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Fri, 5 Oct 2001, 09:16 PM

NHRA's 50 Greatest Drivers
Courtesy of NHRA Communications

#8: Bill Jenkins

With just 13 national event wins to his credit, Bill Jenkins' record as a driver pales in comparison to Pro Stock counterparts Warren Johnson (86) and Bob Glidden (85). But Jenkins has earned his well-deserved spot in drag racing's Top 10 because no other individual has contributed more to the advancement of normally aspirated engines for quarter-mile competition than the legendary "Grump."

Jenkins always took greater pride in his mechanical achievements than in his driving. Among his innovations are drag racing's first dry-sump oiling system, the first kickout oil pans and Pro Stock strut-style front suspension, and gas port pistons, slick-shift manual transmissions, cool cans, and the electric water-pump fan.

Though these accomplishments had long been noted by Jenkins' peers, it was his fielding of the sport's fastest Chevys that caught the attention of fans. When Chevrolet dropped out of racing in early 1963, Chevy owners needed a banner-carrier, and Jenkins filled the void. He gained national prominence in 1966 with his 327-cid, 350-horsepower Chevy II that could outrun most of the 426-cid, 425-horsepower Dodge and Plymouth Street Hemis. He exploited the "giant killer" approach in 1972 when he won six of eight national events with his 331-cid small-block Pro Stock Vega.

Jenkins began competing at drag strips in the late 1950s after studying mechanical engineering at New York's Cornell University. Concentrating primarily on Jr. Stock entries, he became an East Coast cult figure by the mid-1960s after having helped prepare more than 30 cars that set national records. In addition, Jenkins teamed with Dave Strickler to win Little Eliminator at the 1963 Nationals with an A/FX 427 '63 Chevy.

Following Chevrolet's exit from racing, Jenkins and Strickler ran a 1964 Nationals A/FX class-winning '64 Dodge, then Jenkins drove his own S/SA '65 Dodge Black Arrow to the Stock win at the 1965 Winternationals. The unwillingness of Chrysler officials to meet Jenkins' terms in 1966 prompted Jenkins to campaign a Chevy independently that year.

Said Jenkins, "I figured that a Chevy could be marketable if it was competitive enough, and I thought I could do the job with the L-79 package (a carbureted, hydraulic-lifter version of the solid lifter Corvette engine) in an A/S Chevy II. It fell into the same class as the Dodge and Plymouth 426-cid Street Hemis, and that looked like a pretty good gimmick at the time."

The "gimmick" worked beyond Jenkins' expectations, and he set a class record of 11.66. Only the Street Hemi driven by Jere Stahl, who held off "the Grump" in the finals of the 1966 Nationals and World Finals, was quicker.

"It was my first serious four-speed car; I used automatics with the Mopars," he said. "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."

The Chevy II was the first in the popular series of Grumpy's Toys. Chevrolet's Vince Piggins added Jenkins to his payroll in 1967, though it was vigorously denied. Jenkins more than justified his compensation by driving his new 375-horsepower, 396-cid '67 Camaro in the expanded Super Stock category at the year's biggest race, the Nationals. For an encore, he entered four cars at the 1968 World Finals, scoring one win and two runner-ups.

As it is today, Super Stock was run on a handicap start to accommodate the variety of the day's muscle cars, but Jenkins and cohorts such as Ronnie Sox, Buddy Martin, and Don Nicholson created greater crowd appeal with their heads-up match race cars that were running nines. They proved so popular that NHRA adopted the format for its new Pro Stock category in 1970, and Jenkins began the year with back-to-back wins over Sox at the Winternationals and Gatornationals.

Formal factory backing and the sheer number of entries swung the pendulum to Chrysler's favor, and Jenkins was winless through the balance of 1970 and all of 1971. Recognizing that the vast number of fans drove Chevrolets, NHRA reconfigured the rules to allow cars with small-block wedge engines to run at a lighter weight break. An untested short-wheelbase Vega that Jenkins built for the 1972 season was held to a subpar 9.90 to qualify a disappointing 17th for the 32-car field at the season-opening Winternationals. Last-minute suspension changes enabled Jenkins to improve to low 9.6s on race day, and he defeated five Chrysler Hemi entries for his most memorable victory.

Jenkins won six of NHRA's eight national events that year, and with his $35,000 win at the Professional Racers Association in Oklahoma, an increase in manufacturer support, and an expanded match race schedule, Jenkins grossed $250,000 to match NBA star Wilt Chamberlain's salary as the highest paid pro athlete in the country, resulting in coverage in Time magazine, the first time a drag racer had been given mainstream recognition.

Still, Jenkins found reason to grunt, "The Vega cost me about three times as much to build as the first Pro Stock Camaro. I got some self-gratification over making almost 200 runs that year without missing a shift, but I had to hire a guy full time to maintain the transmissions and clutches, and that wasn't cheap."

Though Jenkins' '72 Vega was easily his most successful car, Grumpy's Toy XI, which he built in 1974, had the most lasting influence on Pro Stock chassis design. It was the first car to employ a McPherson strut front-suspension configuration, co-engineered with Roger Lamb, and introduced the first dry-sump oiling system for drag racing. Both innovations remain standard equipment.

To spend more time on research and development, Jenkins hired Larry Lombardo and Ken Dondero. Lombardo, who replaced Jenkins in the cockpit in the second race of the 1976 schedule, overcame the initial points deficit to win the NHRA Winston Pro Stock championship, and Dondero claimed the AHRA title.

The Lombardo/Jenkins tandem finished third in 1977 and second in 1978, and Lombardo left the team following a seventh-place effort in 1979. Reduced match race activity forced Jenkins to cut his operation in the early 1980s. He completed his final season as a Pro Stock team owner in 1983.

Jenkins' subsequent limited Pro Stock efforts were highlighted by Joe Lepone's victory at the 1985 Winternationals with a Jenkins engine, but "the Grump's" primary focus was on Comp engines, which helped propel Steve Johns, Bob Kaiser, and Garley Daniels to season titles. Working primarily with splayed-valve, six-cylinder powerplants, Jenkins developed enough technology through the mid-1990s to allow him to capitalize on the creation of the new Pro Stock Truck category in 1998.

Using the same splayed-valve technology on 358-cid small-block V-8s, Jenkins built the engine that Larry Kopp drove to the 1998 Winston championship and ones for national event winners Johns, Mark Osborne, Tim Freeman, Brad Jeter, Scott Perin, and Don Smith.

Jenkins has earned many honors, including induction into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Mich., in 1996. He has been one of the more prolific honorees in Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team balloting since winning three individual titles at the inaugural banquet in 1967.

On making NHRA's top 10, Jenkins briefly shed his gruff exterior to say, "Since it seemed that the balloting was heavily weighted toward the more contemporary drivers and I haven't driven in 20 years, I was gratified to make it high on the list. Having so many of the people I've worked with show up at my [70th birthday] party in January meant a lot to me. I've always had a lot of personal satisfaction from the mechanical end of the sport. At this point in the game, it's safe to say that I'll keep doing this until I drop."

NHRA's Top 50 Drivers are being unveiled on and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.

As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.

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