.
"It meant everything to him," he said. "It meant everything."
'My family is my race fans'
It was Christmas night when Jenkins woke up with an excruciating headache, one that couldn't be ignored. He went to a Crawfordsville hospital near his home for a CAT scan and then on to another hospital for an in-depth MRI.
Doctors found the cause of the headache: two malignant tumors in his right temple.
Jenkins, who overcame colon cancer decades ago and who lost his wife to brain cancer in 2012, announced his diagnosis to IndyCar fans in February on IMS's "Behind the Bricks" YouTube show.
“With God’s help and my beloved race fans, I’m going to make it,” Jenkins said, fighting back tears. “I don’t have a large family – I have a niece and a nephew – but I consider the first people I should tell is my family, and my family is my race fans."
His plan at the time was to not completely retire and hopefully work public address in May. But in the days leading up to the race, Jenkins was able to get to the track only twice and he didn't work.
One of those visits came after a doctor's appointment that didn't bring good news. Boles invited Jenkins to IMS.
"We stood on the the yard of bricks for an hour and he just told stories," Boles said. "It was just really neat to see him at the place he loved so much, have it all to himself, telling stories."
The cards and letters are still coming in to IMS for Jenkins, Boles said. There have been more than 1,000 since he announced his battle in February.
From Parnelli Jones to the everyday race fan.
"They all have stories," said Boles, "about how they fell in love with the sport because of Bob Jenkins."