INDIANAPOLIS — Bob Jenkins may not have been the first voice of auto racing on television, but his voice introduced the sport to the masses on television.
It was during the early days of ESPN when Jenkins and Larry Nuber, were the voices that brought auto racing into homes across America. ESPN started as a 24-hour-a-day cable channel in 1979 with an acronym that stood for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Outside of some college football and college basketball telecasts, the cable network did not have the rights to televise much else.
Meanwhile, NASCAR and Indy car races were seldom on live television. ABC televised the Indianapolis 500 on same-day, tape-delay from 1971-’85, and from the early 1960s to 1978, the Daytona 500 as part of “Wide World of Sports.”
CBS and NBC infrequently showed a few races a season, even after CBS was the first to televise live, flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 beginning in 1979.
The voices of auto racing at that time were Jim McKay, Jackie Stewart and SPEED SPORT’s Chris Economaki on ABC; Ken Squier, David Hobbs and Brock Yates on CBS; and Charlie Jones and Paul Page on NBC.
ESPN saw potential in televising auto racing on a weekly basis.
When the first auto race appeared on ESPN, it was Jenkins and Nuber in the booth. Throughout the 1980s, Jenkins and Nuber were an inseparable duo, announcing NASCAR, USAC and CART events.
As NASCAR races in the 1980s and 1990s boomed in popularity, Nuber was replaced by Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett. When Jenkins called CART races in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was often paired with Derek Daly or Larry Rice.
USAC’s “Thursday Night Thunder” and “Saturday Night Thunder” — a weekly series that featured USAC’s sprint cars and midgets — and ESPN’s “SpeedWeek” and “SpeedWorld” established Jenkins as the voice of auto racing.
From the 1980s until he retired from television as the voice of IndyCar racing on NBC Sports Network in 2012, Jenkins’ voice was synonymous with big-time auto racing.
The Indiana University graduate began his career as a news reporter at Indiana stations in Fort Wayne and Valparaiso, before landing a job at WIRE Radio in Indianapolis as a co-anchor of a nationally syndicated farm show, “AgDay.”
Even though he was often thought of as the voice of NASCAR during its early days on television, the Liberty, Ind., native was always an Indy car fan at heart. He attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1960 and missed only two — 1961 and ’65 — throughout his life.
He joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network in 1979 as backstretch announcer and when the anchor of the Indianapolis 500, Page, became lead announcer for ABC’s Indy 500 telecast in 1988, Lou Palmer took over for two years before Jenkins became chief announcer from 1990 to ’98. He moved over to ABC’s telecast of the Indy 500 as the main voice from 1999 to 2001 and as the host in 2002 and ’03.
After his television career ended, Jenkins worked on the IMS public address system team through 2020.
Motorsports journalist Robin Miller recalled the early days of Jenkins’ career when the 73-year-old Jenkins was awarded with the Robin Miller Award earlier this year.
“The first time I heard Bob Jenkins’ voice, he was giving the Farm Market Update on radio station WIRE at 12 noon,” Miller recalled. “He had a very distinctive voice, but I didn’t care about the hog prices, so I went on. Paul Page and Terry Lingner were two of the biggest people in Bob’s life. Paul knew Bob’s passion for racing, so he tried to get him a job as a backstretch reporter on the IMS Radio Network.
“That was the first time I heard Bob’s voice on the radio as a racing guy.
“In 1980, I was still trying to kill myself driving USAC midgets and we went to Whitewater Speedway,” Miller continued. “Larry Rice and I were unloading my car. Here comes Bob and Larry Nuber and a guy that had a camera that said ESPN on it.
“He said, ‘There’s this new network that started up and they are going to start doing some USAC midget and sprint car races and things like that. I don’t know if this will ever air, but at least we’ll have something in the can.’
“We’re driving home that night and Rice askes me, what do you think of that channel? I said, ‘Are you kidding me, that channel doesn’t have a shot. A 24-hour sports channel, c’mon.’”
Jenkins died on Aug. 9 after battling brain cancer. He came down with a severe headache on Christmas night and doctors discovered two malignant tumors.
On Carb Day, Jenkins told SPEED SPORT in a hushed voice as he had difficulty speaking because of the cancer, “I’m going to beat this thing. Mark my words, I am going to beat this.”
Despite his best efforts, however, Jenkins lost his battle with cancer and the sport lost its soundtrack to an age when auto racing as a weekly television program was introduced to the masses and became a mainstream sport.