I first met Bill Jenkins in the summer of 1963 when he was operating his very small business out of the back half of a Sunoco gas station on U.S. Route 30 in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, one of the many little towns that dot the railroad/highway route known as "The Main Line" outside Philadelphia. His first nickname was Jiggs. His second nickname was The Berwyn Bandit. "Grumpy" and "The Malvern Missile" came later.
Ollie's Sunoco was the place where my drag racing pals and I watched the magic happen as Bill would figure out, piece by piece, what to do to any given customer's engine or car, including the Lumley & Shaw '63 Pontiac Catalina hardtop 389, which I was loosely affiliated with as a gofer at the time.
His black and yellow Jenkins Competition logo adorned dozens of national record holders in those early years, including one car that was nearly as legendary as his Pro Stock Vega was 10 years later.
That would be Bill and Andy Spanakos' "Monster Mash" I/Stock '55 Chevy 150 two-door post, rumored to be the single most scienced-out, tricked-up Junior Stock car in the world. They said it had been acid-dipped. They said it had two different wheelbases. They said the whole body had been moved back on the frame. They said a lot of things about that car, and Bill just smiled.
He sometimes shared his tiny, grimy space with master header builder Jere Stahl, and that space-sharing scheme begat all kinds of interesting conversations about racing, race cars, and technology. When we were at the shop, we just shut up and listened until and unless we were asked to do something.
One night, Stahl said something about going home to watch a baseball game, and Bill looked at him and said, "Baseball? Baseball? Baseball sucks!" That started an animated discussion between the two best minds in Junior Stock drag racing at the time, involving stick-and-ball sports versus motorsports. It was hilarious, and we got to witness it.
Another night, Bill asked me to crawl under the brand-new '64 Dodge A/Factory Experimental Hemi car that he was building for Dave Strickler to drive, the very first of a number of very kind things he did for me.
I crawled under the car in order to help Bill's longtime race mechanic Joe Tryson finish up something on the transmission, and I was scared to death to touch anything or say anything because I was so young and so bright, shiny green at the science of mechanics.
You can't imagine the pride that surged through me a few weeks later at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis when that car won the hotly contested A/FX trophy. I had worked on that racecar, even if it were only for a few minutes!
Jenkins and Strickler split up their very successful partnership after that season. Bill went back to Chevrolets and never left the fold again, building a rock-solid relationship with Chevrolet's engineering department that generated some serious parts.
When Bill and Dave were together, starting in 1961, they were a mythic combination of tuner and driver. In addition to their dragstrip domination, they were stylish, well dressed, and there always seemed to be burgers and beers going in their pit spaces. When Bill got back into the driver's seat in '64, we were all reminded of what an extremely good driver he really was. He sometimes wore yellow-tinted glasses to increase light/dark contrast so he could see the Christmas tree lights better no matter what the weather was like.