One of drag racing’s legends, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, who was known just as much for his innovations and mechanical ability as for his infamous demeanor, died Thursday at the age of 81.
Anybody who’s ever spoken with Jenkins knows exactly how he got his nickname. On first impression a surly and gruff man, Jenkins revealed himself to those who cared to dig a little more as a no-nonsense gearhead
driven by a tough work ethic
who maintained his famous appearance so he could spend less time chitchatting and more time digging into serious engine builds and mechanical problems
Born in 1930 in Philadelphia, Jenkins studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University, but began drag racing in the mid-1950s at several East Coast dragstrips, building a name for himself as both a driver – he was highly regarded for his ability to shift a manual transmission – and
as an engine builder and tuner.
He eventually hooked up with Dave Strickler in the early 1960s to campaign the series of “Old Reliable” Chevrolets – including the very first 1963 Impala Z11 lightweight car – before switching to Dodge in 1964.
Though he and Strickler saw plenty of success together, Jenkins struck out on his own in 1966, the year he switched back to Chevrolets – without any factory backing
– and started campaigning an L79 Chevy II in Super Stock.
Four years later, he became one of the inaugural Pro Stock racers, converting his 1968 Camaro to the new rules and trouncing all other comers in the Pro Stock debut at the 1970 Winternationals. While running Pro Stock over the next several years, Jenkins introduced a number of innovations, including full tube chassis, MacPherson strut-type suspensions, and dry-sump oiling systems, setting numerous records in the process.
He also in 1972 earned more than a quarter-million dollars racing, a feat that tied him with Wilt Chamberlain for the highest-paid professional athlete and put him in front of America through the pages of Time magazine.
While he continued to shoe his own cars through 1975, he had started to phase himself out of the driver’s seat a couple of years prior, preferring instead to build and tune cars and engines. His famous series of Grumpy’s Toys cars, which he campaigned through the early 1980s, numbered 17, only a few of which survive today. Yet he continued to build engines and make appearances for years afterward, keeping his shop in Malvern, Pennsylvania, open through the mid-2000s.
Though he’s only credited with winning 13 NHRA national events, his accomplishments were enough to get him voted No. 8 on the NHRA’s list of the 50 all-time best drivers.
He has also been selected to several halls of fame, including the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.