The Evolution of Crazy

Pro Street is a popular form of hot rodding nowadays.  It’s also incredibly easy to define, unlike rat rods or Pro Touring.  Pro Street is classic cars with the rear wheeltubs dramatically enlarged for insanely wide tires.  However, defining Pro Street gets a bit more difficult from there.  Is it a fairgrounds car with big dirt tires?  A street-optimized race car? A race-optimized street car?  Or is it a full-on race car?  It can be any and all of those.  Pro Street has evolved throughout the years from essentially fairgrounds cars to street-optimized race cars.  I’ve taken the pleasure of outlining important years and cars in the evolution of Pro Street.  While your idea of Pro Street might differ, or not be there, I hope this helps.

1972: Grumpy Jenkins Pro Stock Vega:  Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins essentially ushered in Pro Street with the advent of his groundbreaking NHRA Pro Stock tube-chassis Chevy Vega in 1972.  Nobody had ever seen massive tires tucked under a production body before. Yes, the extreme Funny Cars had been using the look for a few years prior, but they had fiberglass body shells, so let’s not count those.  Grumpy went all-out groundbreaking by using a completely tubular frame, which allowed him to run those massive 14-inch-wide and 32-inch-tall drag slicks previously reserved for Top Fuel.  Every single Pro Stock car borrows heavily from that groundbreaking Vega in 1972.

Grumpy Jenkins Chevy Vega

1979: Scott Sullivan’s 1967 Chevy Nova:  No, this beautiful 1967 Chevy Nova was not the first Pro Street car.  Not by a long shot.  However, it was the first car to get massive attention past a small magazine feature on it.  It thundered onto the scene in 1979, just a year after the Car Craft Street Machine Nationals were launched to tire-burning success.  It created the perfect test-and-tune environment for Pro Street.  Sullivan has been known for setting hot rodding trends with just about every car that he builds.  His 1967 Nova was no exception.  It may not have been as innovative as his other cars, but it doesn’t make it any less beautiful, thanks to it’s highlight stripe and color-matched bumpers.  It even had the perfect stance.  Sullivan sold the car in 1984 to Pro Mod racer Ron Iannotti.

Scott Sullivan 1967 Chey Nova

1980: Some Tubbed Street Machines: Many street rod builders of the late 1970s became brainwashed by Scott Sullivan’s beautiful 1967 Chevy Nova (see above), and completely redid their cars.  Just about every car from this era had the back half of their chassis tubbed, and many builders simply moved the leaf springs far inside the chassis to fit the massive drag slicks.  Seeing a car with a Roots blower sticking out of the hood was a must well into the 1990s.

Pro Street Pontiac GTO

1985: Fully Tubbed Street Rods: The cover of the July 1985 ‘Hot Rod’ magazine announced the “Fat Attack” of fully tubbed street rods.  One of the cars on the cover was “Fat Jack” Robinson’s 1946 Ford coupe, painted in a vivid Coast Guard orange.  The car was tubbed like a true Pro Street car, but it was intended to thunder down the drag strips of America.  His car was the result of the first round of the nostalgia drag racing scene of the time.  His car inspired several other pre-1948 fully-tubbed cars.  Those cars on the cover of ‘Hot Rod’ showed how the Pro Street look merging into the vast world of street rods.  It wasn’t long before you’d look around at a hot rod show and see a bunch of 1940s Ford coupes sporting massive rubber.  Unfortunately for Fat Jack Robinson, his car ended up being totaled in a crash at Fremont Drag Strip.

Fat Jack Robinson 1946 Ford Coupe

1992: Trailer/Fairgrounds Queens: Dick Dobbertin’s nutso Pontiac J2000 Pro Street car arrived on the scene in 1986.  You’re probably wondering why I said 1992.  That’s because the trend of taking a lowly late-model FWD car being converted to a fully-tubbed, RWD car started then.  It made it OK to build an over-the-top Pro Street car that only looked good, which have now been dubbed Pro Fairgrounds.  Why Pro Fairgrounds?  The show venue was the only place where these cars could really shine.  I mean, who would really want to drive a car with more than 1,000 horsepower and a short wheelbase down a dragstrip?  If you want that kind of crazy, buy a vintage Fuel Altered car.  This radical Pontiac J2000 started the Dare to be Different movement in the automotive world, by starting battles to see who was able to build a bonkers Pro Fairgrounds car that nobody else had built yet.  Soon thereafter, builders came to their senses and started the Dare to be the Same movement, which leads us to our next section.

Dick Dobbertin Pontiac J2000

1992: C.A.R.S. Camaro: Many of the builders of Pro Fairgrounds resented building cars they couldn’t drive.  They wanted truly functional rides, not simple street rods with a big block, but cars that had gigantic rubber, big wheelies, and low drag strip times.  Detroit and Ohio even started a large movement to build cars that were all-steel-bodied, fully tubbed, go eight seconds in the quarter mile, dress them up with bumpers and various trim pieces, cruise them up and down the iconic Woodward Avenue in Detroit with license plates, and then race them head-to-head all weekend.  One of the first cars featured in magazines was the C.A.R.S. Inc.-sponsored Chevy Camaro of Rick Dyer and Danny Scott.  That iconic Camaro served as the main inspiration for the ‘Hot Rod’ 1992 Fastest Street Car Shootout.

Rick Dyer Chevy Camaro

1993: Mark Tate’s Chevy Camaro: That little Fastest Street Car Shootout gained so much popularity so quickly that it couldn’t sustain itself.  The heavyweight champs, the Pro Street cars, were losing to flat-out Pro Stock-chassis cars.  Those Pro Stock chassis cars were never meant to be driven on the street, unlike the Pro Street cars.  Mark Tate joined the fray in 1993 with his stock-bodied Pro Stock-chassis 1967 Chevy Camaro.  Then it was Tony Christian’s 1957 Chevy 210.  After Christian, it was Bob Reiger and his radical Pro Stock Chevy S-10.  Appeal for Pro Stock/Pro Street cars started to wane.  These weren’t cars you could build in the garage for $10,000 anymore.  These were cars racking up bills well over $100,000.  People wanted fast cars that they could drive on the street for not much money.

Mark Tate 1967 Chevy Camaro

2011: “Modern Pro Street:” This is a total niche created in the Pro Street world by those wanting a fast car with all of the modern mechanicals.  Cars of this look have a Pro Fairgrounds look, street machine behavior, and sometimes a late-model body.  These cars usually have the newest engines, turbos, EFI, and the wheels are usually gigantic with incredible tread.  The beautiful Mustang shown here is the 2007 Ford Mustang from Fastlane Motorsports.  It has a 2010 5.4-liter V-8 with an old-school Weiand 6-71 blower showing out of the hood.

Fastlane Motorsports 2007 Mustang

2012:  Larry Larson’s Chevy Nova: This is where Pro Street is now.  Larry Larson owns a stunning 1966 Chevrolet Nova that has truly incredible performance.  He’s run 6.90 seconds at well over 200 mph in the quarter mile after driving 80 mph on the highway all day.  How does he do it?  Modern technology.  He’s got a bored and stroked Chevy big-block motor with twin turbochargers, EFI, and lots of other amazing technology.  He’s able to drive it all day to a drag strip, run incredible times, turn around and go home without killing his car.  He’s had a LOT of experience in the drag racing world, so he only uses the best parts.  If Grumpy Jenkins were alive today, his mind would be absolutely blown.  Mine is.

Larry Larson 1966 Chevy Nova

That’s where Pro Street is, and where it’s come from.  These cars have state-of-the-art technology, and they are actually quite streetable cars.

Who Was Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins?

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.