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.

What Makes Last Week’s Sprint Car Tragedy So Special?

There’s no denying that last week’s tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York is horrific.  For those of you who don’t know, Tony Stewart, a very good sprint car and NASCAR driver, had an on-track collision with a fellow sprint car driver, Kevin Ward, Jr.  Ward’s car spun out, hit the wall, and suffered a flat tire.  Ward then proceeded to climb out of his car and stride down the track pointing his finger at Stewart.  As Stewart’s car went by, Ward was struck by the rear right wheel of Stewart’s car, sending him flying a good 20 feet down the track.  Health officials said that Ward was killed on impact.  The result?  A massive internet phenomenon where just about every internet user has become an “expert” on sprint cars overnight.  While I’m not a sprint car expert either, I do find them fascinating.  The reason for this post being almost a week behind the tragedy is that I wanted to put some time behind the incident to gather more information and let everybody cool off.

Here’s what happened – Tony Stewart grew up driving sprint cars until his mid-20’s, when he became heavily involved in NASCAR and IndyCar.  He still drove sprint cars for fun.  After he got out of IndyCar around 2005, Stewart went full-time into NASCAR.  He went into NASCAR’s prestigious Sprint Cup Series, where he won three Cups.  He has won many, many races in NASCAR, sprint cars, and IndyCar.  He may have a reputation for having a temper, but he’s calmed down in the last few years.  According to those who know him and have interviewed him, the man has a heart of gold, but can act impulsively.  When Danica Patrick came to Stewart-Haas racing, Tony personally started coaching her.  He’s been a driving force in sprint car safety measures ever since he suffered a severely broken leg last year in a sprint car race in Iowa.  His broken leg was so bad that it forced him to go around in a mobility scooter for a good 4 months.  He had to miss the rest of the NASCAR season, making him ineligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

This year, Tony’s been back with an eye on the prize.  He’s already gotten one pole at a race, and started in the Top 5 4 times.  But, the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. last weekend shook him.  He was scheduled to race the next day at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the Cheez-it 355, but decided not to race after the tragedy the night before.  On Thursday, he released a statement saying that he will not be racing at Michigan International Speedway, and that Jeff Burton will continue to drive his No. 14 Chevrolet SS for the indefinite future.

Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle both grew up driving sprint cars on dirt tracks.  Many drivers like Stewart have humble beginnings on short tracks, or start off in go-karts.  Mostly in NASCAR, it’s the former.  For Tony Stewart, driving sprint cars is just a fun hobby that he does for fun occasionally.  However, he does have a couple of drivers driving sprint cars under his direction from Stewart-Haas Racing.  It’s like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart (no relation to Tony Stewart), who is still an off-road motorsports legend.  Ivan grew up riding motorcycles, and he enjoys riding them across the country with friends when he’s not helping Toyota Racing Development (TRD) with new off-road race trucks.  Back to Tony Stewart.  The tragedy obviously shook him to his core, and I think that he just needs to take a break from racing all together for a while to reorient himself.  I don’t think that he will ever recover from accidentally killing a fellow driver, especially a 20-year-old.  I don’t think that anybody can.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, NASCAR has released new on-track protocols for drivers following a wreck.  In a nutshell, drivers are not supposed to exit their car after a wreck unless instructed to by a safety official.  Drivers are prohibited from going onto the track or towards other cars under all circumstances unless it is a safety vehicle.  The reason for this is that some NASCAR superspeedways like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead-Miami are big enough for cars to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph.  When a caution happens in NASCAR, drivers are only supposed to let off the gas and coast until the pace car comes on the track.  If a driver exited their car at Daytona and started striding towards another car, the result could be disastrous.  Drivers are safer inside of their cars.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars are built to withstand multiple impacts of 200 mph or greater, and still allow the driver to live.  The driver might have an injury like a broken leg or arm, but they will be far better off than dead.  These rules might seem foolish, but they are really only common sense.  There is no logical reason for a driver to approach another car on foot.

Now, let’s talk about sprint cars.  These little things that look like they belong on a WWII fighter plane are tricky and super cool.  Sprint car racing is different than midget car racing.  Midget cars are essentially go-karts with semi-powerful engines (usually a Ford flathead V8 or a GMC “Jimmy” inline-six-cylinder) and dirt or asphalt tires.  They are freakishly fast and unsafe.  Sprint cars are the next step up from that.  These cars define insanity.

