Espns Farewell To Cup

ESPN's long-time motorsports host Bob Jenkins readily admits he can get emotional. It's a rare admission from an on-air personality seen regularly by millions of viewers. But Jenkins is out there with his feelings.

So it is, this Sunday when ESPN broadcasts its 262nd and final Winston Cup race for the foreseeable future, Jenkins expects his emotions will get to him.

"I get emotional when I start talking about this stuff," Jenkins says. "This will be a very difficult for all of us. We're going to go into it with the idea that it will be different. It will be special. It will be emotional."

For the legions of NASCAR fans that have been watching ESPN since it aired its first Winston Cup race in 1981, Jenkins' visible emotions won't come as a surprise. Die-hard fans have heard his voice crack from time to time, and he's occasionally been speechless.

The emotions come from being part of a family, a family of on and off-air staffers who week-in and week-out put together racing telecasts. It's also about being frank with the viewers, who have come to know and accept the folks in the broadcast booth as members of their families.

For nearly two decades, Jenkins - along with such partners as Eli Gold, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons - has brought racing to old and new fans alike. Together, ESPN and NASCAR have grown into the largest players in their respective fields. All along, Jenkins was there to see us through. From time to time he did it with emotions.

"When Benny's first wife died… I couldn't make the announcement. I had to let Ned do it," Jenkins says, citing other events such as the 1991 death of J.D. McDuffie and the weekends in 1993 after Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki died, as tough times. "It's very difficult for me not to get the emotions to where my voice cracks."

He's said in the past he travels with a page of words tucked away in his briefcase just in case he has to report the death of a competitor during a telecast.

This Sunday, of course, he'll be dealing with a loss of another kind.

ESPN is bowing out of Winston Cup racing after losing out on a piece of the new television packages. Next season NBC, Fox and TBS will take over. Until then, however, ESPN has to get through this weekend.

Listening to Jenkins wax on about the seriousness of the event, Parson's first reaction is to make a joke, just as he has for years in the broadcast booth. Not this time, though.

"I'm beginning to realize, I won't be able to do that," Parsons says. "I don't know if I'll be able to treat it like a joke."

Like a good marriage, the harmony between a broadcast team develops over time. Together, Parsons, Jarrett and Jenkins have developed into a top-notch team, able to finish each other’s sentences and usually knowing exactly where the other is going with their thoughts.

Finding that magic is difficult. Making it last is even harder. Making it appear easy on air is golden, and these guys have it.

Next season Parsons will work for NBC and TBS. And Jenkins is staying at ESPN, where he'll work on the network's other racing telecasts. Duplicating what they had elsewhere will be difficult.

"The hardest thing to do is create the camaraderie that this group has," says Mark Quenzel, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. "This group has been together the longest and functioned as a family the longest. This group really is a family. And part of being a family is being intuitive. It's like a well-drilled team. They can get so into a sport because they know the basics."

In most years, broadcasters would pray to have the championship come down to the final event of the season as a way to pump up the ratings. Last weekend, Bobby Labonte locked up the title, taking away any mystery involved with this weekend's race. Parson's isn't complaining, however. A chase for the title would just get in the way of what they're trying to do in the last outing.

The beginning of the show - and end - will include highlights of favorite moments in ESPN racing history, and throughout the program there will be references to the past two decades. The show will end with Jenkins offering a 45-second introduction to a clip package.

"This is special," Parsons says. "This is the last time I'll get to kid Bob Jenkins. It's the last time I'll get to raise my voice. It's the last time I'll be called a big dummy. This race is going to be as special as anything I've ever done in my life."

Fans shouldn't lose too much sleep for ESPN. It will continue on offering up a mix of sports, including auto racing, just not Winston Cup events. It still has the rights to 24 truck races a year as well as the rights for the IRL, CART and the NHRA.

"We have a lot of other racing," says Quenzel, who also says "RPM 2Night," the company's nightly racing news show, will continue.

Negotiations with NASCAR continue over access to the rights to air footage of Winston Cup events as well as shooting interviews on site at races. The game changed when new networks came along, though Quenzel is hopeful the new partners and NASCAR will realize how beneficial it is to have the sport exposed on ESPN shows.

It’s such issues that go to the heart of ESPN's departure from Winston Cup racing. The network has been at the forefront of pushing the sport long before others thought it was a viable venture. And after this weekend, it will be gone from the premier series.

Parsons, a former Winston Cup champion, perhaps puts it best.

"Over the years, a lot of people have been given credit for the growth of NASCAR," he says. "A lot of companies have been given credit. I don't think anybody is as responsible (for the growth) as ESPN.”

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