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.

Coverage from the 11th Annual Peggy Sue All-American Cruise!

Every year, the Peggy Sue All-American Cruise and its related events take over sunny Santa Rosa, CA.  Restored cars, hot rods, low riders, raised Jeeps, and antique American cars are all part of the mix.  We have entered our 1950 GMC 100, “Betsy” twice.  It’s always been a lot of fun for me to see all of the classic cars in the parade or the massive parking lot where they are displayed!  This year, one of my good friends joined me in watching the classic American cars cruise around downtown Santa Rosa.  Revving engines?  Check.  Drunk people yelling at drivers to “Step it up, dude!”?  Check.  Squealing tires?  Check?  The smell of burnt brakes?  Check.  Annoyed and overworked event staff?  Right on.  I know that you are getting bored reading my words about what was going on.  I’ll cut to the chase:  It was a LOT of fun, and you should join me next year.  Enjoy the pictures.

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I don’t know what this Chevy Nova had under the hood, but it sounded NASTY!  Many of the cars at the parade were either restored to Concours-levels or were built for the drag strip.  This one was built to rule the streets.   DSCN1921

This 1959 Chevrolet Corvette is a rare “Fuelie.”  Instead of a carburetor, it has a primitive version of fuel injection.  This particular example was restored to a “Level 1.”  Level 1 means that it is virtually perfect.  That it is.

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This 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne is a powerful, efficient, and stylish family sedan from the muscle car era.  It has a 327 cubic-inch V8 engine and a two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission.  It’s lovely.

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I find it nice that the interior of the same Biscayne matches the exterior of the car.  Even the steering wheel has chrome on it!

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Same car.  This is the model designation.  The car is a barn find from somewhere around Redwood City, according to the owner.  He restored it himself, and he did a very good job of it!

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For those of you old enough, you should remember the aero-wars days, when big engines and aerodynamics were all the rage.  The 1971 Plymouth Roadrunners and Superbirds were the car of choice for many famous NASCAR drivers.  Richard Petty left Ford in 1969 to go to Plymouth.   He did so much better in a Plymouth Superbird that Ford built the Torino Talladega as a response.  This particular Roadrunner has the 440 Six Pack (a 440 cubic-inch V8 with THREE two-barrel carburetors!), which was just one step below the mighty 426 Hemi engine.  It is painted in the iconic Lime Green that is popular with automotive restorers.

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This Corvette is one of the nicest Corvettes that I’ve seen in a LONG time!  It is painted Aqua Blue and Snow White, with a matching interior.  It has the 283 cubic-inch V8 and a four-speed manual.  It is a 1956 Corvette.  The only shame?  That it’s far too nice to tour Route 66 in.

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Sorry about the fingertip on the top of the camera view.  The sun was shining and I REALLY wanted to tell you about this truck!  It’s a 1965 Chevy K10 with the optional 327 cubic-inch engine and a three-speed manual.  It is built to tackle any trail, and take anything that you want with it.  It may not be stock, but it looks like it will outrun just about any Jeep from the same era off-road.

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Remember the Chevy Vega?  If you don’t, it’s okay.  The Vega was powered by a 305 cubic-inch V8.  It was relatively powerful and fast, but it was a minor disaster for Chevy.  This Vega is a 1974 model.  It wasn’t the nicest car there, but it was one of the newer cars there.

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The best part about this 1969 Chevrolet C30 is that it is used a lot.  I don’t know how much, but I have seen it at Sonoma Raceway’s Wednesday Night Drags as a tow vehicle.  It’s the perfect tow vehicle.  It’s got a 350 cubic-inch engine that’s all-original.  So is most of the truck.

DSCN1930This rare 1971 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am is one speedy car.  It’s all stock, and plenty fast that way.  It’s got the 350 cubic-inch V8 engine found in many GM vehicles from 1969-1999.  The top speed is 130 mph.  This car means business.  The lucky driver had to keep the car in first gear.  he also kept touching the brakes because the car wants to leap forward.  Lucky him.

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I’m going to apologize in advance for the direction of the photo.  This 1951 Dodge cab-over semi has been so heavily customized that the only thing original about it is the cab.  That’s it.  The rest of it is custom-built.  The truck is a heavy-duty car-hauler with three axles.  The engine is a brand-new 6.7-liter Cummins Diesel engine that has two turbos instead of one.  Wow!

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While motorcycles aren’t as common in the parade as cars, there were still a good three or four.  This 1946 Indian Roadmaster has the iconic “shovelhead” engine that many motorcycle enthusiasts favor.  This Indian Roadmaster is banana yellow with the “caramel cream” seat.  I like old motorcycles like this.  Maybe some readers will buy me one…

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The Indian logo is still in the original chrome, almost 65 years later.  The gas tank can hold 10 gallons.  It says that on the chrome gas cap.

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I like the way that Indian made the front wheel cover so stylish.  I was talking to the owner for a minute, and I found out that he drove it all the way down to Santa Rosa from Healdsburg.  That’s not a lot of fun on an old motorcycle, yet Indian motorcycles are built to cruise.  I’m guessing that it was probably a comfortable ride down to Santa Rosa.

DSCN1937This 1932 Ford Roadster is a sick hot rod.  The lady standing by the car is the owner.  The car has a Ford 351 Windsor V8 engine.  It has a Jaguar rear end, and a five-speed manual.  This car means business.  I don’t know what I like more:  The mechanical parts of the car, or the exterior?  That’s a decision that YOU will let me know in the comments section…

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This Ford Bronco looks like it came out of some post-apocalyptic movie.  It’s got aggressive tires, a six-inch lift kit, and a 302 cubic inch V8.  I don’t know the exact year, but it looks like it’s from around 1967-8.  This is one nice Bronco.

DSCN1940This is one of the coolest, most amazing Jeep CJs that I’ve ever seen.  And that’s saying a lot.  This CJ is stock, and is a 1947 model.  Between the drivers seat and the passengers seat, there is a metal rifle/shotgun holder for two high-powered guns.  Not that it would be used for that!

DSCN1942How often do you see a stock 1932 Ford roadster?  Not at all often!  This is a stock 1932 Ford roadster that could sell for upwards of $150,000 in its current condition.  It even has the rumble seat and the original interior!  It’s beautiful!

That’s all, folks!

If you would like to check out the Peggy Sue’s Cruise website, it is http://www.peggysuescruise.com/home/