Even a week later, it’s hard to believe that Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins is gone. His loss still resonates from garage to pit area, felt by anyone who called himself or herself a longtime race fan, and even among the racers themselves. Don Prudhomme (whose birthday is today: Happy birthday, "Snake"!) called out of the blue last week just to chat about “the Grump,” and his admiration for Jenkins’ passion, uniqueness, and expertise was obvious. Raymond Beadle sent an email about how much Jenkins had helped him in his NASCAR days. ND Associate Editor John Jodauga compiled a wide array of comments from Jenkins' peers, friends, and followers -- Warren Johnson, Bob Glidden, Buddy Martin, Jere Stahl, Linda Vaughn, Larry Lombardo, Victor Cagnazzi, Dave Connolly, Larry Morgan, Jerry Haas, Bob Frey, and Rick Voegelin – for a four-page tribute in this week’s issue. Jodauga even was among those interviewed by Dennis Hevesi of The New York Times, which deemed Jenkins’ career so important that it published a lengthy and detailed obituary.
The readers of this column responded in kind with great Jenkins memories. As promised, here’s a look at "the Grump" from the Insider Nation.
Bill Jenkins, looking a little extra grumpy this day
The news hit hard for Pro Stock junkie Dan Bennett, a longtime friend, fellow reporter, data-acquisition specialist, and member of our Top 50 Drivers balloting in 2001.
“When the word started circulating that we had lost Bill Jenkins, Lewis Worden gave me a call. He suggested we get together to share memories of our hero and that I should try and get something written down. Looking at that previous sentence, I realize that the word ‘hero’ sounds like something from a grade-school notebook. Yet, for two grown men who have had the luck to get to know Bill, it's a perfectly accurate word.
“For those of you out there thinking, ‘Who are these guys?' please let me add some clarification. Starting in the late 1980s, four local racers from a very small town in Missouri decided to race Pro Stock. We put up with all the snickering and pointing, acting as if we hadn't heard. After a couple of years of buying (no rentals back then to speak of) engines from famous engine builders and having no success, it was hard to keep motivated. But then came the opportunity to buy an engine from Bill Jenkins – ‘the Grump’ himself.
“Bill thought he had some ideas that needed trying on a Pontiac engine. Yes, the engines were actually different back then, and the GM racers had their choice of Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile. Steve Ash paid the deposit. Jenkins let him know that parts were bought and kept him apprised of the progress. Part of the deal was that Jenkins would tune the engine at the events.
“Those pieces and the Jenkins Competition staff put together one of the strongest engines on the scene. We small-town guys, running in the same class with all the famous racers, qualified third at Gainesville that year. Other builders would have made sure their No. 1 team (or their own car) kept that piece for themselves. Not only did Jenkins do the right thing, he worked as hard between rounds as anyone we'd ever seen in trying to squeeze out every fraction of a horsepower for us. We saw an attention to detail we had never even considered. And we were silently impressed when a crewmember from one of many top 10 teams would arrive at our pit with a set of spark plugs for Jenkins to look at.
“Since all of us were just little guys who'd spent a lot of time reading Super Stock, Car Craft, and Hot Rod, it was pretty intimidating that first morning when Bill entered the pit. In a very short period of time, we found he was a really good guy. Though he may have had the strongest mind ever seen in drag racing, he wasn't one to flaunt it or beat anyone over the head with his intellect. He just loved cars, engines, and racing like the rest of us did. Learning when to approach him (after the work was done) and when to just leave him alone allowed us to very quickly develop a great relationship.
“So what did Lewie and I talk about the other night? Well, that's the funny thing. We kept bouncing from race to race, year to year, good times and challenging times. After about three hours, I think we realized that the outline we'd hope to develop didn't exist.
“If Jenkins had been simply the best Pro Stock racer in history, we could just list his wins and achievements. If he had just been a racer who'd dominated Stock and Super Stock like no other, we could have listed all those facts. If he was just the man who was one of the few to invent a new class still popular to this day, the story would have written itself. If it was just his honesty and integrity, we could explain how he did business and lived his life. If he was just a mechanical genius with a stupendous mind, we could tell everyone about the thoughtful answers we'd get when we asked questions. If he had just been one person with whom you could absolutely count on having a good time after the races, we'd say that -- though not be able to tell very many stories. But it's hard to describe all these things at the same time. Bill Jenkins was all that and more.
“The one thing Lewis and I managed to quickly agree on was the level of our feelings of loss. He wasn't a relative, a loved one, or even a close friend who you talked to frequently. But still, there was an ache just knowing that he is gone.
