Beloved broadcaster Bob Jenkins, who is in a fierce fight with brain cancer, demonstrated Friday what endeared him to millions of motorsports fans during his long career.
Jenkins was presented the Robin Miller Award for devoting a significant portion of his life to INDYCAR racing while bringing unbridled passion and unrelenting work ethic to enrich the sport. When Jenkins struggled to speak due to emotion, the room full of Indianapolis Motor Speedway veterans fought back lumps in their throats.
“Yes, I am a race fan who got lucky,” Jenkins said softly. “I got lucky because there were jobs in radio and TV available, and I took them.
“Because of the exposure, people think it’s a big deal. I’ll tell you, I’m just a race fan, and I always will be. And I love other race fans.”
Applauding after those words were legends of the sport – Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Roger Penske, among them – along with fellow IMS Hall of Famers like historian Donald Davidson and broadcaster Paul Page, who helped Jenkins get his first radio job in racing.
Jenkins first visited IMS in 1958 for qualifications with his father. In 1960, he watched his first race. Nineteen years later, he was calling the race on radio from the backstretch.
Jenkins became “Voice of the 500” on the IMS Radio Network in 1990 and led television broadcasts not only of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES but also NASCAR.
Jenkins was one of ESPN’s first broadcasters. His radio call of the 1992 “500” finish between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear is his most famous, but he spent nearly a decade of retirement speaking to people at IMS on the public address system.
Veteran journalist Robin Miller, for whom the award is named, ribbed Jenkins, a Liberty, Indiana, native who has always considered open-wheel racing his first love, for being one of the reasons NASCAR became so popular in the 1980s and ‘90s. Miller noted that the pairing of Jenkins with former NASCAR drivers Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett was magical.
“He hates when I say that,” Miller said of crediting Jenkins with NASCAR’s explosive growth. “But it’s true.
“I remember (Jenkins) from the farm market report on (the old) WIRE radio. I didn’t care about the hog prices.”
Responded Jenkins: “Neither did I.”
Like Jenkins, Miller has been battling cancer in recent months. But Miller drew a chuckle out of Jenkins when he said, “You and I are on the same team.”
Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment, praised Jenkins for his “humility, passion for the sport and skill, for sure. He’s just the sweetest guy I know.”
Miller also was honored with the Bob Russo Founders Award for dedication to racing, which is fitting since Miller knew the former writer. Andretti finally received the 2020 Russo award, which couldn’t be given due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another award presented Friday was the Clint Brawner Award, given by Firestone to a deserving mechanic. Ricky Davis of Chip Ganassi Racing was the recipient, receiving a $5,000 award from Firestone.
Dixon Happy with Carb Day Effort
Perhaps bad news for the rest of the field: NTT P1 Award winner Scott Dixon pulled himself out of his Chip Ganassi Racing car Friday with 45 minutes left in the rain-delayed practice session.
Dixon, the winner of the 2008 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, said the team had exhausted its checklist, and the action was too intense to risk the car getting damaged. His best lap was nearly 2 mph faster than anyone else when he pulled into the pits. It sent a message to others, for sure.
“Hopefully it runs this good in the race,” Dixon said.
Dixon added that conditions were so good that “everyone felt like King Kong out there,” which made for the faster lap times and daring moves in traffic.
Still, Dixon will be the favorite to win the 105th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” There also might be a fun fact to improve his chances.
As NBC statistician/historian Russ Thompson noted, the last time Carb Day practice was delayed by rain was 2008. Dixon won the race from the pole.
Dixon is again the pole sitter, this time in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing. Could history repeat itself?
Andretti Feels ‘Very, Very Lucky’
Marco Andretti (No. 98 Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Honda for Andretti Herta-Haupert w/Marco & Curb-Agajanian) has never been a fan of Miller Lite Carb Day, but he said this one saved his “500.”
There were two issues, the first fixed after he qualified 25th last weekend. He said the team found something wrong with the car’s floor. Then on Friday, Andretti also had an electrical box failure that he said would have led to an early race retirement. Andretti finished fifth on the speed chart and was soaring in confidence in pursuit of his first IMS victory.
“I’m very, very lucky,” he said. “Everything now is a bonus.”
