When people talk about the beginning years of the Pro Stock class, the days when people were passionate about their cars and went to the drag strips on the weekend to cheer on the guys who drove their favorite brand of car, three names were at the forefront. The Ford camp had “Dyno” Don Nicholson, the Mopar guys had legendary four-speed wizard Ronnie Sox, and the Chevy lovers had Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins. I was one of those kids who were inspired by this little guy with the big cigar that had a gift for getting more out of his car than the next guy. Jenkins was smart enough that he could have done about anything, but he did what he wanted to do and his passion was finding a way to get his car down the quarter mile quicker than anyone else. I admired him from afar as a youngster, reading all the articles in the car magazines, drawing his car in class instead of paying attention to the teacher, wanting to grow up and do the same thing as he did. I’ll never forget that magical day when my brother-in-law so graciously took me along to the old York US30 Dragway and I got to see my hero in person. I can still recall how exciting it was to see the “Grumpy’s Toy” Camaro lift its front wheels in the air and scream down the strip. I must have drawn that car a hundred times, almost always with those wheels up. The Grump won the first two races of the new Pro Stock class in a Camaro, but his most successful car was a lowly Vega. That little car with the little engine defeated all the giants in ’72 and made Jenkins a national celebrity of sorts by earning as much money as Wilt Chamberlain that year. Not only was he a winner as a driver, but Jenkins built a large number of engines for a wide variety of cars, including an engine that earned the pole position of the Daytona 500 one year. He had a hand in a lot of success for a lot of people. Just as I was thrilled to see him as a youngster, I was thrilled again to watch him many years later working on the engine for Jim Yates at Englishtown. All those years later the intensity was still there. I mentioned earlier about that first sighting at York US30. There was another Camaro that caught my eye that day, the USA-1 funny car of Bruce Larson which immediately became my favorite funny car. His nitro-belching car was on the cover of the souvenir program I bought that day and I still have that program. That makes it somewhat ironic that I finally got to meet Bill Jenkins in person last fall at Bruce Larson’s place. Jenkins got his nickname “Grumpy” not by having a grumpy demeanor but from his no-nonsense approach. I’ve heard it said that was his personality at the track, but on that day I got to meet him, it seemed to be an integral part of him. I had to chuckle out loud watching one gentleman that came up to him. The exchange went sort of as follows.
Man: Remember me? We always met at so and so’s restaurant for breakfast at Englishtown and yada, yada, yada, yada and so on.
That old no-nonsense “Grump” was still there and I loved watching it up close. I saw it again shortly thereafter. The moment is captured in the picture below. The guy he came with was going on and on about an engine he had never seen before.
He ended by asking Jenkins, “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Jenkins just replied, “Worked on a couple.”
I seized the moment after that to introduce myself, shake his hand, and tell him how he provided an inspiration in my life that led to an automotive degree. He just smiled and said “Thank you.” That is a moment I am so very thankful that I was able to have and will always cherish.
Godspeed, Bill. The world of drag racing has lost a true legend.