“We had enough fun after hours and enough conversations that keep me from putting the man on a throne or writing about how he was a saint. Bill had flaws like all of us do, and probably a time or two, he would have done differently if he had the chance. But through all that, his combination of strengths taught us more about cars, racing, and life than any other person I've met in my life.
“That's what makes someone a hero.”
We all know that Jenkins battled the Sox & Martin team in the 1970s, but Jerry Adams passed along the photos at right of a little-known clash between the two that stood out at Florida’s Sunshine Speedway in February 1973. Lombardo was wheeling Jenkins’ one-off red Vega (Grumpy’s Toy IX) against the S&M Duster and crashed into the guardrail. While all eyes were on Lombardo’s plight, Ronnie Sox had problems of his own and ended up off the end of the strip.
“National DRAGSTER posted an article in the March 9, 1973, issue about the destruction, but no pictures,” reported Adams. “They called it ‘the most expensive match race ever,’ and I still have the article cut out that I framed with these pictures.
“Most people attending didn't know that Ronnie Sox went off the end of the very short Sunshine Speedway track, so we ran to the track end, and I took these photos. The ND said Sox's brakes locked up. ‘Grumpy's’ next Vega was painted white, probably since he wrecked two red cars, his '66 Nova and the Vega."
Fred Simmonds, who for years was General Motors’ drag racing chief, mused, “How would you like to have a small-block Chevy engine-building team consisting of Bill Jenkins, John Lingenfelter, and Smoky Yunick? Nearly unstoppable! I bet they're comparing notes and telling ‘war stories’ to each other right now! ‘Da Grump’ was one of a kind and will be sorely missed.”
If you look closely at the first photo, it appears that none other than "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was standing by for a firsthand inspection of the carnage.
More stories …
Craig Sanburn: “One day, while driving home from the national event qualifying at Sears Point, my brother and I pulled up to a stoplight and noticed ‘the Grump’ next to us at the light, heading to the hotel in his rental car. We both stared long enough that he noticed us and gave us a head nod and sort of a grin. I revved my four-banger stock commuter and laughed. The light turned green, and I floored it, getting the jump on ‘Grumpy,’ who we assumed had no idea we were racing him! To our delight, all of a sudden, here comes ‘Grumpy,’ pulling alongside! With pedal to the floor, we went neck and neck for a couple blocks and let off. We outran ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins! He got back alongside and gave another head nod and a smile. It was, of course, a great moment in our lives and a little fun for him. I'll never forget it! I'm smiling just thinking about it. RIP, 'Grumpy.' ”
Mike Goyda: “In 1958, Bill was involved with John Good, who owned a Hemi-powered dragster for which Bill had built the engine. They ran 150 mph at Lancaster Drag-O-Way here in Lancaster, Pa. Attached is a photo of Bill's jacket presented to him for the accomplishment. The interesting thing about the jacket is the name on the front. Many people do not know that before he was ‘Grumpy,’ he was 'Jiggs.' This is in my personal collection.”
Gary L. Crumrine: “I think the biggest tribute, and the way we remember ‘Grumpy’ the best, is that as we grew up in that long ago time, we tended to put people in the classification of hero or villain. With ‘Grumpy,’ you found someone willing to wear either mantle, although I believe he relished the latter. Deep down, though, he would also take time to acknowledge the kid who stood in awe of all the activity going on around them (myself included). Bill was a real gem of a character, one of a very few who, like you said, could live up to his hype and fame, and win, lose, or draw, nobody came away unhappy. If you beat him, you beat the best; if you lost, well, you lost to the best, so there was no disgrace in that. With him, it was a win/win no matter what the result was.
“I admit to having been a Mopar fan back then with Sox & Martin and Dick Landy leading the charge, eventually shifting my allegiance to ‘Dyno Don’ and the Ford camp. And every time you turned around, they were all taking their shots at ‘the Grumpy one.’ He took on all comers with a fierce determination and never complained or backed down. He just chomped down on his cigar and went back to work. Bill ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins: A man you either loved or loved to hate, but someone who EVERYONE respected and admired. Farewell, my hero.”
Milt Heger: “I was at the Winters, next to the fence at the starting line, when he won in '70. I was on a visit to New Jersey last May and took a trip to Lancaster, Pa., with my childhood best friend, Adam. Cruising down the freeway, I saw a sign that read ‘Malvern’ and said, ‘I know what's in Malvern!’ We found Bill's shop, but he wasn't in. The guys in the shop were great, showed us around, and were testing an engine at the time as well! How cool was that?! There were Wallys and other trophies literally everywhere. They told us Bill would be in in a while, so we ran off to lunch and came back. He was there in his office with his cigar and talked with us for a few minutes. We couldn't believe this had happened for us! It was a special thing indeed to meet him in his shop and in such a sacred Chevy place. We were truly lucky that day, and we will miss Bill greatly. Godspeed, Mr. Jenkins.”
