Bill Jenkins, an influential and revered figure in drag racing who helped lift the sport from the streets to the professional track while introducing a host of technical innovations, died March 29 in Paoli, Pa. He was 81.
The cause was heart failure, said his daughter Susan.
Mr. Jenkins, a short, stocky, gravelly voiced man who often chomped cigars, sometimes while driving, played a leading role in lifting drag racing to the level of a sanctioned sport from its “dirty-fingernails street racing days,’’ said Ron Watson, president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, into which Jenkins was inducted in 1996.
To fans and fellow racers he was Grumpy Jenkins, and he relished the nickname, particularly because he knew that almost everyone knew that his gruff front was just that.
“People called him the lovable old grump,’’ said John Jodauga, an editor at National Dragster, the newspaper of the National Hot Rod Association.
Mr. Jenkins was No. 8 among the nation’s 50 top racers in a poll of specialists conducted by the NHRA in 2001, even though he won only 13 NHRA events while behind the wheel.
He “earned his well-deserved spot in drag racing’s Top 10,’’ the association said in a statement, “because no other individual has contributed more’’ to improving the engines that made straight-line, quarter-mile racing from a standing start more popular.
Jodauga called Mr. Jenkins a “visionary mechanic’’ who “came up with engine improvements that many other people copied for their own cars.’’
His innovations included a front-suspension system that improved the performance of a stock car by transferring weight to the rear tires and a “slick-shift manual transmission’’ that allowed the driver to shift gears without lifting a foot from the gas pedal. He also installed a so-called cool can, containing ice, along the fuel line to lower gasoline temperature, which increased horsepower.
Mr. Jenkins’ enhancements paid off.
“He was the most successful racer of Chevy Pro Stock and Super Stock cars in the ’60s and ’70s,’’ Jodauga said, “which made him one of the most popular racers in the country, because so many fans back then raced or drove Chevrolets.’’
Mr. Jenkins gained national prominence in 1966 when his 327-cubic-inch, 350-horsepower Chevy II outran most 426-cubic-inch, 425-horsepower Dodge and Plymouth Street Hemis in dozens of local races around the country. “He exploited the ‘giant killer’ approach in 1972 when he won six of eight national events with his 331-cid small-block Pro Stock Vega,’’ the hot rod association said.
Wins attributed in part to Mr. Jenkins’s engineering went far beyond his own races. He opened an engine-building shop in his hometown, Malvern, Pa. Dozens of drivers took advantage of his technical skills.
In a 2008 interview, Mr. Jenkins was asked how he felt about being inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. “I’ve had engines win 61 races and eight championships in all kinds of categories,’’ he said. “I’m fortunate enough that it happened before I died.’’
William Tyler Jenkins was born in Philadelphia. But it was in rural Downingtown, Pa., where the family moved when he was 12, that he turned his tinkering skills to rebuilding a neighbor’s tractor engine. “He did a little bit of local drag racing before he went off to Cornell,’’ where he studied engineering, Susan Jenkins said of her father.
Besides Susan, his daughter from his marriage to the former Alexandra Newman, which ended in divorce, Mr. Jenkins leaves his wife, the former Polly Wood; a son, William, and a daughter, Dani-El, from his second marriage; a sister, Elizabeth Wagoner; and a grandson.
Mr. Jenkins left Cornell in his junior year. “The ‘55 Chevy came out and I thought, ‘I can probably make something out of this,’ and of course I did,’’ he said.