For those of us who grew up watching drag races in the 1960’s-early 1980’s, the name Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins should sound more than familiar to you. It would be like asking a politics addict who was the president at the time of the Watergate scandal. Grumpy Jenkins is just that legendary.
While Grumpy Jenkins may have won ONLY 13 NHRA titles as a driver during his lengthy, legendary career, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who had a more lasting impact on Super Stock and Pro Stock drag racing. He was voted the 8th-best driver in the NHRA’s Top 50 list, because “no other individual has contributed more to the advancement of normally aspirated engines for quarter mile competition.”
William Jenkins was born in Philadelphia on December 30, 1930. Bill quickly got his start turning wrenches on a neighbor’s tractor after his family moved to the more bucolic city of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. By the time he reached high school, he was running the occasional drag race at the local drag strip, but it was more pastime than passion for him. After graduation, Jenkins studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University, but dropped out after only 3 years in a 4 year program, after his father died. By his own admission, he wasn’t much of a student.
While he may have lacked an aptitude for test-taking, it is eminently clear that he learned quite a bit during his time at Cornell. When the Chevy small-block V8 debuted in 1955, it didn’t take long for Bill to realize that the engine had tons of potential for drag racing. By the early 1960’s, he’d developed something of a cult following back east. East coast drag racers knew that a Jenkins-built car with a Jenkins-built engine practically guaranteed you going home with a big, nice, shiny trophy strapped into the seat next to you.
His talents weren’t overlooked by GM, either. In 1963, Bill and his partner, Dave Strickler, received the first factory lightweight Z-11 427 cubic-inch V8 Chevrolet Impala. Carrying the same Old Reliable nickname worn proudly by the team’s previous Ammon Smith Auto Company-sponsored Chevrolet, the Jenkins-tuned Impala helped deliver a big, shiny trophy home in the Little Eliminator class at the 1963 NHRA Nationals. The team’s relationship with Chevrolet likely would have given Chevrolet more trophies if it weren’t for the 1963 corporate ban on motorsports. That ended what likely would have been an extremely-promising career with GM for Bill Jenkins and Dave Strickler.
In 1964 with GM out of the picture, Jenkins and Strickler turned to Dodge and their newly-released 426 HEMI. They delivered Dodge a win at the 1964 Nationals at the A/FX class. Jenkins then backed this up with an S/SA class win of his own at the 1965 Winternationals, behind the wheel of the Black Arrow, a 1965 Dodge that marked his transition from tuner to driver. When he approached Chrysler in 1966 to extend the deal, neither party could come to terms with each other on a deal, so he returned to drag racing a Chevrolet (specifically a 1966 Chevrolet II) for the 1966 season.
Since GM still wasn’t sanctioning motorsports, Jenkins funded the effort on his own, via whatever sponsorships he could scrounge up. The car was the first to carry the Grumpy’s Toy moniker. It wasn’t long before his efforts came to the attention of Chevrolet’s Vince Piggens, then the head of Chevrolet’s performance efforts. Racing was still forbidden fruit, but nothing in the company’s rulebook prohibited Piggens from financially assisting Jenkins in the name of “Product Promotions Engineering.”
His Chevy II was a four-speed manual car, which meant that Jenkins had to turn his engineering prowess towards improving shifting and getting the power to the ground. As he explained to the audience at his Top 50 induction, “We applied a lot of slick-shift technology to the transmissions and made good use of the slapper bar style of traction device originally used by Stahl and Frank Sanders. By the end of the year, I could dump the clutch at 6,000 RPM when most of the other guys had to feather the throttle on the seven-inch tires that we were restricted to.”
Such innovation became a hallmark of Jenkins-built cars and engines, and it was often said that he was happier winning races as a constructor and tuner than as a driver. By the late 1960’s, he was active on both fronts, fielding as many as four team cars while driving a car of his own (usually a Camaro), and heads-up match races against drivers like Ronnie Sox and Don Nicholson became so popular with spectators that the NHRA created the Pro Stock category for the 1970 season. Out of the gate, Jenkins won against Sox at the Winternationals and Gatornationals, but Chrysler closed the gap and became the brand to beat in the 1/4 mile.
When rule changes in 1972 allowed cars with small-block wedge engines to run at far lower weights than before, Jenkins was the first embrace the rule change. He built his first Pro Stock Chevrolet Vega, which turned out to be the car to beat. By the end of the 1972 season, Jenkins had won 6 out of 8 NHRA national events. Factoring in race winnings and sponsorships, Jenkins earned $250,000 in income that year, rivaled only by NBA star Wilt Chamberlain. This feat was good enough to earn Jenkins coverage in Time magazine, and suddenly the sport of NHRA drag racing had gone mainstream.
His second Vega, a 1974 Vega, dubbed Grumpy’s Toy XI, didn’t enjoy nearly the same success as his previous Vega, but went on to have a far more lasting impression on drag racing. It featured Pro Stock firsts such as a full tube chassis, a dry sump oiling system, rack and pinion steering, and a MacPherson strut front suspension that added weight transfer to the rear tires, and it became the car that most Pro Stock cars are based off of today.
Accepting that he gained greater satisfaction as a constructor than as a driver, Jenkins hung up his Nomex in 1976 to focus on research and development. He remained a team owner through the 1983 season, but then shifted his attention to his Jenkins Competition business full-time, where he and his crew built engines for motorsports ranging from drag racing through stock car racing. Even into his mid-70s, Jenkins was said to be active building engines, undoubtedly running younger employees ragged with his focus and determination to address every detail, no matter how small. Eventually, even Jenkins’s tank ran dry, and he died of heart failure in March 2012 at the age of 81. The nickname “Grumpy” came from a summer intern who called him the nickname because of his all-work, no-play attitude.
For me, it’s hard to imagine somebody who’s more legendary in that area of drag racing.