Memory Lane with Bob Jenkins (Part I)

Undoubtedly, Bob Jenkins blessed everyone in racing with his presence and contributions to motorsports. (Photo: Ron McQueeney)

Undoubtedly, Bob Jenkins blessed everyone in racing with his presence and contributions to motorsports. (Photo: Ron McQueeney)

Altogether, motorsports fans likely grew up watching races with or met racing announcer Bob Jenkins. By all means, the Richmond, Ind. native considered himself a lucky race fan who kept fans updated on all things in motorsports.

Similarly, Bob Jenkins inspired a bevy of journalists, broadcasters, and racers with his everyman approach. Remarkably, Jenkins possessed humility, grace, and kindness.

Personally, writing about Bob Jenkins in the past tense proves quite difficult. Sadly, Jenkins, aged 73, lost his courageous battle against brain cancer on August 9, 2021.

Certainly, on a personal and professional level, Bob Jenkins’ spirit lives on with each of us. In this case, I corresponded with Jenkins in the summer of 2000 asking for his career advice.

Nearly 21 years ago, Bob Jenkins shared how multiple routes exist for motorsports. He appreciated my praises for him and the ESPN and ABC NASCAR broadcasting team. Moreover, he inspired a then 14-year-old Massachusetts kid with following his dreams.

Late last year, I interviewed Bob Jenkins in commemoration of my 30 years of motorsports passion. Indeed, Jenkins, the late Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, Dr. Jerry Punch, and John Kernan were part of the ESPN broadcast I watched in my living room back in 1991.

Definitely, Bob Jenkins shared some great memories. Sure, it’s not about remembering the winners and every detail. However, during the onset of the pandemic, Jenkins and I enjoyed this conversation.

In Part I of II of this special interview, I caught up with Bob Jenkins in the fall of 2020. Initially a special interview for my “30 Years of NASCAR” project, this interview is in honor and memory of Bob Jenkins. Here’s Part I of “Memory Lane with Bob Jenkins,” edited for brevity and clarity.

The Beginnings

Rob Tiongson : 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of your very first on-track NASCAR race that you called at Rockingham on ESPN with Eli Gold and Ned Jarrett as a pit reporter. Growing up in Indiana, what do you recall about that day and bringing stock car racing to new audiences across the country?

Generally speaking, Bob Jenkins applied himself with any races he announced. (Photo: Chris Jones)

Generally speaking, Bob Jenkins applied himself with any races he announced. (Photo: Chris Jones)

Bob Jenkins : I was not very educated on NASCAR racing. You know, growing up in Indiana, I was an open-wheel fan. I grew up watching sprint cars and midgets. In fact, my father-in-law raced midgets. Now, this was before I met his daughter who became my wife [Pam]. But still, I went to a lot of races with him and my family, mainly sprint car races more than any. And I always considered my home track Eldora.

But Eldora Speedway was probably right about an hour away from where I grew up in extreme East Central Indiana. And so it was a relatively short trip over there. So I was an open-wheel fan. I loved the Indy 500. And when I got the call announcing NASCAR racing, I had very little knowledge of who had done what.

Of course, I knew the big names. I knew (Richard) Petty and (Cale) Yarborough and (David) Pearson and all those guys. But as far as the history of the sport, I knew very little. I would watch them on television before I started doing television. But [I] just didn’t have the background in NASCAR that I had an open-wheel racing. So, I was kind of scared. Eli helped a lot.

I don’t remember again very much about that day. I do remember doing what we call the stand-up, the show’s opening with him and me standing together and welcoming everybody. But other than that, I don’t remember much about the race. I have no idea who won.

And, the other thing that I recall was that after maybe just one, two, maybe three [races], I was taken off of NASCAR. And [I] missed a few races and put back on NASCAR.

I didn’t know the reason for my dismissal for a while. I didn’t know whether it was ESPN or NASCAR. But anyway, it all worked out, and started doing them regularly, of course, as time went on.

Tiongson : Well, I’m glad that you returned. Because I think it’d be a different story in 2020 if you weren’t doing it. So, wow, I never knew that. And it’s interesting that you didn’t know much about what happened. You took up the assignment. You definitely made it pretty authentic that you were knowledgeable about it.

