By: Tanner Watkins
December 29, 2018 | 9:00 AM
The year is 1992, and while the Greatest Spectacle in Racing barrels towards its closest finish, Bob Jenkins is about to cement his own place in Indianapolis 500 history.
With eleven laps remaining, Michael Andretti is ready to bury a perceived family curse to bed by winning the “500” just as his father did in 1969. Fans, teams, and the drivers themselves are about to be put out of their misery as well: wind chills had settled in the mid-30s all day while multiple on-track accidents added not only
As Andretti stretches his lead to an insurmountable 25 seconds on-track, the unimaginable happens when the No. 1 Newman-Hass Racing Ford loses fuel pressure and comes to a halt in between turns three and four. What was once a dead Indianapolis 500 – cold to the touch, in fact – roars to life with only a handful of laps remaining.
Four cars are on the lead lap when the green flag flies with seven circuits remaining, and the race is on with Al Unser Jr. being stalked by Canada’s Scott Goodyear.
The two competitors run nose to tail for the following six laps, setting the stage for the event’s most memorable moment in what has now become a 108-year history.
On lap 200, Unser Jr. and Goodyear dive into Turn 1 with Jerry Baker on the call. “The gap gets
In the final corner, Bob Lamey serves as the second-to-last voice today’s radio audience will hear before the race’s fate is determined. Excitement is building at a rapid pace, which Lamey wonderfully allows to ooze through in his handoff to the Voice of the 500.
“Al Unser Jr. has the lead, one more turn to go! Here they come, to the finish line!” Lamey cries.
“Bob Jenkins: Who’s going to win it?”
Hoosier Roots, D.J. Dreams
Before we can feel the crescendo of 1992, you have to start from the beginning in rural Indiana.
Bob Jenkins was born September 4,
With a population of approximately 2500, you’d have a hard time finding it on a map, and an even harder time finding it in person.
Among other interests early in life, Jenkins was naturally attracted to auto racing. With legendary tracks such as Winchester, Eldora, Salem and Dayton all within a day’s drive, the Indiana native made sure to visit each while also growing up an Indianapolis 500 fan.
Before graduating from Short High School in 1965, Jenkins had been told on more than one occasion that his voice was unique – deep, smooth and polished. It made him ponder the possibilities of broadcasting, and eventually he found himself working the public address system at Short’s basketball games.
While P.A. work for the passionate Indiana high school basketball scene could ignite a will to follow sports broadcasting, Jenkins had other plans for his developing talents.
“I went to Indiana University and got a degree in what was then radio and television,” Jenkins explains. “Really my first love in terms of broadcasting was music because I was always listening to radio stations that played top forty music back then.
“There were some great ones in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Dayton, Chicago, and just about every city around where I lived. I really wanted to be a disc jockey.”
That’s right folks: a future hall of fame motorsports broadcaster across multiple disciplines wanted nothing more than to become a disc jockey. Imagine if we all became what we wanted in our twenties?
Eventually, Jenkins got his shot as a D.J. while working at a closed circuit radio station on the bottom floor of his dormitory at IU. He had little broadcasting experience beforehand, but it was a start. It didn’t take the Hoosier long to realize that disc jockeys have to work additional jobs to make ends meet, and that pushed him towards a concentration in journalism.
After graduating from Indiana, Jenkins continued down the path of radio communications.
“I took a job at a radio station in Fort Wayne, I took a job at a radio station in Valparaiso, and then in 1972, I came to Indianapolis,” said Jenkins. “It was at that time that I realized, ‘Well, maybe I should combine broadcasting with the other thing that I had always had a passion for,’ and that was auto racing – especially the Indianapolis 500.”
In speaking with Jenkins, he talks with no greater pride then during discussions about the Indianapolis 500. When
“The first one I remember was in 1955 – of course I was listening on radio – and at that time my favorite driver was Pat O’Connor,” Jenkins recalls. “In 1955, however, I was rooting for Jack McGrath and my brother – who was six years older than I – was a Bill Vukovich fan.”
Jenkins remembers cheering against Vukovich that day, then hearing the somber tone from the legendary Sid Collins as a crash on the backstretch claimed the two-time Indy 500 winner’s life.
Move forward three years and Jenkins would finally see the grand speedway with his own eyes for the first time, in 1958 for time trials.
