(This story is reprinted with permission from RACER.com.)
If you can be lucky enough to marry your passion to your job, it’s a great life and that’s how Jenny Nickell always looked at hers.
“She was one of the most vocal and fanatical race fans I ever met and she had the perfect job,” said longtime Indy car play-by-play anchor Bob Jenkins and one of Nickell’s closest friends in the business.
“She loved racing and the people and we all adored her.”
“Miss Jenny,” who died Tuesday at age 56 after falling ill over the weekend while working at the Honda Indy Toronto race, was the popular pit producer for NBCSN the past 10 years in a television career that spanned four decades.
And she started on the ground floor.
“I was at ESPN when Jenny came on board and in those days the RF equipment was picked up by a satellite dish, so her first job was the dish pointer,” recalled Jenkins, breaking into a chuckle.
“It was the lowest position you could have, but she worked her way to pit producer so she was a true self-made person.”
A native of Middletown, Ohio, Nickell (shown above with Jenkins (right) and longtime Indy car TV producer Terry Lingner; and at right with Mario Andretti (left) and Jenkins) fell for racing and A.J. Foyt in the 1960s when her dad first took her to a race.
“A.J. was always her favorite driver, she loved him, and I think he had similar feelings,” continued Jenkins. “And I think they tried to have dinner together a couple of times a year because she was also close to Anne (Fornoro, Foyt’s longtime public relations representative).”
The best things about Miss Jenny were her enthusiasm, knowledge of the sport and compassionate approach for the people she worked with.
Unlike some people in racing today, it wasn’t just a job – it was her passion. And she treated her “Pit Posse” like her immediate family, always sending positive emails or praising people during a commercial break. She had a tough assignment, shuffling three pit reporters to the best stories, keeping track of all the pit stops to cover and also paying attention to the action on the track.
“She studied the sport and she knew it, she wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately that had to do a lot of homework about a driver or a racetrack. She knew her stuff and she was also cool under all the pressure that job entails,” said Jenkins.
Rich O’Connor, the coordinating producer for NBCSN who oversees the motorsports programming for Formula One, NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series, had never met Nickell until 2009.
“I’m grateful that when (producer) Terry Lingner and I started working together on INDYCAR on the VERSUS project (which evolved into NBCSN), he brought Jenny along as well,” O’Connor said. “In those 10 years, Jenny sat behind me in the truck and I had complete confidence in what her ‘Pit Posse’ was doing. I used to listen to the way she spoke to her Posse, all by first name, checking in with everyone – reporter, spotter, camera person and utility. They were Jenny’s Posse and she not only pushed them when she needed, but protected them as well.
“But my favorite moments are a few off the track. I learned over the years that Jenny was a skilled writer and an incredible poet. I will always remember special poems she wrote for Bob Jenkins when he was doing his last race for INDYCAR and for Dan Wheldon after he won the Indy 500 and began his broadcasting weeks with us. Jenny would wait until just the right time; when it was quiet and the work was done and then read it to all of us – her family.”
Nickell went from student to teacher during her days with network, cable and specialty shows that earned her an Emmy.
“Jenny was THE pioneer, the way-paver for all women in auto racing broadcasting,” said Kymberly Booth Higgs, a veteran racing producer who also came from Lingner’s farm system. “She was the only one at first, and was so patient and kind to mentor and teach me when I was so young and green. We both loved racing and somehow made a career of being at the racetrack.
“She and I worked long into the nights, year after year, to create the hall of fame induction videos with love and passion, and then we would beam together when they made our racing heroes start to cry.
“Almost 20 years ago, while I was teaching her this brand new sport called freestyle motocross, she was teaching me that a good producer immerses herself into learning everything there is to know about whatever they’re doing. Just recently, I asked Jenny to work with me on a complicated show in a role that very few people could handle, and she made me look good doing it. Now I just wish I could tell her all these things and let her know how important she was in shaping me as a
producer and a person.”
If it were a particularly good race or surprising winner, Jenny would pound out a late-night email that oozed with her personal excitement for being an eyewitness to some history. Or she might share a tidbit about what Len Sutton, Don Branson or Anthony Joseph Foyt did on a particular date.
She drove up to Milwaukee in 1983 for an Indy car race with the late Gary Lee and Jenkins, ready for duty as the microwave receiver and over the next 33 years parlayed her passion, work ethic and personality into a dream job.
Lingner, the veteran producer for ESPN, ABC and now NBCSN who called Miss Jenny co-worker and friend since that day in ’83, said she was also his yardstick for the truth.
“It may sound funny or peculiar with all the amazing people I’ve had a chance to work alongside but, deep down, I always wanted to get the approval and acceptance of Jenny,” Lingner said. “It was so very important to me. I knew if she said ‘that sucked,’ I was good but, most importantly, the show or feature would be good. It will remain my litmus test.
“Through the years, and as my sons grew, I always appreciated the motherly way she treated them. God, I’ll miss her. She was family.”