Jenkins : I was gonna say, it doesn’t take long to learn. For one thing that confused me, in INDYCAR racing, for the most part, your numbers change from year to year. If you become the champion, you usually adopt the No. 1.

And so I was kind of confused when the champion [in NASCAR] from the previous year did not wear No. 1 on his car. But like I say, it doesn’t take long getting to know the type of racing that I saw.

Of course, it was quite different from INDYCAR racing. But it doesn’t take long and I had great help. So I adapted pretty soon, I think after I started doing it. And just as time went on, I, of course, grew to like NASCAR racing and enjoyed [it], especially the people I worked with within the series.

Tiongson : Now that’s awesome and comforting for someone like me where it’s kind of the opposite. NASCAR’s been in my sport, but I’ve been branching out to other reasons series like INDYCAR, or even F1 at this point. Just because I feel like I should always challenge myself.

So it’s comforting knowing that 40 years later, even when technology’s changing if you have a passion for racing and you’re willing to learn and take on challenges, more than likely, you will definitely do the best you can with success. And I would say, definitely, you did as someone from Indiana and grew up in the open-wheel world for sure.

Uniquely, Bob Jenkins meshed with any broadcasting colleague like the late Larry Nuber. (Photo: ESPN Images)

Uniquely, Bob Jenkins meshed with any broadcasting colleague like the late Larry Nuber. (Photo: ESPN Images)

Jenkins : When I worked for ESPN, the first race we did was a sprint car race. We did a couple of sprint car races in late 1979. And then at ’80, we started branching out a little bit.

But I did before ESPN, when I first worked for them in 1979, I did drag racing. I also did quite a bit of off-road racing, calling them, not doing it. (laughs) But doing off-road races, and just about every form of motorsports because, yeah, it’s true. I love any kind of motorsports.

Whether it be in a straight line or an oval or are over the terrain, I’d love it. And I can learn to love or learn to know about a particular form of motorsports, just by working on it and, you know, trying to know a lot about it. So I’m glad it worked out that way because I spent quite a few years during NASCAR racing and enjoyed it.

Tiongson : Now I’m sure on behalf of a lot of fans and journalists from the past and present who looked up to you, we are all so thankful that you played a big part in our lives for sure.

Jenkins : Thank you.

Inspirations

Tiongson : Growing up in Indiana, you talked about how your father-in-law kind of played a big role in the genesis of your passion for racing.

But let’s just talk about some of the broadcasters and journalists who might have inspired you with your career and journey. Can you name who they were and kind of decided, “You know what? I may not want to be driving these cars, but I’ll certainly call the action?”

For many racing fans, Bob Jenkins (center), Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett remain the best around. (Photo: ESPN Images)

For many racing fans, Bob Jenkins (center), Benny Parsons, and Ned Jarrett remain the best around. (Photo: ESPN Images)

Jenkins : Well, of course, being an Indy 500 fan, I was always fascinated with Sid Collins, the original voice of the 500. When I would go to the 500. I was always intrigued with Tom Carnegie, who was the public address announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So, they played a big role in my decision to try to get into that kind of work. But there were also people on TV that I thought a great deal of.

But Ken Squier. …I mean, he was around before I started. I always admired his knowledge and his smoothness when he did NASCAR racing. And a few others that I can’t remember right now. But yeah, I had quite a few people that I idolized and wanted to be like.

Now, when Ned (Jarrett) and Benny (Parsons) and I first started working together, we decided among the three of us that we were not going to be like other broadcasters that were in this sport. We wanted to do a very relaxed play-by-play and a discussion of what happened, not necessarily a strict play-by-play with a lot of statistics. And so on.

I think that’s one of the reasons why the three of us got a lot of respect from race fans. We wanted to make you feel like we were in the room with you watching the race and talking about it, rather than, you know, your traditional broadcast of a race of play by play.

Tiongson : You nailed it right there. And it’s like, you guys were literally in our living rooms calling the race. It’s like the living room grew a little bit bigger, we invited you to a different couch to call the race. And we may have not given you the refreshments that you needed. But you know, you certainly made it very fun.