Montoya Offers Variety of Opinions
Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time “500” champion and 1999 INDYCAR SERIES champion, admitted he thought the Indy portion of his career was over until Zak Brown of Arrow McLaren SP called with the offer to drive the team’s third car, the No. 86 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, in this race. The 45-year-old Colombian had not been able to participate the past three years due to a contract he had with Team Penske.
Montoya added that he feels no pressure to do well in Sunday’s race because he is not competing for the season championship. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan (No. 48 The American Legion Honda) said the same thing.
Most of the drivers now expect a lot of passing in the race, but Montoya said those who aren’t saying that don’t have confidence in their car. “It’s a sign of their car’s (ability to pass),” he said.
Montoya was 16th on Friday’s speed chart and will start 18th.
Daly on His Car: Friday Was ‘Very Confusing’
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly (No. 47 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet) has been another driver optimistic that Sunday’s mild temperatures will be good for the show – and for his ability to compete with the top car-and-driver combinations.
“On Tuesday when it was cooler, we were flying,” he said Thursday. “This the first time in my life I know I can win the race.”
But Daly wasn’t speaking that confidently after Friday’s practice. He was fourth on the speed chart, but he wasn’t happy with his car’s performance. He said the wrong gearing prevented a lot of his runs. Daly starts 19th.
“We were very happy after (last) Sunday’s practice, but now we want another four days of practice,” he said. “We’ll have to put our thinking caps on.”
Auburn Football Coach Gets First Look at IMS
New Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin was among those seeing IMS for the first time Friday, but Harsin is no stranger to motorsports.
Harsin is the son of Dale Harsin, a longtime Idaho drag racer, and as he was becoming an all-state quarterback, he became a drag racer in his own right. Harsin got his Funny Car license at age 18. Years later, he became the head football coach at Boise State, his alma mater.
Harsin’s IMS visit likely won’t be his last. Auburn is one of about 30 universities participating in this year’s Indy Autonomous Challenge, the world’s first head-to-head, high-speed autonomous race. The event, using Dallara AV-21 chassis modified from those used in Indy Lights, culminates with a 20-lap race on Oct. 23. The first car to cross the finish line in 25 minutes or less wins $1 million. There are monetary prizes for second and third place, as well.
Odds and Ends
- Kanaan has been racing Brazilian stock cars when he’s not driving in his four INDYCAR races. He said it has been a big adjustment to the spec Toyota Corolla. “There is no correlation,” he said. “It’s like running a go-kart and then getting in a limo.” Kanaan has had a difficult start to the Brazilian season, but the benefit is that his son, Leo, along with his sister and mother, can attend races.
- Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet) found himself driving through the grass at pit out early in Friday’s practice. The Frenchman won the “500” in 2019 and will start 26th in Sunday’s race. He was second fastest Friday at 227.157 mph.
- Team Penske had a better day Friday than in qualifying last weekend. All four cars were in the top seven, with Pagenaud second, Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevrolet) third, Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet) sixth and rookie Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Pennzoil Chevrolet) seventh.
- Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda) said it was bittersweet to watch teammate Takuma Sato (No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda) win last year’s race. “I’ll compare it to Ohio State (football), like I always do,” Rahal said. “It’s like your teammate being picked fourth overall in the (NFL) Draft, and you’re picked seventh. You’re happy, sure, but you wish it had been you.”
- Rahal turned a field-high 100 laps in Friday’s practice of nearly two hours. Sato was second with 94 laps, with Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) third at 93 laps.
- Friday might not have been Race Day, but there were still rules to follow. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) was penalized 10 minutes of track time for the crew fueling the car with the engine running, a safety measure in place for the practice. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) was penalized five minutes for a fuel spill on pit road that further delayed the start of the practice.
- Speeds are indeed up. Last year, James Hinchcliffe ran the fastest lap of the race at 223.164 mph. Thirty cars practiced quicker than that Friday.
- Quote of the Day, from NBC Sports broadcaster Townsend Bell: “Find me a driver who doesn’t think he has a car to win. Hope springs eternal on Carb Day.”
- Another quote worth noting, from Colton Herta, driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian who starts second: “I hope it stays this cool on Sunday because we’re going to put on a heck of a show.”
The NBC Sports Network will open television coverage of the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 beginning at 9 a.m. (ET). NBC will come on the air live at 11 a.m. The INDYCAR Radio Network live broadcast also begins at 11 a.m.