A tribute to Jenks

For me the highlight of the onstage banter at the Autosport Awards was when Martin Brundle paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt. This man, he said, was a legend on the other side of water, and something of a personal hero to him. Martin has always told a story well. "I met Dale when I did the IROC series in 1990," he recalled, "and I think he said six words to me the whole time I was there. I won one of the races, and he says, 'Good job.' Then I was on pole for the decider, and if I won it, I was champion. I passed his car as I walked to my own, and he murmurs, 'Don't forget your kids...' I think he was joking! Then, at the first corner, he passed me on a piece of tarmac that didn't exist..."

Earnhardt was on my table on Sunday, and it occurred to me during the evening how much Jenks would have approved of him. No great show of flamboyance from this greatest of contemporary stock car drivers, just a quiet way with one-liners, a hint of smiling eyes. They call him 'The Intimidator' in NASCAR circles, and at Daytona I have seen enough to understand why; out of the car he is different again.

Jenks would have been taken with him, I know, not least because he always loathed the self-important. Beyond that, though, for all his love of Grand Prix racing, he was never one to denigrate other forms of the sport. One time, over breakfast in Long Beach, he saw someone coming into the room, and urgently asked who he was. "He's a racing driver, isn't he?" It was Cale Yarborough. "Knew it!" said Jenks, triumphantly. "Didn't know who he was, but I could tell he was a racing driver. Something about his walk, the look in his eyes..."

I tried for years to get him to come to Daytona or Indianapolis with me, for Jenks, above all things, loved raw speed. "Don't think I could stand the excitement," he would say."It would all be too much." He never did go to either 500, but eventually visited Indy, and babbled about it like a schoolboy afterwards.

One way and another, Jenks was at the back of many a mind on Sunday evening. I learned the previous day of his death, and it was with great sadness, but no real surprise, for he had been ill some time. During dinner Stirling Moss called for a moment's quiet, then asked us to raise our glasses to the little man. "He was," Stirling affectionately said, "a wonderful bloke, and without doubt one of the true eccentrics."

No argument there, as anyone can attest who ever visited his home. Jenks's domestic arrangements were...unorthodox. You got used, for example, to the lack of electricity: power, such as it was, came from a small generator, and was insufficient to provide illumination for two rooms at once, so that if anyone needed to use the loo, everyone else was in total darkness until his or her return.

This Jenks saw as nothing exceptional. "Blackout time," he would cheerfully announce, and there was the same insouciance when once I questioned the siting of a Daimler V8 engine at the foot of his bed. "Nowhere else to put it," he said, as if that explained everything. "No space in the sitting room." Indeed there wasn't; that was given over to a selection of motorbikes, in various stages of repair.

That really was the whole thing about Jenks. His great charm - and a source of endless amusement to his friends - was that he truly believed that his was the logical way, that the rest of the world was curiously out of step. Bliss was fettling one of his cars or bikes, to the accompaniment of Sidney Bechet.

The absence of electricity never bothered him, but he would have been lost without his telephone, which was used with abandon, and around the clock. Countless times I would be on the point of sitting down to eat, and the 'phone would ring: "I've been thinking about that lap of Senna's on Saturday..." the quiet voice would say, and you knew that supper was a lost cause.

His favourite period of racing, certainly in recent times, was the height of the turbo era, when boost was unlimited, and such as Renault and BMW laid around 1400 horsepower at their drivers' backs for qualifying. That, combined with 'one lap' tyres, and the ability of a Senna, made for drama as distilled as Grand Prix racing has ever known, and Jenks revelled in it, particularly at what he considered a 'proper' circuit, like the Osterreichring or Spa-Francorchamps.

Ayrton was one of his great heroes, a man whose artistry could, and occasionally did, move him to tears. It pleased him enormously to receive a Christmas card each year: 'To friend Jenkinson, from Ayrton Senna.' And although he would probably have denied it, I don't believe he ever felt quite the same about racing after Imola in 1994. It was good he wasn't there that day.

"May the first," he murmured sadly on the 'phone the following week. "It happened on May the first. We won the Mille Miglia on that day, and I always associated it with such pleasure. Now this..."

Gaining entry to Jenks's personal hall of fame was not easily done: "In my teens," he said, "my hero was Bernd Rosemeyer, and everybody's hero was Nuvolari." And since the war? "It's a waste of time comparing different eras; you can only go for drivers supreme in their own time. There are just five in my top bracket: Ascari, Moss, Clark, (Gilles) Villeneuve and Senna."

Arguing with Jenks - on this or any other subject - was like trying to fold a paper in a high wind. In a certain mood, black was white, and that was the end of it. He took a special delight in playing devil's advocate. "Hang on a minute," you'd splutter, "how can you criticise Prost for doing no more than necessary to win a race, and then praise Fangio for always trying to win at the slowest possible speed?" "Different," he would reply, studying the menu. "Well, how is it different?" "Just is..."

A minute or two later, once he had got you to the point of apoplexy, there would be a sly grin, and you would realise once again that you'd been had. He could, on occasion, be maddening, and none of his friends would claim otherwise, but neither would they suggest that, at heart, he was other than the kindest of men, who liked nothing better than to share his enthusiasm for motor racing, his experiences in the sport.

"Jenkinson!" you would hear all the time if you were in his company in Italy. Even 40 years after that Mille Miglia victory with Moss, he was widely recognised in this country he adored. And sometimes, at the end of a day, Alan Henry and I would drive with him into the hills near Imola, where the road signs read 'Futa' and 'Raticosa', and the spirits abide of Nuvolari and Varzi, Castellotti and Taruffi.

Knowing Jenks, being one of his friends, was a privilege. My own debt to him is immense, for it is from him that I have learned most about motor racing, just as it was always to his writings that I turned first when I was growing up. If a piece had those initials, DSJ, at its foot, you knew it was the real thing. I will miss him dearly.

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