And that’s so true about the very at-home atmosphere. I think it’s something as a journalist, I’m very much in connection with the landscape of today with NASCAR. That’s certainly missing.

But, you mentioned Ken Squire. He’s another person that I’ve looked up to as well. So knowing that he kind of played an instrumental role with your career as well, it just made me feel it’s a full circle if you will. And kind of makes me feel like I’m now on the right path if you will.

Jenkins : Right, right. One of the other things that we decided to do, you know, is there’s a big difference between broadcasting and writing or journalism. If you make a mistake while you’re writing a story, you can go back and correct it. And you can do that even easier, now, of course, with computers. We used typewriters back in my day, but you can go back and correct it.

When I or anyone else in broadcasting said something wrong, or we thought we shouldn’t have said, we decided that the best thing to do was pointing it out right there. And Benny, as you probably know, did that a lot and I loved it. And so did he.

You know, he loved making fun of me and correcting me. And I had fun taking it from him and acting like “Oh, brother, you know, I’m dumb. I’m sorry.” (laughs) That was the other thing is that we changed about broadcasting races.

Tiongson : I remember that from my childhood and re-watching races because of people uploading these races on YouTube. He’d say, “Bob, Mark Martin didn’t start his NASCAR career in 1988. It was like, in 1981.”

Jenkins : Exactly. That’s exactly right. That’s what I wanted to point out my mistake and not knock me over the head and then we’ll move on. (laughs)

Tiongson : I loved that about you guys. Because it’s so authentic. It’s so cool. And it’s sorely missed. I think that’s why a lot of us, you know, now in our 30s are going, “Man, you know, we don’t care so much who’s driving these cars. But we would do anything for that kind of approach for today” amongst the glitz and glamour that we see nowadays.

But you know, that’s why I’m glad we got YouTube today. I can fire up any races in my office right now. And I could after this call, I can literally watch the 1997 Southern 500. There you are calling Jeff Gordon’s million-dollar win [at Darlington]. Oh, man, that just brings me back to being 12 years old all over again. Well, we’ll talk about that later. (laughter) Oh, my goodness.

Impartiality

Tiongson : As a common courtesy, of course, whether you’re a broadcaster like you or a journalist like me, we must be impartial. But after all these years, you know, who are some drivers that you marveled over or respected from your perspective? And you could say, “You know, I’m actually very lucky that I called their races?”

Expressly, Bob Jenkins recalled his friendship with the late Dan Wheldon. (Photo: Dan Helrigel)

Expressly, Bob Jenkins recalled his friendship with the late Dan Wheldon. (Photo: Dan Helrigel)

Jenkins : Jeff Gordon. Because Jeff Gordon and I met when he was 15 years old. He drove a sprint car on the other side of Florida from Daytona. We had gone down to Daytona to do some stories regarding SpeedWeek and the month of February. But on an off night, we decided to go over to a track called East Bay, near Tampa, and watch Jeff Gordon drive a sprint car. And from that moment on, I knew that he was going to be a superstar. And I was so glad that you know he moved to Indiana he would.

I don’t know whether you remember SpeedWeek or not. But it was a weekly show that we did from Indianapolis. And when he moved to Brownsburg, he would just stop in the office now and then and sit down and talk with us. I thought, “Wow, what a great kid. And I know that he’s going to have a name that we will remember for a long time.”

And that’s the way it turned out to be. So I’m very glad that I was around when Jeff raced. And one of the thrills that I’ve got was calling his win at the Brickyard, the Brickyard 400 [in 1994]. That pleased me a lot.

I’ve never wanted to and I’ve never felt I did have favorites as far as who I wanted to win. I just, at the end of a race, if everybody was in good health, and nothing major had happened, I was pleased. I don’t care who won. But anyway, yeah, I think he was probably one.

I’ve always not wanted to become good friends with race drivers. And I think this applies more to INDYCAR than NASCAR because I always felt that if I got real close to a race driver, and he and I were good buddies, and then something happened to him, I would be devastated.

