NHRA Legend Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins Dies At 81

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Anne Proffit photo

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Bill Jenkins, known to everyone in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) community as "Grumpy" has passed. He was 81.

A master of the internal combustion engine, particularly as it pertained to Pro Stock cars, Jenkins was voted No. 8 among NHRA's greatest racers in a 2001 experts poll. He won only 13 national event Wally trophies, but earned his place in drag racing's top 10 because of his masterful understanding and advancement of normally aspirated engines for drag racing competition.

“Everyone at NHRA is saddened by the passing of Bill ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins, not only a pioneer in the sport, but also an iconic figure in NHRA Pro Stock racing,” acknowledged Tom Compton, NHRA president.  

“He was there from the beginning, playing an integral role in the formation of Pro Stock and remained involved in NHRA for decades.  His presence and trademark gruff exterior and cigar will be missed but never forgotten at the starting line at NHRA Full Throttle events.”

Jenkins is revered among the Pro Stock faithful for his mechanical achievements - far more than for his driving skills. Among his innovations are drag racing's first dry sump oiling system, the first kickoff oil pans and Pro Stock strut-style front suspensions. He helped develop gas port pistons, slick shift manual transmissions, cool cans and the electric water pump fan.

Over the years Grump has received many industry honors. He was inducted into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993, the Novi, Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama in 2008. He was one of the most prolific honorees in Car Craft magazine's All-Star Drag Racing Team balloting, winning three individual titles at the inaugural banquet in 1967.

On making NHRA's 2001 top 10, Jenkins briefly shed his grouchy exterior. "Since it seemed that the balloting was heavily weighted toward the more contemporary drivers and I haven't driven in 20 years," he said, "I was gratified to make it high on the list. Having so many of the people I've worked with show up at my [70th birthday] party in January (of that year) meant a lot to me. I've always had a lot of personal satisfaction from the mechanical end of the sport."

Among those who fondly remember Jenkins is Jim Campbell, US vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports for Chevrolet: “Today the Chevy Racing family lost one of its racing legends. For more than half a century, Bill was a guiding light and inspiration for grassroots drag racers across America. As a driver, master engine builder, and championship-winning team owner, he was an irresistible force in Pro Stock. Bill's engineering legacy is embodied in many of Chevrolet’s high-performance and racing components. Chevy Racing extends its condolences to Bill's family and legions of his fans.”

While Bill Jenkins is remembered by all drag racers for his cranky demeanor, he was always kind and forthcoming to this writer. Grump hadn't been to many races in the last year or so and his absence has been sorely missed.

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