There are a couple of different classes of sprint cars:  The craziest class is World of Outlaws, started in 1978.  These cars use a 410 cubic-inch naturally-aspirated V8 (6.7 liters) that can produce anywhere from 900-1,100 horsepower.  These cars do not have a starter, transmission, clutch, or battery.  This means that these cars must get a push from a start truck to get going.  They simply use a driveshaft directly from the engine to the rear axle.  Their left rear tire is 335 millimeters wide (that’s as wide as the rear tires on a SRT Viper!), and their massive right rear tire is 380 millimeters wide.  The class that Tony Stewart races in is called the United Racing Company.  These sprint cars use a 360 cubic-inch V8 (5.9 liters) that is based off of a Dodge/Plymouth design.  That’s where the similarities to the Big 3 end.  These engines are capable of producing anywhere from 700-900 horsepower.  Again, these cars don’t use transmissions, clutches, batteries, or starters.

In recent years, sprint car safety has greatly increased.  Roll cages are now mandatory, as well as fully tubbed chassis’.  Fuel tank bladders prevent fuel leakages, and alcohol-infused fuel is now used.  Six or seven-point safety harnesses are now standard, and drivers are now required to wear a 2-layer fire suit and Nomex gloves.  Full helmets, arm restraint devices, right headrests, and a 1/8 inch-thick rock/debris screen on the front of the roll cage.  Plus, World of Outlaws and United Racing Company require head and neck restraints (HANS devices).

Winged sprint cars are much safer than non-winged sprint cars, due to the fact that the aluminum wings are capable of absorbing a good deal of impact.  When crashes happen, they are often violent, and debilitating injuries in non-winged sprint cars are commonplace.  The safety of winged sprint cars was shown in 2013 when Tony Stewart’s sprint car flipped and hit a safety fence before hitting the ground upside down.  Tony was able to walk away from the crash with only a severely broken leg (okay, maybe hop away).

Any sprint car is capable of reaching speeds of 140 mph or more.  With winged sprint cars, the wings add hundreds of pounds of downforce at speed, making the car easier to control.  Surprisingly, sprint cars are easier to control at higher speeds, thanks to the added downforce.  Sprint cars are mainly steered with the throttle, which is why they are almost always sideways.  They are built to turn left 99% of the time, and side visibility is almost nothing.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Greg Biffle also grew up driving sprint cars, and he has said multiple times in interviews that sprint cars need to have better side visibility.  The wings on the sides go down to about head level of the driver, and shorter drivers have no problem with visibility.  What needs to happen with sprint cars is simple:

  • Drivers should NOT exit their car unless it’s on fire.  This would alleviate any repeats of the Ward/Stewart tragedy.  When a car spins out or hits the wall, a caution is called.  Drivers let off the gas, but they still are travelling pretty fast.  Tony Stewart was going about 40 mph when he hit Kevin Ward, Jr.  Even if he was in a street car, Ward would still be dead.  Safety officials can be anywhere on a track like Canandaigua in seconds.  Watch the video, and you’ll see that the safety truck was at the site where Ward was killed in under 10 seconds.  The truck was heading out to help Ward’s car get back to the pits when the accident happened.
  • The wings on the side NEED to be raised about 6-10 inches higher for better visibility.  It won’t make the cars more unstable.  Look at Can-Am McLaren’s of the 1960’s and 1970’s – their wings got higher and higher.  It actually HELPED the car’s stability and downforce!  Sprint cars could benefit from that.  Plus, it will make the cars safer, as there will be more space between the wall/catch fence/ground and the driver.
  • Drivers need to wait until after a caution to talk to race officials about who was at fault in the accident.  It was clear in the Ward/Stewart incident the lap before Ward was killed that Ward bumped Stewart’s car and hit the wall as a result.  Ward was clearly at fault in the accident, but Stewart also used his car to shove Ward’s away from his so that both cars didn’t spin.  It’s a simple maneuver, yet it proved to be ultimately fatal.  Race officials know who did what when, and they will assign points and/or penalties accordingly.  I know that drivers become furious when their car is wrecked, but walking towards the car that wrecked yours is simply not a smart or good way to take your anger out.

I think that in the coming months, many sanctioning bodies of various motorsports will enact rules telling drivers to not exit their vehicles until told to do so by safety officials.  Let me be perfectly clear:  Crew chiefs and spotters are NOT safety officials.  They are there to make sure that you stay out of accidents and win a race.  They are not a track safety official telling you to get out of the car.  I know that humans make mistakes, but Kevin Ward, Jr.’s mistake proved fatal.  There’s no taking back what happened that night, but we can prevent it from happening again.  It’s sad, and my thoughts go out to Kevin Ward, Jr.’s family and to Tony Stewart.  I can’t even begin to fathom how sad Tony Stewart must feel about what happened that night.

I have attached the video of Tony Stewart killing Kevin Ward, Jr.  Please do not watch this video if you felt at all uncomfortable reading this post.  I had trouble watching the video, but I feel that it is important for you to see it.  Viewer discretion is advised when watching this video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5JNNXXdqM4