Well, that’s exactly what happened because I became very close with Dan Wheldon. He joined our broadcast booth doing INDYCAR races. And when he lost his life in Las Vegas [in 2011], it hurt me. And I think that’s one of, at least, maybe the minor contributing factors as to why I wanted to get out of racing itself.

I also never cared a hoot about who won in terms of cars. But I remember receiving letters from a lady. It turned out to be a lady. And it’s surprising because the person writing the letters that were sent to me after almost every race I did, there were words in there that I would never have used. And I don’t think a lot of sailors would be used. I mean, she threw the ball around. And we did find out it was a woman.

We just couldn’t believe that some female could be using the language that she used. But she accused me of being a Ford fan and expressing my love for Ford on the air. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t care who in the world what kind of car wins a race, for goodness sake. (laughs) But she let me have it on a lot of occasions back then.

Tiongson : Well, you know, I guess if you’re getting those kinds of complaints, you must be doing something right, because at least she listened to you.

Jenkins : So yeah, that’s very, very true. I’m glad that happened in that respect. Yes. (laughter)

Tiongson : Maybe not the way that’s in reaction, of course, you were looking for. But in a sense, I can kind of relate to that. Because sometimes when I’m live-tweeting races, I’ll get accused of something you might say to me, like, why do you like this driver? And I’m like, I don’t, I’m not showing any objectivity.

You know, so I guess you’re attracting the attention. Even if it’s the ones you don’t want to get, I guess you’re doing something right. But I have to say the thing with the seven years I watched, I don’t think you ever showed any favoritism.

Jenkins : We let her have her say anyway. And I guess that was the important thing. (laughs)

Tiongson : There you go. I think that’s something that we could all try to do today as well. I feel like you’ve read my questions in advance, but of course, you did not. But you touched upon Jeff’s journey. And I do we remember SpeedWeek by the way. I actually used to record it every, I think, Wednesday or Thursday. And that’s what kind of made me want to do this whole journalism career that I love.

SpeedWeek and Traveling

Tiongson : Not only were you a play-by-play announcer, but you also did a lot of reporting as well. So when you got to use your strengths as a storyteller and letting, as I said earlier, letting the person you’re interviewing tell the story, how special was it bringing those features to race fans, even if you know, they didn’t know about a certain individual?

In general, Bob Jenkins enjoyed his weekly ESPN show "SpeedWeek" from 1983 to '97. (Photo: Shawn Payne)

In general, Bob Jenkins enjoyed his weekly ESPN show “SpeedWeek” from 1983 to ’97. (Photo: Shawn Payne)

Jenkins : I love writing, I do. And I still do a little bit of it. Not for publication. But I just do it for myself. Of course, I wrote the foreword for Tony Stewart’s book, which I loved.

Doing SpeedWeek was fun in that you could create stories and shoot video and, you know, make a little video stories packages that we’ve all done. And also I loved doing studio work. I enjoyed doing SpeedWeek. It was something that I had never done before. And I got a lot of good out of that show.

I’m so glad that I was able to do it through its run, which ended, in my estimation, too soon but it was fun while it lasted. I was quite busy. Well, we usually took Monday off. Sometimes we didn’t if we didn’t have a race.

But a lot of times, you know, we do SpeedWeek on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we would take the show on Friday. And then I would leave Friday night to go to a NASCAR race. That became quite a schedule for me.

So when it ended, I relaxed and enjoyed traveling a little bit more than I did when I had to do it. But I’m glad SpeedWeek was there and I’m glad it lasted as long as it did. And I can be a part of it.

Travel was always the worst thing for me. When you don’t have to do it, you think, “Man, it’s cool to jump on a plane on Friday and go to a race and come back on Sunday night or Monday morning.”

Yeah, it was for three or four times. And then it got old and it became a job which I didn’t want it to be. So, if I didn’t have the travel associated with it, I think I would have enjoyed my job a whole lot more.

Editor’s Notes

Forever, special thanks to Bob Jenkins for taking the time last fall for this interview. Moreover, thank you for everything, Bob. Part II of my interview with Bob Jenkins comes later this week with the full podcast interview. For now, Rest in Peace, Bob. Prayers to your family and friends who’ll remember you forever.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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