IRL: Indy500: Bob Jenkins brings passion for Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 27, 2000 -- If Bob Jenkins could be anywhere other than the ABC broadcasting booth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, it would be in the car of Andy Hillenburg, who will start last in the...

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 27, 2000 -- If Bob Jenkins could be anywhere other than the ABC broadcasting booth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, it would be in the car of Andy Hillenburg, who will start last in the Indianapolis 500. Jenkins' emotional passion for the race and his understanding of what it means to make the "500" field match that of Hillenburg, who was brought to tears last Sunday when his car survived the bumping procedure. At age 37, Hillenburg finally reached his boyhood dream of qualifying for the "500." Jenkins, a Hoosier like Hillenburg, will anchor the race telecast with former winners Arie Luyendyk and Tom Sneva also in the booth. This will be Jenkins' second year to handle the job after previous experience doing the play-by-play on radio of the world's most famous auto race. "I get incredibly emotional, especially in the few minutes leading up to the race," Jenkins said. "It's been this way since I started coming here. When we have the 'Back Home Again In Indiana,' 'Taps' and all that, I can't help but shed tears. It 's just that I have loved this place so much, and I think about everything that got me here. I'm very emotional. "It was that way last year. But once those ceremonies are over, it's sort of like a driver. He says, 'Once you get that helmet on, once you get the car started, once you roll out, your focus is entirely on what is at hand.'" For Jenkins, when the headphones are in place and the camera turns on in the booth, the emotions of the moment depart. The professional broadcaster takes over. Jenkins is probably the best-known television voice in racing. He has worked NASCAR races for years with Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett. This year he is working all of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series telecasts, and NASCAR events when he is available. "Beginning next year, the IRL will be my series," he said. "To have the job I have is very special for me. This is what I've always wanted to do. When I thought about being in broadcasting, then it became my goal to combine racing and broadcasting. "There's nothing else in life that I want than what I've got, and that is doing television for the Indy 500." Jenkins was born in Liberty, a small community in eastern Indiana near the state line with Ohio. His first visit to the Speedway came in the mid-1950s on a fourth-grade field trip. He cut up the program he received and turned it in as a class project. His father, Joe, brought him to qualifying in 1957. Then in 1960, Bob attended his first race, seeing the famous duel between Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward. "I just always had a fascination for this place," he said. "I remember fondly listening every night - there was a program called 'Speedway Gossip' with Sid Collins on it. I listened to that religiously. So when I got to come here, it was a real big deal." The Jenkins family always spent Memorial Day in his mother's hometown of Lafayette, Ind. In 1960, he and his father rode down to the Speedway on the train. They sat north of the start-finish line on the main straightaway. After that, when he was "forced" to cut the grass at home, Jenkins would pretend he was cutting the grass and improving the grounds at the Speedway. "Even though it's different now and I have to be out here everyday during the month, and sometimes I get to the point where I don't want to go out there, every time I drive in the grounds something gets hold of me," he said. "It's like that now. And I know it will be to my dying days." Jenkins majored in radio and television at Indiana University, graduating in 1969. During May, he sought rides north to the Speedway. He even remembers riding on the bus to attend the race one year. He started his broadcasting career with a station in Fort Wayne, Ind., and then moved to another in Valparaiso, Ind. Still, his eye was on getting to Indianapolis so he could be close to the Speedway. That opportunity came in April 1971, when he applied for and was hired to fill a news position at station WIRE. His hours were 5 p.m.-1 a.m., and that gave him freedom to visit the track every day that month as a spectator. He quickly got acquainted with drivers, crewmembers and officials. In 1973, he talked the station's general manager, Don Nelson, into sending him to all of the races. He phoned back qualifying and race results. "At that time there was no television, no radio," he said. "If you wanted to know who won a race on Sunday, you often had to wait until Monday morning to read the newspapers." "Why he (station manger) swallowed that, I don't know, but he did. We were losing money. Perhaps he saw my love for the sport and my desire to get into race broadcasting." By 1978, Jenkins and Paul Page got together and formed the USAC broadcasting network. Page did the play-by-play and Jenkins the pit reporting. Page stepped up to NBC in 1979 and asked his partner to again do the pit reporting. Jenkins was the pit reporter at the first race of the newly formed CART series at Phoenix. He also did a NASCAR race at Martinsville, Va. That year also marked the debut of ESPN. Jenkins was hired again on Page's recommendation and did the first race ever on the sports network, a sprint car race in Salem, Ind., that fall. "I've been working for them ever since," he said. When ESPN added stock car racing, Jenkins was summoned. He was in the booth as the popularity of the sport grew. Jenkins also anchored the radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 from 1990 until last year. He was the successor to "Voice of the 500" Sid Collins, whose "gossip" he listened to years ago. "It's a tough job, it really is, because you are the producer of that show," he said of the radio broadcast. "You're trying to talk about everything that's going on the track and also keep track of commercial breaks. "TV, quite honestly, is much easier. And it's especially easy, if you will, because Al Michaels is doing the pre-race show, and I don't have to worry about any of that preliminary stuff before the green flag drops. I can concentrate solely on the race itself. "Again, it's my ultimate job in life, and I'm very fortunate to have it."

-IRMLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Arie Luyendyk , Andy Hillenburg , Ned Jarrett , Tom Sneva , Benny Parsons , Rodger Ward
Tags TV