“It was an impressive place, let’s put it that way,” Jenkins remembers. “It was huge – first of all I didn’t expect that it would be that large because I had been to several races, especially at Eldora which is just not too far from my home town. Every time USAC sprint cars were at Eldora, my brother and my dad would take me there. So comparing the Speedway to the half-mile track at Eldora was overwhelming.”
Back home for the race’s airing over
While the sting of O’Connor’s death was surely present, Jenkins had been bitten by one bug with an insatiable desire for more. It was charm and allure of the one and only Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I remember getting kind of a special feeling as I drove under the track, and that feeling has never left me when I go into the Speedway – and I’ve been there probably thousands of times,” says Jenkins, now 71.
“Every time I do go into the Speedway, driving into the tunnel, I get that special feeling because the Speedway has been such an incredible place for me because it is, in my estimation, a mecca.”
Joining the Ranks
Flash back once again to 1972, and Jenkins had just moved to Indianapolis. Still a fan of the sport and its landmark race, Jenkins befriended a fellow radio station news reporter: Paul Page.
Sharing a unique mutual interest in the Indianapolis 500, Jenkins and Page developed a bond that would serve each man quite well over time – in grander ways than either of them could have imagined.
“(Paul) learned of my interest in auto racing, and before long he became the radio voice of the Indy 500 when Sid Collins passed away,” states Jenkins. “Our friendship led to me being named to the IMS Radio Network in 1979, and things started to happen after that, but that is how it all began.”
From 1977 to 1987, Page served as the prestigious “Voice of the 500,” a title given only to the lead announcer of the Indianapolis 500. While Jenkins began working with the Speedway’s radio network in 1979, the Indiana native was also taking a chance on stock car racing – and a new network that no one had ever heard of. It was called ESPN.
“When ESPN started, I put Larry Nuber and Bob together,” recalled Page in a tribute to Jenkins back in 2012. “When Bob said, ‘ESPN, what is that?’ I said, ‘Bob, it is a 24-hour sports operation. It’s not going to last, just take the money and run.'”
What followed was a 22-year relationship with ESPN working as the most prominent figure for the network’s coverage of NASCAR. Jenkins was walking in lockstep with stock car racing’s rise in popularity, boosting his own status in the process.
When Page left the IMS Radio Network in 1988 to pursue the television play-by-play position, it eventually opened the door for a now-seasoned Jenkins to take the throne. After Lou Palmer carried the torch in 1988 and 1989, Jenkins joined an elite club, becoming lead announcer for the 1990 Indianapolis 500.
At that time, only the aforementioned Collins, Page and Palmer had been named “Voices of the 500.” To join such rarified air was not lost on Jenkins.
“It is a fraternity. It’s a family, and we all think of ourselves as members of that family,” says Jenkins candidly. “Of being named to the IMS Radio Network and ultimately working my way to the position that Paul had, it was a big thrill for me because so few have held that position.”
Jenkins led radio broadcasts for much of the 1990s – particularly, from 1990 to 1998. In 1999, he transitioned to ABC’s lead play-by-play man for the Indianapolis 500 just as his friend Page had.
In fact, Jenkins and Page are the only two men in the history of the Indianapolis 500 to serve as lead announcer for both the television and radio broadcasts.
For three years, Bob had the pleasure of calling the Indianapolis 500 for the race’s long-time television partner ABC. He was there where Robby Gordon ran out of fuel, pitting from the lead with two laps to go in 1999 while giving Kenny Bräck the win. The next year Jenkins saw Juan Pablo Montoya come over from the “other” open-wheel series to spank the field in his maiden Indianapolis 500 start.
Among other memorable moments on the radio calls throughout the 1990s were Rick Mears’ fourth win, Little Al’s triumph in a Penske-Mercedes and Buddy Lazier’s gutsy win in 1996, but none can top that frigid final lap in 1992.
The Call Heard ‘Round the World
Few moments in sport that have been stamped timelessly with an eloquent, pointed and emotional call produced by the announcer at the perfect time.
Images of Kirk Gibson first-pumping around second base come to mind when we hear Vin Scully’s narration of the 1988 World Series.
It’s Verne Lundquist shouting “Oh wow!” as Tiger Woods sinks a chip-in at the 2005 Masters.
