It’s with great sadness that we must report on the passing today of one of the most legendary figures this great sport and the automotive hobby itself has ever known. Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, known for his unrivaled knowledge of the high performance internal combustion engine and his decorated career as one of the toughest Pro Stock racers of all time, passed away this morning at the age of 81.
Despite winning just 13 NHRA national events as a driver during his career, Jenkins was voted No. 8 on the NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers list in 2001, but it was his abilities in the engine room for which he was most revered and that for which he took the most pride. Even the innovator, “The Grump” designed drag racing’s first dry sump oiling system, the first kickout oil pans, the strut style front suspension used on Pro Stock cars, gas port pistons, and countless other priceless advancements of the naturally aspirated engine and the race cars that use them.
A mechanical engineer that put his education to use for the better good of the internal combustion engine, Jenkins began his driving career in the late 1950’s and entered the limelight in 1963 driving a Chevrolet without factory support and later, in 1966, thumped the Ford’s and Chrysler’s featuring engines much larger in size with his 327-inch, 350-horsepower Chevy II. In 1972, he won six of the eight NHRA national events with his small block-powered Pro Stock Vega against a field largely comprised of big block cars.
Jenkins teamed with Dave Strickler to win the 1963 Nationals in Little Eliminator with an A/FX ’63 Chevy, and won the first NHRA national event Pro Stock title at the 1970 Winternationals, running the first “nine” – a 9.98 – to defeat the Sox & Martin Barracuda.
Jenkins’ famous “Grumpy’s Toy” Chevrolets remain some of the most recognizable Pro Stock cars of all-time, led by his ’72 Vega regarded as his most successful car and the innovative ’74 Vega that introduced the aforementioned McPherson style front struts and dry sump oiling system that revolutionized the class.
In 1976, Jenkins hired drivers Larry Lombardo and Ken Dondero to replace him in the seat in order to focus more on the mechanical side of things – a move that resulted in a pair of championships in the NHRA and AHRA. Jenkins’ final season as a team owner in Pro Stock came in 1983, at which point he became involved in a number of limited Pro Stock and even Pro Stock Truck efforts well into the mid-2000’s with teams including Jim Yates, Cagnazzi Racing, and others.
“The Grump” received a long list of accolades during his long career in the racing and automative industry, including induction into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993, the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2008. He was also a multi-time honoree in Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team balloting.