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James "Fireball" Jenkins worked hard, loved to race

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | 7:10 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — For 40 years, James "Fireball" Jenkins attended the Knoxville Nationals car race in Iowa.

He went first as a competitor, and after his 31-year racing career ended, he would still go to meet up with old friends. His son, Jerry Jenkins, said the events were like family reunions for his father.

"This will be the first year he misses," Jerry Jenkins said.

James Jenkins, of Slater, died Sunday, March 18, 2012, at Landmark Hospital in Columbia. He was 78. 

He was born June 5, 1933, to Rollie Henry "Mike" Jenkins and Helen Frances (Hearrold) Jenkins in Hardin. On Nov. 1, 1980, he married Lois Wood Hickman.

Mr. Jenkins began racing in 1961. During his career, he earned the title of points champion for a few years at Capital Speedway and points champion for two years in the B Class at Sportsman's Speedway. In 1964, he won the B feature at the Knoxville Nationals.

Mr. Jenkins received the nickname "Fireball" when he was racing in the early '60s. People noticed there seemed to be fireballs coming out of his exhaust and asked if he was using an additive in his fuel.

Jerry Jenkins said his father would always smile and never confirm nor deny.

He said his father was a competitive racer who came to win. 

Jerry Jenkins said his father had a saying: "Second place doesn't pay anything."

Jerry Jenkins said his father, when he competed, might go out to a race on a Friday night, then spend the night working to get his car ready for a race Saturday, then spend the night working to get his car ready for a race Sunday.

Mr. Jenkins' son Jimmy Jenkins would go with his father to the races to help him, and the two would work on the race cars together.

Jerry Jenkins said Mr. Jenkins would often attend races over the weekend with his children Jimmy and Janie.

In 1983, Mr. Jenkins participated in an "old timers" night at Capital Speedway, where he and about 10 others got to do a race during the intermission. Jerry Jenkins said the race involved two top drivers from Mr. Jenkins' era: Bill Utz of Sedalia and Mr. Jenkins.

Mr. Jenkins drew for a car that hadn't seemed to be running well earlier in the night.

Jerry Jenkins said Ruth Hohman, a family friend whose husband raced against Mr. Jenkins, was at the race. Jerry Jenkins said she looked at the family and said that if that car had never run well, it would run tonight with Mr. Jenkins driving.

"When they dropped that green flag, the race was on," Jerry Jenkins said.

Mr. Jenkins won the race.

Mr. Jenkins owned and operated Jenkins Hauling from 1994 to 2008. Before this, he worked with the United Mine Workers Local 7688 for 25 years near Moberly.

"That's mainly what he did, was worked and raced," Jerry Jenkins said.

Mr. Jenkins' sister, Pat White, said her brother was always hard at work, either at his job or when he was racing.

"He just knew everybody. He just wanted to be a part of everything and everybody's life," she said.

Jerry Jenkins also said his father was dedicated to the relationships in his life. After he retired, Mr. Jenkins would make time to talk and meet with old friends.

"He'd spend hours on the phone every day calling family or friends," his son said.

Every winter, Mr. Jenkins and his wife would travel to Weslaco, Texas, to visit with old friends. He would hang out with acquaintances at the "Spit Corner," where they would drink coffee and solve all the world's problems, as Jerry Jenkins put it.

"He lived to go to Texas every winter," Jerry Jenkins said.

Mr. Jenkins is survived by his wife; seven children, Sheryl Sneed and companion, Keith, of Omaha, Neb., James L. Jenkins and his wife, SuzAnne, of Slater, Janie Adcock-McCoy and companion, Richard Wiseman, of Marshall, Jerry Jenkins and his wife, Debbie, of Columbia, Steven Hickman and his wife, Brenda, of California, Mo., Mike Hickman and his wife, Cathy, of California, Mo., and Kelli Dorsey and her husband, Donnie, of Hannibal; 16 grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; two sisters, Pat White of Slater and Carol King of Odessa; and three brothers, Ed Jenkins and Tom Jenkins, both of Odessa, and Jack Jenkins of Bremerton, Wash.

His parents, his son Steven, his brother Rollie "Dude" Jenkins, and his stepmother, Glenna Jenkins, died earlier.

Visitation will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Campbell-Lewis Funeral Home, 226 S. Odell Ave., in Marshall. Services will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church, 308 W. Maple St., in Slater.

Memorials may be made to the American Diabetes Association, National Shingles Foundation or National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa.

Condolences can be posted at campbell-lewis.com.


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