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Farewell to the grumpy one

30 Mar 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Everyone loved Bill Jenkins, but perhaps none more so than Linda Vaughn.

I had a whole other column ready to go – ahead of schedule even – when I got the news via text yesterday morning that we’d lost Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, but I wanted to jump in right away to share a few brief thoughts about the king of the Chevrolet engine. I’ll present the other column here Tuesday.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t know “Grump” very well, my contact being limited to a very narrow window that spanned the beginning of my employment at NHRA (May 1982) through the middle of the decade when he retired as a team owner. Further hampering my “Grump” quota was that during those years, I primarily covered Top Fuel and Funny Car for National DRAGSTER, so my interactions on the gas ‘n’ carbs side were kinda limited.

Besides, there’s not much really that I could add to the very thorough bio that ND’s John Jodauga – a longtime and good friend of and former publicity manager for Jenkins – wrote for us when Jenkins was voted No. 8 in 2001’s Top 50 Drivers poll, copy that I used for the obituary I put together yesterday morning. Combined with an outpouring of fan reactions, it’s a pretty good summation of not only the man’s career, but also what he meant to so many whom he inspired. (I particularly love the one about the guy Bill Edwards, whose dad named him William Tyler after Jenkins’ first two names, and how his mom thought his name was Timothy Martin Edwards until she saw the birth certificate that Dad had completed.)

The way I know Jenkins best is through the anecdotes of those who did know him, and I’m hoping that many of you will share your “Grumpy” stories with me. ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna (@ThatguyKMac) Tweeted a funny remembrance: “Best Grump memory. Dick Moroso's holiday party. Grump in a hot tub with 3 girls who didn't add up to his age!!”

My favorite is an old chestnut that a former staffer says he witnessed at a trade show. Hurst had one of its new four-speed units on display, bolted to a table for people to try. After watching a group of people meander their way through the H-shaped gear pattern, “Grump” walked up, placed a skilled hand on the shifter knob, and turned the shifter into a blur as he quickly worked his way through the pattern with such vigor that the entire display was shaking. He stopped, paused, and simply grunted, “Hrmph,” and walked away with a pleased smirk on his face. (I’m not sure that my spelling accurately captures the flavor of a Jenkins grunt, but I tried; if you ever heard one, you know the sound.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and risk offending some of the many drag racing legends whom I call friends, but I’m going to say that I feel that, strictly on a historic perspective, the loss of Jenkins is the biggest one the sport has ever suffered. I’m sure that at the time that heroes like Pete Robinson and John Mulligan died those impacts were staggering -- as they were when we lost Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta -- and the recent losses of such legends as James Warren and “Dyno Don" Nicholson left huge voids, but to me, Jenkins was on a rare plane in the pantheon of drag racing legends. I put only a handful of people at that level – folks like Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, Tom McEwen, and Chris Karamesines – and although there are plenty just a shade below those, this was a day that I’d worried about for so long but knew would come (as it will for all of us), the falling of one of the true titans of our sport.

How do you say goodbye to someone as well-known, accomplished, respected, and admired? It seems that no matter what you do to try to salute a life or career, it will never be enough to match what he or she gave and what he or she meant to so many.

Jodauga was on the phone all day yesterday tracking down comments and memories from some of Jenkins’ contemporaries and biggest fans and will include them in a big tribute to Jenkins planned for next week’s National DRAGSTER. JJ will be in Las Vegas this weekend for the big show, where he'll continue that work and where I know that Jenkins’ passing will be a major topic, yet I know that his passing will be felt for a long time.

Farewell, “Grump.” Thanks for the memories.