And who could forget Al Michaels asking the nation, “Do you believe in miracles?” as the 1980 United States men’s hockey team is about to win Olympic gold? In the intensity and pride of the moment, the clock strikes 0:00 and Michaels
Each of those calls hails from legendary sportscasters leaving their mark in their own unique way. Bob Jenkins’ call of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 finish takes racing fans back to that special place just as those other historic sound bytes can.
Before the yellow flag flew for the stalled machine of Michael Andretti on lap 189, Al Unser Jr. had just passed Scott Goodyear for second place. This would serve as a crucial moment with Unser Jr. leading Goodyear to the green flag with seven laps remaining.
For the next four minutes and forty-three seconds, Unser Jr. and Goodyear raced at a blistering pace, separated by no more than six car lengths at any point in the event’s final seven circuits.
While Unser Jr. opened a slight gap to Goodyear with a few laps remaining, the Toronto native had closed that separation and was in prime striking position when the white flag flew.
The two ran nose-to-tail through each of the Speedway’s four corners before Bob Lamey called over to the Master Control tower one final time. “Bob Jenkins, who’s going to win it?”
The final call from Jenkins is simply timeless.
“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!”
Indeed, it was the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Al Unser Jr. had continued the family legacy at Indianapolis by winning his first “500” while it was the Unser’s eighth appearance on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
For Jenkins, it was his most memorable moment of what would become an illustrious motorsports broadcasting career.
“In terms of the race itself, Michael Andretti just dominated the thing,” Jenkins recalls of the icy-cold day. “When he dropped out, we all said to each other, ‘Oh, my gosh, let’s just get this race over with and wait for next year.’ But then it boiled down to the closest finish in history, and we knew we had a job to do in calling the last few laps of that race.
“That (finish) stands head and shoulders – and even more than that – above any other race that I’ve ever been associated with, whether it be radio or television. Getting to call the closest finish of history with Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear was something that I will take with me forever and ever.”
Jenkins goes on to joke about how Valvoline later made a commercial out of his landmark call with Unser Jr. featured prominently in the ad. Over time, Jenkins grew tired of hearing the audio clip played over and over – that was until he received the monetary compensation for his voice on the commercial.
“The next check would arrive and I thought, ‘Well, that’s not so bad after all. Play it a few more times!'” says Jenkins playfully.
All told, that is just one of the many Indianapolis 500 finishes Jenkins has seen since his first visit to the race in 1960. In fact, Bob has only missed two runnings of the “500” following his inaugural race day visit – once in 1961 when his big brother wouldn’t let him tag along, and again in 1965 when a senior trip to Washington D.C. kept the 17-year-old Jenkins away from Indiana.
“While other members of my class were touring the Lincoln Memorial and other sites in Washington, D. C., I was on the bus with a transistor radio held up to my ear,” says Jenkins proudly. “I’ve been to
Since retiring from full-time television work in 2012, Jenkins has gone back to his roots while working for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and no, he isn’t a disc jockey. Jenkins currently mans the Speedway’s public address system alongside Dave Calabro.
“Fortunately, with the job that I have now working on the public address, I’m able to work every day that there is practice for not only the “500” but also for the IndyCar Grand Prix,” says Jenkins. “I’m there every day for twelve hours and it never gets tiresome. It never gets boring.
“My friends say, ‘I thought you retired in 2012?’ Well, I did,” Jenkins admits. “But I retired from work. Working at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not work, it’s fun.”
While many race fans enjoy hearing Jenkins’ voice again at the Speedway, the possibility remains that no one loves being at IMS any more than Jenkins himself. He hopes to continue in his P.A. position with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for at least the next few years at the place he still argues is the “mecca.”
“It is the mecca of auto racing and should be (respected) with reverence,” Jenkins says adamantly. “I really believe that. It has been this way (for me) for quite a while, but even more so now that my wife (Pam) is deceased.
“It is literally the thing that I live for from year to year, the next Indianapolis 500.”
And maybe that is why Bob Jenkins has been so good at what he does, for so long. Millions of men across America have the burly voice made for television or radio, and surely any politician worth their weight in salt can weave a pretty tapestry of words, but to be truly brilliant in any given profession you must bring a sincere love for what you do.
Bob Jenkins loves the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as much as anyone that attended the race possibly can. That is what has allowed him to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Sid Collins and his friend Paul Page.
In 1992, Jenkins proclaimed that Al Unser Jr. had won in what was “perhaps the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500.” While that
Header image by Chris Owens/INDYCAR.