Kelly Long: “I saw him start the Toy and drive it to the concession stand to get a burger at Tulsa Int'l Raceway in ’72.”
Bob Lukas: “I met him and talked with him many times at Connecticut Dragway and even ate with him and his crew by chance at a McDonald's after racing a couple of times. I first saw him at Dover Drag Strip in 1965 with Doc Burgess and I think the first Black Arrow. Everyone there said it was Doc's car (I was told he was a veterinarian) and Bill was a tuner and engine builder. In later years, I realized who he was. I am sure he didn't really remember me when we would briefly talk at Connecticut Dragway, but he would always say hello or acknowledge me. Like you said, there is a small group of racers who brought excitement to our young lives in the golden years of drag racing. Some good bench racing is going on with Ronnie Sox, ‘Da Grump,’ and ‘Dyno Don’ now together.”
Cliff Morgan: “We lost another one … arghhh. You know what a funny memory of ‘Da Grump’ I have? It was when he did the pose in Hot Rod in the '70s, where he was laying on his side in a parody of the Burt Reynolds pose from that time. I thought it was funny, and one of the remarks Hot Rod did was that Jenkins’ body was ‘custom by fork.’ HA! Had to throw a little humor in there; otherwise, it gets too depressing. I think I'll tell God that I'm gonna boycott death.”
Mike Theulen: “This ‘Grump’ story goes back to the early ‘70s. I was a young boy, and every Memorial Day, we would make the trip to Thunder Valley in Marion, S.D., to watch the Pro Stock match race. One year after ‘Grump’ had the Vega loaded up, I mustered the courage to go say something to him. I said, ‘ 'Grumpy,' I pray to you every night for speed secrets!’ He had a can of beer wrapped in a rag and a little bit of a smile. He took a long drink, looked down, and said, ‘Son, there ain't no secrets, just hard work!’ Still true to this day!”
Whitman Ball: “I met Bill when he was just a kid out of high school, like me. He got a job with our area’s leading 'hot rod shop’ with Dean Stanton. I had a small-block ‘58 Impala, and one of the 348 guys passed me on our Friday night use of a particular road. Jenkins took my almost-new car and tossed things out from under the hood, added a few other things, played for a few hours — and said, 'Let’s try it.' He did back then what he continued doing forever — all was well till the 348 guys found out about him. The Modifiers club -- Dean, Bill, plus John Good and a few others — made this car nut what I am today, still a car nut 57 years later. Rest in peace, ‘Grump’; hope they have good Havanas up there.”
Don Schleich: “I was working with Diamond Race Cars in the early ‘80s when 'the Grump’ ordered a new Pro Stock Camaro. He made several trips to the shop on Long Island to check on the progress. After talking with him on several occasions, I was impressed with the attention he took to the slightest detail involving the Camaro we were building. He was more than cordial to deal with and obviously knew exactly what he wanted. We found some common ground with old airplanes, and he was very interested in the fact that my brother and I happened to own his two favorite old planes, a North American AT-6 trainer and a Beechcraft Staggerwing biplane. I spoke to him a few times after that at the Englishtown race, but it has been several years since I have seen him. God rest his soul; there have been very few that could match his talent as an innovator and engine builder!”
Bruce Wheeler: “I first became aware of ‘da Grump’ well before he became ‘Grumpy’ (although he was still sort of grumpy, even then). I was the ‘stock side’ starter at York U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way the opening year there, 1960 (York ran four lanes wide, two for ‘hot’ cars, the other two for stockers and bikes.). Jenkins and Dave Strickler were among a group of future East Coast legends who raced there every Saturday night, each of them winning a fair share of events that summer. Both of them competed in column-shifted, three-speed-equipped '57 Chevys, and both of them shifted those three-speeds like they were T10s! Incredible! Aloha, 'Grumpy'; thanks for the memories!”
Betty Sexton, who with her husband, Larry, has competed in Top Alcohol Dragster, Comp, and Super Gas throughout the years, wrote about the time in Gainesville when Larry approached Jenkins: “Can I ask you a question?” to which “Grumpy” simply responded, “If you’re able.” She continued, “But over the years, they had quite a few conversations and became good talking buddies. One time at the PRI Show in Indianapolis, Larry bought him a cigar and few drinks, but Larry couldn't keep up with ’Grumpy.’ What a wonderful life. I'm sure there were tough times, but look at how much The Man has done for racing. A true legend and an honor to have known him. Rest in peace, our dear friend; keep our fellow racers in heaven safe until we race again.”
Thanks again to everyone for sharing their stories. RIP, “Grumpy.”