An Affectionate Tribute To William Tyler Jenkins

Our Man McCraw Remembers The Grump

Jim McCraw Jul 18, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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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.

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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.

What better tribute to a man is there than to say that he touched tens of thousands of lives in a positive way, for decades, made the sport he loved far better than it was when he found it, and left a legacy of excellence and innovation for the rest of us to marvel at from now on? Rest in peace, Grump.

How did I get my job at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine? Because Bill Jenkins called my house after Wayne Shaw told him I had a fresh, new degree in journalism. Bill told me he knew some guys that had a drag racing magazine in Virginia, gave me the number of the magazine, and told me to call them. A week later, I had visited the magazine's office and been hired on the spot. It was the single kindest, most generous thing anyone has ever done for me, a kid he barely knew at the time. Fifteen months later, I was promoted to editor. That one phone call changed the direction of the rest of my life.

A small part of Bill's month at that time was his side job as technical editor of SS&DI. We would send him the letters with the most broadly based problems, to serve the needs of the most readers, and he would send back detailed answers about everything from carburetors to traction bars, front shocks to rear gears. In exchange for this, the magazine ran a small, simple ad with the name, address and telephone number of his company, Jenkins Competition, with the by–now–familiar logo.

Bill was a racer, a driver, a builder, an engineer, and a businessman, all rolled up in a relatively compact package. (Some say that he was a typical short-guy overachiever, a height-deprived guy with a Napoleonic drive to succeed. I disagree.) He had been working at some job or other since he was 14 years old, and understood that you needed money to live on, but I don't think he craved money. He craved trophies, and if there was money that went along with the big trophy, that was OK with him.

Bill had all sorts of partnerships, arrangements, and entanglements over the years, with guys like Dick Moroso, Jere Stahl, Bob Duffy, Danny Jesel, Vic Edelbrock, Gary Hooker, later the Mr. Gasket guys, Chevrolet itself, and various cam grinders, oil and tire companies, especially after the birth of Pro Stock drag racing, a class that he helped invent. I don't remember anyone ever telling me that they got screwed dealing with Bill Jenkins.

Bill grew up never far away from the sounds of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, and lived close to the Main Line's train tracks for most of his life, so he was a train nut as well as a world-class drag racer. His office bookshelf is stuffed with large-format train books and railroad histories, perhaps because he respected the sheer power of steam, diesel and electric locomotives.

Bill was also an accomplished hobby photographer who could be seen occasionally out on the starting line at NHRA events with his own 35mm camera, standing with the rest of the drag racing shooters to catch the action on film.

In addition to his native intelligence and talents, he had a knack for picking talent that could help him, guys like Joe Tryson and Dutch Irrgang at the shop, and later world-class drivers like Larry Lombardo, Ken Dondero, and Joe Lepone. His racing also fostered the development of Dick Whitman, Derrick Von Bargen, and their car building firm, Speed Research and Development, or SRD, when they together pioneered the first built-from-the-ground-up tube-frame Pro Stock Vega. All that car did was turn the world upside down. The list of Bill Jenkins' innovations is too long to go into here, but they are legend, and they are important.

I loved the man for his computer-like mind and his laser concentration. He had a singular knack for multi-tasking. He could smoke a cigar, use both hands to tune a set of Pro Stock carburetors, hold a conversation with two other people, and think through his next-round race strategy, all at the same time.

And sense of humor? Never forget, this man was the first, last, and only drag racer ever to pose for a car magazine on a fur rug wearing only sneakers, socks and skivvies. His humor was wry, dry, and wonderful.

What better tribute to a man is there than to say that he touched tens of thousands of lives in a positive way, for decades, made the sport he loved far better than it was when he found it, and left a legacy of excellence and innovation for the rest of us to marvel at from now on? Rest in peace, Grump.

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