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An Affectionate Tribute To William Tyler Jenkins

Our Man McCraw Remembers The Grump

By Jim McCraw, Photography by Source Interlink Media Archives

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.

By Jim McCraw
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