'Bob brought racing to me': Friends, family, fans remember Bob Jenkins, legendary voice of Indy 500, at IMS

Bob Jenkins loved to speak – mastered it, you might say – over a career defined by an ability to put emotions into just the right words. Perhaps Jenkins' best skill, though, came in how his words evoked those same emotions in the millions of fans who fell in love with racing through the timbre of his calls. For nearly half a century, it became the soundtrack of racing across America, from USAC dirt tracks, to open-wheelers, stock cars, off-road machines and more.

It entranced those in the Hoosier state, some who would eventually become Indiana’s most-cherished drivers, as well as diehard fans and co-workers alike. Longtime colleague Paul Page remembered Monday at Jenkins’ memorial service, after the 73-year-old succumbed to his battle with brain cancer Aug. 9, that the Liberty, Indiana, native could almost always be found with a smile on his face. It showed in his work, both through the joy in his voice and the way those lucky enough to listen to a race broadcast or catch a “hello” across the room reacted in response.

The couple-hundred friends, family members, racing colleagues and fans who gathered Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to celebrate his life had the chance to listen to a montage of his calls and a tribute to his life, put together by IMS Productions. Their silence, sitting while they watched and listened, fully engaged in his stories once again, told only part of the story.

“I wish you could have seen all your smiles on your faces,” said Lindy Thackston, Jenkins’ longtime co-worker who first met him while working with Versus 15 years ago.

Just as his everlasting line he repeated over and over again in recent months, after he took his second and final battle with cancer public, only told part of the ‘Bob Jenkins’ story.

Yes, he indeed was “a race fan who got lucky.” But he himself was only one half of what made his life, his passions and his gifts so special.

Said Ken Martin, longtime producer and researcher with Jenkins during most of his two decades at ESPN, on Monday: “We were the lucky ones.”

Bob Jenkins is shown in May 1994. He had worked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in some capacity since 1979.
Bob Jenkins is shown in May 1994. He had worked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in some capacity since 1979.

'Bob brought racing to me'

Like so many of the greats in his field, Jenkins thrived in making the small feel big – like his line from the 1986 NASCAR race at Talladega that had nothing to do with the drivers signed up to compete that day. “We understand the pace car has been stolen,” Martin remembers Jenkins delivering over the airwaves. Almost instantly, the king of racing play-by-play snapped into character as if the car had been piloted by a three-time Indy 500 winner closing in on his fourth over the final laps.

So too could he deliver each and every moment from a three-hour mid-season race and make it seem it mattered, because it mattered to him. And if you were lucky enough to be sitting on your couch that afternoon in front of a TV with Jenkins on the call, it would soon matter to you, too.

“I never went to a dinner, never had any physical interaction with Bob,” said native Hoosier and NASCAR veteran Ryan Newman at Monday’s memorial. “But as I grew up watching, though I didn’t know who Bob was, Bob brought racing to me, brought it into our home.

“Whenever I was watching TV, he made me feel like I was there. He brought that energy into the living room.”

Energy was his calling card. With minutes to spare as he walked to his seat to call May race practices at IMS, if you shouted his name and waved, he’d stop and share a moment or two. He was always 'on', whether with a microphone in hand or a handshake. Longtime friend Brent Durbin remembers the voracity with which Jenkins would call play-by-play for his son’s pinewood derby races, just as if he were in the booth at IMS or Daytona. He was passionate but down-to-earth, and genuine, too.

Durbin and his father, Bill, met Jenkins while performing in their Beatles tribute band ages ago, on a night when they just so happened to sing the music-lover’s favorite song "Honey Don’t." The trio formed friendships, then relationships akin to family, through nights of quizzing one another with racing and music trivia over a crackling fire in the calm of Crawfordsville.

Jenkins was the best-man in the younger Durbin’s wedding and asked him to lend his voice to sing at his wife Pam's funeral in 2012. And after a year full of strain and heartache, Jenkins decided to leave the source of his fame in Indianapolis for a quieter life near those who mattered most. Soon after his wife’s death, Jenkins moved into a small, simple house just miles away from the Durbins.

“We considered Bob Jenkins our best friend,” the younger Durbin said. “He said ‘I found myself in a big house in a big city, and I didn’t want to become an idol.”

There, Jenkins lived out his final decade as 'Uncle Bob.' For Easter, he’d hide the eggs, and on Christmas morning, he’d waltz into his friend's home before Durbin’s kids awoke, wanting so much to see their joy as they opened their gifts. His love for those he cared about transcended any sort of blood connection. He rarely missed youth football games, local musical productions and family reunions.

“My kids grew up when there was never a time when Bob Jenkins wasn’t part of our family,” Durbin said. “This week, after all the tributes and media attention, my 13-year-old daughter remarked ‘I forgot Bob was famous.’”

'Like a big hug'

For the countless hundreds of races he called over radio feeds, TV airwaves and racetrack PA systems, there’s one, of course, that has stood the test of time. It’s not what made Jenkins – nor is it what those closest to him remember most. But it’s almost impossible not to think of the brevity, accuracy, intensity and emotion in which he called the final moments of the 1992 Indy 500 – the closest in the race’s 110-year history.

“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.”

In the nearly 30 years since, the soliloquy has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps that was your first-ever Indy 500. It may have even been your last. Even if you didn’t grow up glued to racing TV, hoping one day you’d reach those heights, as Newman and Ed Carpenter once did, or if you didn’t make a career out of loving going to work with Jenkins, as Thackston, Page and Martin did – if you hear ‘1992 Indy 500’, it’s hard not to picture that bespectacled grin looking back right at you, smiling.

Simon Pagenaud described his masterful work on the PA at IMS “like a big hug,” a notion Carpenter said Monday he felt this weekend while walking the grounds, as tributes to the longtime race broadcaster and race fan played over the speakers. Saturday was tough, as the 40-year-old IndyCar driver/owner stepped foot at IMS, knowing the man he demands IMS cement on its own Mt. Rushmore wasn’t there to call another race that day.

“I remember talking to him after my first win at Kentucky in 2011,” Carpenter said. “I think in some ways, he was as proud of me as I was of myself. He was a pro, but also such a fan.

“I’d be lying to you if I honestly told you I remember the first time I heard Bob’s voice. I think it’s because when I was growing up watching racing, he was everywhere.”

A lesson in silence

We’re left now with the memories and recordings, of the phrase Durbin’s son used to prance around the house screaming on repeat. Those, of course, are Bob Lamey’s words, as the toddler was unknowingly keying up Jenkins for his most famous lines.

“I just remember that two-year-old voice,” Durbin said. “’Bob Jenkins, who’s gonna win it?!’”

For eternity, we now wait to hear him finish that call. Or, perhaps, Martin said, there was another lesson still to be learned in Jenkins’ work.

“He was never afraid to sit out, be quiet, and let the drama unfold,” he said. “He’d hold up in his hands in the booth when he knew silence was called for.”

As stories of Jenkins' life came to an end Monday, Page asked the crowd to pause. In the silence and through the pain, perhaps, he said, the passion and joy with which he called motorsports at the Racing Capital of the World still reverberates and circulates around and through the oval of metal, glass and asphalt.

"Listen, and you can almost hear his voice drifting over the main straightaway," Page said. “Goodbye, my friend. I love you. We all do.”

Email IndyStar motorsports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bob Jenkins memorialized at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway