Last Thursday, a strong turnout of the NHRA family came together at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California to honor our longtime friend Bernie Partridge, who died a week earlier after a prolonged illness. What already was a rough month with the passing of Pro Stock icon Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins became triply tough as Bernie died just a day after the unexpected passing of his son, John, who had a heart attack. The family – with Bernie and strong-willed wife P.J. at the helm – which I regard as one of the first families of the NHRA, has had more than its share of losses with the passing as well of Bernie and P.J.’s second son, Gary, last summer.
Bernie suffered a stroke in 1999 that impaired his speech, a cruel twist of fate for the guy widely known as the first “voice of the NHRA,” our chief announcer from 1958 well into the 1980s. In many ways, the gathering at the museum was as much to celebrate Bernie’s life as it was to support and show our love for the family – P.J. and their two remaining sons, Bernie Jr. and Jim – and that was evident from the long line of speakers who not only heaped praise on Bernie but also P.J. for her tireless and selfless efforts to make the last dozen years as good as they could be for her husband.
Former Funny Car driver and NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA leader Leroy “Doc” Hales presided over the memorial and looked out to a room that was packed with NHRA employees present and past, including many from the Division 7 group, among them former Tech Director Cloy Fitzgerald. All of NHRA’s current management group, including board chairman Dallas Gardner and President Tom Compton, were on hand. The star quotient was high, as Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, John Force, and Roland Leong came to pay their respects, as did former Division 7 track owners and managers Bill Doner, Charlie Allen, Glenn Menard, and Allan Miller and longtime Division 7 alcohol racers Jay Payne and Don Irvin.
At Hales’ urging, the day was to celebrate Bernie’s memory with fun stories because “That’s the way Bernie was, and that’s the way we want to remember him.”
During the next 90 minutes, a variety of speakers took to the podium to share their memories of “the Bird,” to make good-natured fun of his microphone miscues, his poor sense of direction, and his penchant for speaking his mind and to laud his personality and dedication to the NHRA cause. “His job was also his passion,” said Hales. “He was a talkative guy. Bernie never met a stranger; from the time he first met you, he’d talk to you and act like he knew you forever.”
Gardner, who as NHRA president in the 1980s and 1990s worked closely and traveled often with Partridge, was effusive in his praise.
“When you look back at the history of NHRA, Bernie Partridge was one of the guys who really counted. He put his mark on the sport, and it wasn’t from behind the microphone. When NHRA was just getting organized, it was like, 'The plane’s off the ground, just barely ... hell, what do we do with it now? How do we move it forward?' [Wally Parks] needed people he could rely on that shared his vision, which led to the first division directors. What Bernie brought to the party was that he was a racer, an honest racer, he ran racetracks, he knew about the parts and pieces and knew about the sport from the ground up. The formation of those division directors was really the foundation of the next step in drag racing to step up and be accepted nationally at least. He not only needed to talk the gospel but be able to talk to the people who would build the racetracks, get involved, endorse it, and that was a tough thing to do, but that’s what Bernie did best. The sport would not be where it is today without Bernie Partridge.”
Gardner also related a funny story about golfing with Partridge and NHRA founder Wally Parks at the annual Winston golf tournament at the course adjacent to the Pomona racetrack.
“Bernie wasn’t a very good golfer,” he prefaced the story. “So we come to one hole, and we’re ready to tee off, and just off the course, about 45 degrees, were some course workers. Bernie puts the ball down and some of them move, but there’s this one big guy still standing there. Bernie clocked this ball solid, and it went 45 degrees and hit this big guy right in the [private parts]. This guy is rolling on the ground, and there’s Bernie, with his cigar hanging out of his mouth; I think he almost swallowed it. Wally’s already in the golf cart trying to get away, and Bernie looks at me and says, ‘Do I need another ball or can I play that one?’ We never played golf with Bernie again.”
This cool photo was on display. It shows Bernie Partridge, far right, with NHRA's management team of the early 1980s. From left are Carl Olson, Steve Gibbs, Dallas Gardner, Wally Parks, and Brian Tracy. These are the guys who were calling the shots when I came to work for NHRA in 1982.
Steve Gibbs, NHRA’s longtime competition director and vice president, met Partridge when he was the manager of Irwindale Raceway in the 1960s and through him was introduced to Parks and the man who would become his mentor, Jack Hart. Gibbs echoed some of Gardner’s statements about Partridge’s dedication and at the end put that whole early era into a touching context.
“Bernie was a true believer; he was a disciple and was out there doing what he did at a time when it wasn’t very easy to do it, but he helped make the sport into something out of nothing,” said Gibbs. “It’s amazing how many people out there today are making their living in drag racing who aren’t even aware of people like Bernie and Jack Hart and Wally and Barbara Parks and Bob Daniels. They’re the pioneers of the sport who got us to where we are today, and Bernie was right at the head of the class.”
Gibbs then referenced newsman Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, which salutes American citizens who came of age during the Great Depression and the second World War and went on to build modern America. “I think that group of people from the ‘50s and ‘60s, I think they qualify for drag racing’s ‘greatest generation.’ They took what was basically an outlaw sport and turned it into a major international motorsport that it is today. We just can’t forget those people.”
Here's a pretty memorable shot of Dave McClelland, Partridge, and Steve Evans doing the whole "Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil" monkeys routine.
Dave McClelland, who with Partridge and the late Steve Evans formed a dynamic trio of NHRA national event announcers in the 1970s, also spoke about Partridge’s effect on his career, beginning with his first big gig at the 1961 Nationals in Indy. He remembered him as “a mentor and a friend who made possible my career in announcing and beyond.”
McClelland also dragged out some of Partridge’s familiar favorite phrases – “He was very attached to them," he recalled slyly – such as “The race is at hand” and “drunk with horsepower” and “thunder in the pipes.” (Earlier, someone in the audience had shouted out one of Partridge’s infamous mixed metaphors: “There’s no sense in beating your head against a dead horse.”)
Anyone who attended NHRA races in the 1970s through the mid-1980s probably heard Partridge’s most well-used phrase, usually offered mid-sentence to correct himself: “Check that!”
McClelland then referenced the brilliant gag Christmas gift bestowed upon Partridge at one of NHRA’s notoriously un-PC holiday parties from the 1970s/early 1980s. Although McClelland didn’t cite the prankster – National DRAGSTER’s own George Phillips – he did recall the fake album cover that was a sort-of "Bernie Partridge’s greatest misses," with song titles of some of his memorable malaprops. The album, The Bird Sings, featured the not-hit-single “Check that thing baby!" I think that was 1982, my first year with NHRA, and I’ve never forgotten it. I remember seeing a note from P.J. to George, telling him that his work was “low e.t. of the event,” which I thought was an interesting and unforgettable way of lavishing praise among us drag racing types.
No one shared any of those great miscues, but I do have one that I’ll share here. Although I did not hear it myself, it’s been a favorite chestnut of the DRAGSTER staff for decades. Now, I can’t swear to its accuracy (or even its truth), but it’ll get you in the spirit. As the story goes, it was between Pro qualifying sessions one year at the World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway, and legendary Top Fuel racer Connie Kalitta was on the return road at around half-track, looking over the race course, when suddenly, over the PA, here comes Bernie: “OK, ladies and gentlemen, coming around the bend from the staging lanes, here they are, the kings of the sport, Top Fuel dragsters!”
Caught unawares that his class was taking center stage, Kalitta goes running back up the return road – comb and change falling out of his pockets – and he gets almost back to the starting line, sweat pouring down his face, before Partridge comes back on the mike and says, “Check that: These are the alcohol dragsters,” sending Kalitta into an obscenity-laced commentary about Partridge’s abilities.
“Bernie may not have been the greatest announcer from a technical standpoint, but he had more enthusiasm and more dedication for what we were about,” said Gibbs. “He loved what we were doing, and it showed. He was the best.”
David Leighton, who worked with his father, Gus, and Bernie – Dust Devils Auto Club alumni all -- to set up impromptu tracks across Division 7, mostly on airport runways with short notice, noted Partridge’s tireless efforts and joked, “We opened and closed more racetracks than Steve Evans did.” Leighton also marveled at Partridge’s ability to verbally paint a picture of what was going on at the track, comparing him to baseball announcing great Vin Scully.
Partridge gave a lot of folks their first work at NHRA, including current NHRA Senior Vice President Graham Light – whom Partridge hired in 1984 as a division director – and Cindy Gibbs, whose first paying job was as a spotter in the tower at Ontario Motor Speedway and who later went to work in the Division 7 Field Office. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. All I ever wanted to do was work in drag racing,” she said in thanking Partridge.
Phillips shared Partridge’s secret method for the shrewd manipulation of meetings and how to get out of a meeting what he needed and Partridge’s love for sailing. Menard, who managed Irwindale in 1972 when there was fierce competition between Irwindale, Lions, and OCIR, remembered how Partridge took him deep-sea fishing with Evans, who was managing Lions, and OCIR’s Mike Jones to give them a chance to bond and be more than just rivals.
Force related a story about his first meeting with the Partridges, at the gates of a Division 7 event.
“I was trying to get into the racetrack, and I was making a lot of noise,” he remembered. “This man – I didn’t really know who it was, but it was Bernie – called me over and said, ‘Son, you’re making a lot of noise. What is the problem?’ I said, ‘They won’t let my race team in. Those ladies over in that [racer registration] trailer; I’m trying to give them my money, and they won’t let me in, and I don’t understand that.’ He said, ‘Well, what are you telling them?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s this one lady [P.J., as it turns out], I tell her that someday I’m going to be somebody, a racer, a driver. But that one lady, she’s not buying it.’
“And he said to me, ‘Let’s talk the truth. What is the real problem?’ So I told him that I had a team, and that they all work for free, and I don’t have enough money to pay for all of us to get in. He said, ‘Do you have nitro?’ and I said, ‘No; I’ll get that inside the track.’ He said, 'Do you have tires?’ and I said, ‘I’ll get tires …’ He said, ‘You got a motor?’ and I said,’ Almost …’
“I was wondering, ‘Why is this guy talking me to death? I don’t even know this fella.’ And he said to me, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Because I really love it, and I’m going to be Don Prudhomme someday,’ and he said, ‘Really?’ and then he asked, ‘You really love it? OK, I’m going to get you those tickets; I’m going to get you in.’ He asked me my name, and I told him, and he said, ‘OK, John Force, you tell the truth.’ I said, ‘I always tell the truth; I just embellish it some.’ He said, ‘Listen to me: Tell the truth,’ and I’ve always thought of that, and even to this day, I’m still trying to be Don Prudhomme, but I swear to God, Bernie, I try to tell the truth. In my life, there have been a lot of people who have changed me, some for better, some for worse, but that two-minute conversation changed my life."
Linda Vaughn shared a story about how Bernie encouraged the “nervous wreck” of a young girl from Dalton, Ga., in her debut as Miss Hurst Golden Shifter at the 1966 Winternationals. He told me, ‘I’m going to take care of you because I’m the announcer,’ and he was wonderful. He was the very first one to get me going, and I just fell in love with it.”
Prudhomme closed the remembrances by reasserting his allegiance to his home Division 7, which Partridge led for so many years. “I’m a Division 7 guy, and my number was 712, and I wore it proudly,” he said. “After losing the championship to Raymond Beadle, I was supposed to put a 2 on the car, but I said, ‘Screw that; I’m going to put 712 back on the car.’
"One of the reasons we respected Bernie was that, even though Wally was the man, Bernie pretty much ran the show. If you needed something, you went to Bernie. He was a helluva guy, and I was proud to be part of Division 7.”
I think we’ve always been proud to be part of that family, and last week’s turnout only reinforced that. There’s an especially tight bond among those who lived those formative early days and helped us through them by leading the way. As Gibbs said, we should never forget them. I know I won’t.
Here’s today's disclaimer about upcoming Insider columns. As you can see from the app on my phone, it has been a busy month, and the next two weeks are going to be a bit hellish, with the Houston and Atlanta events on back-to-back weekends. I leave Thursday for Houston, return Monday, then leave again three days later for Atlanta. Those short two full days in the office are going to be jam-packed with my usual National DRAGSTER work, so there’s no way I’ll be writing a column in the next 10 days or so. Sorry ’bout that. I know from your emails that many of you look forward to our twice-weekly get-togethers, and it pains me to think I’m letting any of you down because you’ve been so great and loyal.
As you also can see on the screenshot, I have a decent break after Atlanta, but – fair warning -- I travel quite a bit this summer. I’ll of course do everything I can to continue to offer you fun and interesting reading. I have quite a few column ideas in the works that I’ll be piecing together as time allows. The next original column will be a follow-up to the Garlits Swamp Rat XXX tale as I recount the “blowover years.” I think I’ve been able to document every Top Fuel blowover from the 1980s and 1990s (and a few beyond that), and we’ll take a look at that phenomenon. If you have any blowover photos to share, please pass them along.
The second part of my sob story involves yet another move. Some of you may remember that it wasn't all that long ago -- December 2010 -- that the National DRAGSTER editorial staff packed up its meager belongings and moved from upstairs to downstairs at Publishing HQ on famous and fabulous Route 66 to consolidate with the rest of the departments on the first floor.
Well, here I am, less than a year and a half later, doing it all over again as the entire Publications Department prepares to move back in with the headquarters staff on Financial Way. This will mark my fourth move, which I guess isn't bad for nearly 30 years on the job. I was at the North Hollywood headquarters on Riverside Drive from my hiring in 1982 until we all moved east to Glendora in early 1987. In 1993, the Publications group leased this spot on Route 66, just a quarter-mile or so from HQ. And now, after 19 years out on our own, we're being reunited with the Mother Ship beginning Thursday.
The bummers this time, however, are twofold. First, when we moved in 2010, I was digging through boxes of stuff that I hadn't seen since the 1993 move, which made for some fun columns (here and here) as I found a bunch of cool little treasures. No such fun this time, as it's all-too-familiar stuff. Second, if you were paying attention a few paragraphs ago, you'll see that Thursday is when I'm headed to Houston, so a) I have to be all packed up by Wednesday, and b) when I get back Monday, I'm going to walk into a new office that's packed with boxes (17 so far, probably headed to 20) that will require unpacking before I get back up to speed.
OK, that’s a wrap for today. Keep your eyes peeled to the NHRA.com home page for the next column.
After Top Fuel’s streamlining experimentation phase in the mid-1960s burned out after just a few years, the conventional slingshot didn’t change much beyond the standard addition of a body to cover the frame of the “rail jobs” — though I wonder if that wasn’t as much to add signage and color to combat the threat to their popularity from the Funny Cars as it was for aerodynamic advantage — until Don Garlits made the rear-engine car work in 1971.
Garlits ran the car first without a rear wing, but then everyone and their brother started adding them to the backs and even the sides of their dragsters. With a new platform on which to experiment, it didn’t take the tinkerers long to begin to cloak their chassis with sleek shapes, most of which were wedge-shaped bodies covering the rear tires and most of the engine. The wedge dragster phase — which lasted roughly three years but spanned only a dozen or so cars — was well-covered in a dozen columns I wrote in April through June 2010 that you can access in the archive at right. Although the cars were neat to look at, again, weight was a factor, and none of them revolutionized the sport, though Don Prudhomme’s car clearly was the best performer of the bunch.
Once that novelty wore off, other than a few experiments (like Don Durbin’s rear-wheel pants in 1977), it wasn’t until 1986 when streamlining got another serious consideration with a pair of sexy-looking dragsters fielded by Garlits and the late Gary Ormsby.
By this time, technology seemed to have caught up with the streamliner craze, and the availability of carbon fiber and Kevlar made dreams of exotic, lightweight bodies a real draw. The fact that NHRA added 100 pounds to the class minimum weight — raising it from 1,700 to 1,800 — was the final clinching point.
Ormsby and Garlits went at their projects quite differently. Ormsby’s body, backed by many dollars and much hoopla by sponsor Castrol GTX, was conceived and designed by a team of engineers. Garlits’ car was the product of his fertile mind, designed in his head and built by one man.
Ormsby’s car had its origins in the team’s summer home in Indianapolis, where it rented a shop on Gasoline Alley and was surrounded by some of IndyCar racing’s elite. Through a mutual love of fly fishing, crew chief Lee Beard became good friends with those on Roger Penske’s team, whose lead engineer was race car builder Nigel Bennett, who sketched out ideas for Beard.
Working from those sketches, noted engineer/aircraft designer Pete Swingler “built” the body on paper, and the body’s dimensions were entered into a computer program that modeled it and did a simulated wind-tunnel test. Eloisa Garza, who designed the Chaparral Indy car for the Jim Hall/Johnny Rutherford team that won the 1981 500, created the body, using a vacuum-formed carbon-fiber/Kevlar composite. The 130-pound body completely covered the engine and pushed air away from the rear tires.
The car had a full belly pan, a front spoiler with splitters to trip air over the front tires — thus eliminating the need for an enclosed front end — and a sunken cockpit with a windshield for Ormsby to look through. The windshield was high enough to direct air over the top of the car, eliminating the need for a full canopy. It looked very much like an Indy car.
While Ormsby’s car was designed to work with the wind, stealthily flowing it around the car’s curves, Garlits’ car was all about punching a hole in the atmosphere and driving through it before it closed.
Garlits had a streamliner on his mental jig for more than a year before he built it, and he knew just what he wanted: a tear-drop-shaped nose covering the air-disturbing front tires. Garlits also certainly didn’t need any fancy engineers or computer program. “I have some aerodynamic knowledge from the years and years of dealing with wings and planes and reading books … I am aware of the correct shapes,” he told National DRAGSTER in early 1986.
Garlits commissioned Mike Magiera, an independent aero consultant who had done work with car companies, to build the nosepiece and worked with ProGlass on the canopy, upon which the “Swamp Rat” had lettered “Rat Under Glass.”
Garlits reported that he liked how the canopy isolated him from the effects of buffeting wind that not only caught the helmet but, in some areas, his hands as well, which would make him a more efficient driver.
“The difference between this car and streamliners in the past is that this car hasn’t deviated from the actual current car design,” he lectured. “It has merely been cleaned up considerably. We haven’t done anything strange that would hurt the performance. We’ve not added any weight; the car is exactly the same weight as last year’s car. It’s not like we put some 200-pound body on it.”
That may have been a direct shot at Ormsby’s car, which was plenty heavy, or even the Jocko Johnson-built Wynn’s Liner, whose body weighed 400 pounds. By contrast, Garlits’ carbon-fiber/Kevlar nosepiece weighed just four pounds.
“Technologically, we’ve come to a point just like the rear-engine car in 1971. We’d reached a plateau of technology where the design was feasible, and that’s exactly what’s happened now. We have reached a plateau in technology where streamliners are feasible, and we have just touched the tip of the iceberg.”
Garlits did announce plans to have a “stage 2” addition to the back of the car to direct air around the tires — nothing as extensive as on Ormsby’s car — but it never came to fruition.
As different as the two cars were in concept and design, so too were their results on the track. Garlits’ Swamp Rat XXX broke the 270-mph barrier in its debut at the Gatornationals and carried him to five victories and the season championship. Ormsby’s car reached just one final round — which it lost to Garlits’ car at the Cajun Nationals in the first all-streamliner final round in Top Fuel history. Garlits went 3-0 against Ormsby in the season.
Each got off to a bit of a rocky start. With the eyes of the world upon it at the season-opening Winternationals, Ormsby’s car made it no further than the burnout box on its maiden pass. Though tight body-to-engine clearances might work well in a non-flexing Indy car, when Ormsby stepped on the gas, according to Beard, the chassis torqued, and the body — with just a half-inch clearance — struck and broke the magneto cap, causing an ignition crossfire that banged the supercharger and damaged the body.
“We knew somewhere down the road we were going to do that, but we didn’t think it was going to be on the first burnout,” lamented Ormsby in an interview with National DRAGSTER. With rain wiping out half of qualifying, the car got just one more shot — sans the bodywork — and its 6.47, 152.54-mph pass was nowhere good enough to qualify. A bubble was later added to the bodywork to give 2 inches of clearance to the magneto.
Garlits’ new liner wasn’t ready for the Winternationals but debuted at his hometown race in Gainesville, where it didn’t take long for bugs to surface. Because there were no high-speed-rated tires small enough to fit under Garlits’ enclosed front end, he had fashioned some, using high-speed generator fan belts mated to two-piece 14-inch aluminum discs. All was well until the floating front end settled down in the lights when Garlits stepped off the gas, and the belts couldn’t take the sudden run-up to speed and came off the “rims” on every pass, damaging the nosepiece, which had to be repaired after each run. None of that stopped Garlits from qualifying No. 1 at 5.46, 268.01, running a barrier-breaking 272.56-mph speed in the semifinals, and winning the 30th Top Fuel title of his career.
By contrast, Ormsby’s camp was struggling. Beard had resigned for personal reasons after Pomona, and the car was tuned at the next two events by crewmember Dickie Venables in his debut as a crew chief. Ormsby qualified No. 14 and lost in round one in Gainesville and No. 7 and fell in round two, to Garlits, in Atlanta, but, according to Venables, problems persisted because the headers also would torque over and scorch the bodywork. “It was just one thing after another,” remembered Venables in an interview we did last weekend in Charlotte. “That car had a whole bag of problems — it was more problem than it was worth — but we got through it.”
Ormsby then hired the well-respected Bob Brandt — available only because Prudhomme was sitting out the season due to sponsorship woes — to tune the car, which by that time had run a best speed of just 263 mph.
Garlits, meanwhile, already had his eyes set — very prematurely, as it would turn out — on 280 mph.
“As soon as I get the front tires to stay on it, I can really start tuning it,” he said after the Gatornationals. “I was really worried about pitching the belts, and I never really gave that car the tune-up I can. I think, though, that illustrates what this car is capable of. If I had this motor in my ’85 dragster, the one I won the world title with, I would have run between 255 and 258 mph tops. The streamlining and the small front tires are the answer, absolutely, and that's why we got the 270  speed. The car is on the threshold of running 275 or 276, even at the next race, and we could hit 280 by the fall.”
After considering both heat-formed urethane and Kevlar-wrapped tires molded right to a wheel, Garlits settled on 13-inch Goodyear airplane tires that were rated to 350 mph. He ran the car with those for a few events — including the famed March Meet, where he posted a 5.37 (the first pass quicker than Gary Beck’s late-1983 5.39) at 271.90 — but the airplane tire came mounted on its own wheel that couldn’t easily be attached to a standard dragster axle, and there were no provisions for letting air in or out. Goodyear then modified the tire to strengthen the bead and made a change to the compound, and Cragar custom-made the wheels that allowed it all to work.
There seemed to be no stopping Garlits. He won the Cajun Nationals and set the national record in Englishtown with a 5.343, 271.08 blast in qualifying. That joy lasted until just the next run when the car flipped overbackward. A lightened fuel load from a prolonged hold on the starting line had the front end light, and when it went up, the air caught under the big nose, and Garlits was a passenger for a frightening tumble. He was unhurt, the car only was surprisingly mildly bent, and he was back at it at the Mile-High Nationals. Although he lost in round one there, he would win the next two events — in Brainerd and Indy (his eighth U.S. Nationals victory) — then was runner-up in Reading, won in Dallas, and secured his third season championship at the NHRA Finals in Pomona, where he also won the Top Fuel Classic bonus event.
By contrast, Ormsby was barely in the top 10 all year and finished sixth, nearly 5,000 points behind Garlits. Brandt had done the best he could with the albatross that he had been handed.
“The car was not only heavy but awkward to work on,” Brandt told me recently. “I could not make changes in the staging lanes with the body attached. It sure was good-looking, and the idea was good, but the trouble with drag cars versus other forms of motorsports is the distance of the race — Indy cars that go many laps versus only a few seconds with drag racing. Not much to aero when we have so little time to race.”
Brandt did tune the car to the Cajun Nationals runner-up, to the No.1 qualifying spot in Columbus, and a pair of semifinal finishes, but the car mostly qualified midpack and generally was in the trailer by the end of the second round. Shelving the body was not a possibility, according to Brandt.
“The sponsorship from Castrol was basically part of the different style of today’s dragsters, and to go back to a conventional car would take away the press they received,” he said. “At least for the first year. There was a lot of money spent to design and build the body.”
Gary Ormsby's team debuted an enclosed front end at the 1987 Southern Nationals, but after the car exhibited some spooky handling characteristics, all of the bodywork was removed shortly afterward.
After removing the streamliner bodywork, it didn't take Ormsby long to get his first win of 1987, scoring in Englishtown.
Brandt stayed with the team through the winter, during which Jerry Russo made a nosepiece to cover the front wheels, but Brandt was let go after the Winternationals before the new nose could be run, and Beard, who had kept in touch with his good friend Ormsby, rejoined the crew. The team sat out the Gatornationals and Winston Allstars event and resurfaced at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta, but after the car exhibited spooky handling, Beard had the bodywork removed. It didn’t help that Joe Amato’s conventional car — which did include a cockpit canopy — beat them in round one with a national record 279.24 speed, making many begin to wonder about the relevance of streamliners.
“Even though we had put a lot of money and effort into the car, both Gary and I were used to winning, and we made the mutual decision to put a conventional body on the car,” said Beard in another interview I did last weekend in Charlotte. “It’s nice to have a unique car that gets a lot of publicity, but after a while, that wears off, and everyone wants to win.”
After ditching the bodywork, Ormsby scored a runner-up in Columbus, a semifinal in Montreal, and a win in Englishtown.
In an interview later that year in Reading, Ormsby said, “Hindsight is always 20-20. We did what we thought was the right thing to do at the time. Sure, looking at it now, we wish we would have never started with the streamliner this season. It really hurt us.
“It sure feels good to be back in the saddle of a conventional and competitive race car again,” he added. “The whole streamliner deal was very frustrating ... extremely frustrating. It was an exciting project, one we committed a lot of time and money to, but the time came when we had to give up on the deal and, at least for now, move in another direction. It was a real struggle. This sport stops being fun when you’re not competitive. Only so many things can happen to you before you have to get back to basics.”
Even though Darrell Gwynn’s conventional car had been the performance star of 1986 — running the five quickest e.t.s (best of 5.26) and four fastest speeds (best of 278.55 mph) — the Gwynn team didn’t win the championship and decided in 1987 to follow Garlits’ lead by debuting a covered-nose, canopied dragster as part of a new Budweiser alliance with Kenny Bernstein. Problems set in early; the engine setback was so severe with the layout that they had to run a shorter B&J transmission instead of a Lenco (remember, kids, this was back when Top Fuelers still ran two-speeds), and the car was ungodly heavy, tipping the scales at 2,100 pounds on an 1,800-pound minimum.
The car qualified just eighth at the Winternationals, and despite reaching the semifinals, the team quickly announced that it was ditching the extra bodywork; the only things kept were the small front tires. At the next race, in Gainesville, Gwynn qualified No. 1 and reset the national record to 5.22 and was runner-up. He ran 5.17 two weeks later at the Allstars at Texas Motorplex and reset the national record to 5.20 in Atlanta, where Amato’s car set the previously mentioned speed record at 279 mph.
Amato’s only streamliner experience was similarly short-lived. Just before the Brainerd event in 1986, he unveiled a bullet-nosed streamliner in testing at Maple Grove Raceway, then competed with it in Brainerd. The nosepiece covered a slick fuel tank moved forward with two air tunnels added to create a low-pressure area under the nose to prevent a blowover. The car, predictably, struggled and qualified just No. 12 in Brainerd at only 253 mph (top speed of the meet was 263) and lost in round one. He went back to his conventional car at the next event, the U.S. Nationals, qualified No. 4, and reached the semifinals.
“We didn’t spend enough wind-tunnel time to prove we had the right program,” Amato admitted. “I think streamlining fits if it is put in the right perspective. Aerodynamics are definitely a factor in Top Fuel, but anytime you add aerodynamics, you add weight. If the minimum [weight] for the class was 2,000 pounds [instead of 1,800], then a streamlined body could help you. But if you are giving away 150 to 250 pounds of weight to another car, I don’t think you’re picking that up enough on the aerodynamic side to make up for that. You gain a lot more in performance through clutch and fuel-system technology.”
Independent SoCal Top Fuel racer Butch Blair bought the car from Amato and ran it for several years.
After the mass defections from streamlining in early/mid-1987, clearly, the handwriting was on the wall, and, in a series of interviews with National DRAGSTER that summer, all parties agreed that streamlining was on its way out.
“Streamlining doesn’t seem to be a very good idea in drag racing anymore, does it?” Garlits said. “Personally, we have stopped our streamliner project in its tracks. What you see of our car is what you get for the rest of the year. I mean, why should I go with streamlining? Amato had run 270 mph with the front wheels just hanging out there in the air, and Gwynn has run 5.17 with an open cockpit.”
Still, Garlits soldiered on with Swamp Rat XXX with the only modification being the addition of tabs to the nose that purportedly increased downforce by 30 percent and would prevent blowovers. He had won the season-opening Winternationals but hadn’t been back to a final since.
Garlits had said that in that interview that he would consider going back to a conventional car for 1988, yet debuted in early August.in Brainerd the almost-identical Swamp Rat 31, which had been under construction all that year. A week later, on Aug. 21, Swamp Rat 31 followed on the heels of Swamp Rat XXX and went overbackward, this time in the lights in Spokane, Wash., all but destroying the car. “The Old Man” got pretty banged up, too — breaking two ribs and injuring his back — and didn’t drive a fuel dragster again until 1992.
Gene Snow, who had been an early adopter in adding a canopy and small front tires (uncovered) at the 1986 Summernationals, also tried his hand briefly with a modern-day wedge, built by Gene Gaddy, at the 1987 Allstars event in Dallas, where it failed to qualify.
The trend toward aero ended in mid-1987 but surprisingly was resurrected, albeit also briefly, six years later when Jim Head, who in the early 1990s was Top Fuel’s “mad scientist,” tested a new car in 1993. Head, long a proponent of removing the rear wing in favor of aero-influenced downforce, built a body with an enclosed rear section (which, unlike Ormsby's car, completely covered the rear tires as well as the engine) and, most importantly to Head, had no conventional rear wing. The car looked great, even unpainted, and seemed to show some potential, but Head had to shelf it after budgetary concerns.
“We made about 10 runs or so and had some stupid things hurt us, and we just ran out of money,” said Head. “But I did run it enough to know it will work. Then in 1994, I got RJR [R.J. Reynolds] as a sponsor [with Camel], and they sure weren't interested in doing that.
“Garlits only addressed the minor problems,” he noted. “The front end is a very minor problem; the cockpit is extremely minor. The wing struts are a little bit of the problem. The big problem is the engine and the headers and the rear wing and the tires. My car only addressed from the roll cage back; Gar's car only from the roll cage forward. Ormsby’s car had too many bite-you-in-the-ass problems, and it still had a wing on it. We have to ditch that rear wing.”
Even though the Ormsby car turned out to be a pretty big flop and time proved Garlits’ forward-thinking to not be a better idea for the time, a lot was learned through the process, according to Beard.
“Not all projects are successful, but you learn from them all,” he said. “The fact it didn’t set the world on fire is disappointing, but we learned a lot about carbon-fiber components, which at the time there were very little, but today, the cars are covered with them. A lot of the concepts from [the Ormsby] car eventually evolved into today’s cars, like shrouding the rear tires, the lips on the bottom of the bodies, the recessed cockpits.”
Perhaps Ormsby best summed up the rage in that late-1987 interview: “We tried and learned that aerodynamic things that should work, according to theory and computer findings, don’t necessarily work on these dragsters,: he said. "The fastest and quickest cars are conventional dragsters. The bottom line is that drag racing is a horsepower sport. What really makes these cars go in that piece of aluminum between the framerails. Unlike IndyCar racing, where there is a smooth transition to high speeds, drag racing is a sport of such violent horsepower that many aerodynamic techniques do not apply. Aerodynamics still play a role, but not as much as pure horsepower.”
With all of the talk about aero trickery that has been the natural byproduct of the wheel-pants thread, I’ve received quite a few requests for a more full accounting of Top Fuel streamlining efforts in the sport’s history. It’s a pretty broad topic because all sorts of accoutrements have been added to dragsters throughout the years to cheat the air – front and rear wings to side-mounted canards, belly pans, ground effects, and more – but to keep a more narrow focus, let’s just talk about the best understood and most visual component: bodywork.
As we’ve seen from Craig Breedlove’s 1964 Spirit II streamlined slingshot, drag racers have been working diligently on the concept for decades – sadly, most of the time ultimately unsuccessfully or unsustainably. The bugaboo has always been weight with a dash of inconvenience added for good measure.
When the streamlining craze hit Top Fuel in 1986, National DRAGSTER did a pretty thorough recap of streamlining history, so I drew from that. I’ll cover this in two parts, beginning with the early stuff today (1950s and 1960s) and ending with the more modern stuff (for which a lot more documentation is handy) next time.
Streamlining came in many flavors but for the most part focused on a sleek body and enclosing the rear tires and some attempt at sealing off the driver compartment, either by low position, a windscreen, or a full canopy. Interestingly, few paid much attention to the front tires, which, as we know today, churn up some aero-disturbing turbulence.
Perhaps the best known example of mid-1950s aero was Ed and Roy Cortopassi’s Glass Slipper, which is credited with being the first dragster to combine a streamlined body and an enclosed cockpit. It was named America's Most Beautiful Competition Car at the prestigious Oakland Roadster Show in 1957 and, along with 1955 Nationals champ Calvin Rice’s dragster, was hand-chosen by NHRA founder Wally Parks to compete for FIA International Acceleration Records at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif., in 1958. It clocked 168.85 mph in the standing kilometer with an unblown 302-cid small-block Chevy. You can read more about those efforts here.
The ever-innovative Mickey Thompson was one of the first to show what might be accomplished with slick bodywork with the Panorama City Special dragster in which he competed at the 1955 Nationals in Great Bend, Kan. Fritz Burns, a real-estate magnate in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley who also owned San Fernando Drag Strip and much of Panorama City, sponsored the car on its trip. This car is also memorable in that it’s believed to be the first successful slingshot-style chassis, with the driver sitting out behind the rear end. The car was short – just more than 97 inches in wheelbase – but featured a sleek body that enclosed the rear tires and a cockpit canopy. The car ran 142 mph; top speed was 151 mph by Lloyd Scott’s dual-engine Bustlebomb dragster.
Amarillo, Texas' Jack Moss, whose Rambling Ram nearly won that 1955 Nationals – he was defeated by eventual champ Rice in the dragster class final – built this slick car in 1957 that was powered by twin Chevy engines mounted side by side covered but for some Pro Stock-like hood scoops. The body for the 2 Much was designed by Don’s Custom Shop in Tulsa, Okla., but as good as the car looked, it never ran well, and Moss abandoned the body after a few months.
Around the same time (1956-57), this slick-looking back-motor car with a huge aft section showed up at Colton Drag Strip in Southern California, according to NHRA historian Greg Sharp, but none of his research uncovered the owner or driver. “I’ve heard Bean Bandits and other guesses, but maybe if you run it, someone will come up with a positive ID,” he wrote hopefully. Anyone?
In 1958, forward-thinking Robert “Jocko” Johnson unveiled this stunning creation, which featured the first “full envelope” fiberglass body. Driver Jim ”Jazzy” Nelson built the blown 450-cid engine that powered him and the car to a surprising 8.35, 178.21-mph pass at Southern California’s Riverside Raceway on May 31, 1959, a pass that was the fifth-quickest official time of that year. Johnson built a second car in 1964, using aluminum for the bodywork for its weight-saving value and an Allison V-12 airplane engine for power, but that car was a pretty big flop. This body shape resurfaced, of course, in 1973 on Don Garlits’ unsuccessful Wynn’s Liner.
Racers were doing a lot of this work without the aid, of course, of wind tunnels, and though some no doubt were well-researched, others were all about “eyeball aero,” which caused unfavorable things to happen. I’m not sure if aero had anything to do with the crash that claimed the life of Hank Vincent while at the wheel of his swoopy, national-record-setting Top Banana B/FD May 29, 1960, at Fremont Dragstrip in Northern California, but the car reportedly left the track at 170 mph and “leaped in to the air” when he tried to guide it back onto the racing surface, then rolled 300 feet. He died en route to the hospital. According to Sharp, noted Chevy power-meister George Santos (father of former Top Alcohol Dragster world champ Rick) was Vincent’s brother-in-law and crew chief. The car, which also was named America’s Most Beautiful Competition Car at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1959, was advertised (by Hubbard Racing Cams) as the “World’s Fastest Chevy,” running around 170 mph.
Breedlove’s Spirit II was not the only slick-looking slingshot nor the only streamliner of the mid-1960s. In 1964, the Logghe-Marsh-Steffey team – famed chassis builders Ron and Gene Logghe, driver Jim Marsh, and crew chief Roy Steffey -- built this car, which had everything but the front wheel pants. The team, which had recorded the first unblown seven-second pass with its 389-cid-powered C/FD entry in March, built an identical engine for the streamliner and saw the performance plummet to an 8.25 when the car ran in Indy that year. After a few more races, the car was parked, but not without leaving a bit of mystery. I reached out to Steffey via email to ask about the car’s quick retirement. “We ran both the C/FD and the streamliner at Indy, and it was a tenth slower than the C/FD, and we felt it was due to the extra weight of a full body," he responded. “We later built a blown 354 Chrysler on fuel for the streamliner and took the car to Richmond, Va., around Thanksgiving time as that was the closest track to Michigan that was still open. Maynard Rupp made one half pass to check it out and a second full pass. From the starting line, I could see six feet of daylight under the slicks in the lights, and it was turning sideways. Maynard pulled the chute, and it straightened out. The Prussian [conventional slingshot Top Fueler driven by Rupp and tuned by Steffey] would run over 203 with that engine, but due to Maynard pulling the chute at the first light, who knows what speed the streamliner would have gone if it didn't fly.”
In August 1964, the Scrima-Basilek-Milodon-Tuller Scrima-Liner made its debut at Lions. The team, consisting of chassis builders Ron Scrima and George Bacilek, engine man Don Alderson (of Milodon), and driver Goob Tuller, got everyone’s attention with the immaculate machine, but the car never ran as good as it looked, posting just an 8.14 at 191 mph. The car later ran a best of 7.74 without the body.
Tommy Ivo’s similar-looking Video-Liner came from the fertile mind of Steve Swaja, whom Ivo met during the famous NHRA trip to England in 1964. Swaja, who was on the trip helping Tony Nancy, was a student at the famous Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and drew up sketches of streamliners for both Ivo and Garlits, though only Ivo’s was built. The car had a short life because Ivo found the handling precarious at speed; the rear tires tended to come off the ground in the lights. In his book, “T.V.” Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman, Ivo says he finally gave up trying to sort out the car after hearing that the driver of another car was killed at Lions while he was waiting to make a run. “That thing wanted to swap ends in the lights because it was a reverse teardrop, and I thought of taking it down some of those lousy tracks, and that’s all it took,” he told Sharp last week. “I went home and built another chassis with the running gear from the Video-Liner and left on tour.”
Here’s yet another short-lived streamlined attempt, the Mooneyham-Ferguson-Jackson-Faust machine, whose Jocko-designed metalflake-blue bodywork enclosed not only the cockpit but also the front tires. The sleek-looking piece spent just two days on the track, at Lions Drag Strip and San Fernando Raceway, May 8-9, 1965, and the popular “Jungle Four” SoCal team never ran better than 8.20 at 197.80. Just prior to building this car, the team -- Gene Mooneyham, driver “Jungle Larry" Faust, Wayne Ferguson, and Jerry Jackson -- had set a new Standard 1320 A/FD record of 7.53 at Lions, so the 8.20 was quite a disappointment, but was the body too good? According to Mooneyham’s wife, Dorothy, “The front grabbed the ground like a vacuum cleaner,” perhaps creating too much power-sapping downforce. The car is now in the Garlits museum.
Frank Huszar and Roy Steen built the chassis and Wayne Ewing the body for a pair of sleek rear-engine gas dragsters for Nancy, dubbed Wedge I and Wedge II. The first, which debuted in 1964, used a Wedge-head engine (making the entry name a double entendre) and was destroyed in a crash in Ohio on July 12. A second car, powered by a blown Hemi, was built later that year and was more successful but was parked in mid-1965. Nancy later restored this car before his death in 2004.
Pulsator testing sans body at Irwindale (Jere Alhadeff photo)
Another slick rear-engine streamliner was built in 1965 by Nye Frank. Dubbed the Pulsator, it was a twin-engine Top Fuel dragster with a design copied from Frank’s other wunderkind, the ultra-successful Freight Train Top Gasser. According to a fine article by George Klass on the Two To Go website, the Pulsator, which like the Train was driven by Bob Muravez (aka Floyd Lippencott Jr.), used two reliable Chevy engines of about 900 horsepower each (comparable single-engine Hemi-powered fuelers had about 1,500 ponies but were damage-prone) under the Nye-built fiberglass body.
“The full body garnered a lot of attention; however, it was cumbersome to work on the car between rounds,” explained Klass. “The body was a two-piece design, with a bottom half and a top half. To work on the engines, check the plugs, run the valves, etc., the entire top half of the body had to be removed from the car. More often than not, for convenience sake, the original Pulsator ran without the body. Of course, the structure, tabs, and framework that held the body panels in place remained welded to the chassis. One night at Lions, Bob popped the chute after a run, and the shroud lines somehow became entangled in this structure, lifting the back of the car completely off the ground and high enough that when the car eventually returned to earth, the landing flattened both pans to the cranks. Not a good thing.”
Robert Lindwall’s Re-Entry, which was featured in this column several years ago, certainly looked fast even standing still, but its life was among the shortest of the bunch. Lindwall qualified the car at the 1966 U.S. Nationals, won his first-round race on Bob Stewart’s red-light, then crashed in round two against Connie Kalitta. The car ran 201.34 mph on that pass, which had a tumbling 9.52 e.t., showing some promise perhaps, but the car was not rebuilt.
I devoted a two-page spread to this car, the Super Mustang, in a 2010 issue of National DRAGSTER, so I know quite a bit about it. Former DRAGSTER Editor Mike Doherty tabbed the Super Mustang No. 4 in a story called “The Ten Big Mistakes in Drag Racing,” in the October 1970 issue of Drag Racing USA, so that should give you a hint of how things went.
The car was commissioned by Ford as a promotional tool in the winter of 1966 and debuted at the 1967 Winternationals, where Tom McEwen shoed it to a disappointing 8.60 best at 180 mph, and it ran only a few times after. The 150-inch chassis was built by the Logghe brothers and featured a sophisticated rear suspension made up of a posi-traction rear end suspended by a pair of coil-over shocks, traction bars, and an anti-sway bar. The swoopy body was conceived at the Ford Design Center and its shape perfected in Ford’s wind tunnel. A bubble canopy covered the cockpit.
Tom Marsh and Kalitta built the injected 427 SOHC engine, and Kalitta actually did shakedown runs with the car, sans body, in Florida the previous December. McEwen, who got the driving gig because of his previous association with the Brand Ford Top Fuel team and had become friends with Ford highflyers Dick Brannan and Chuck Foulger, barely fit in the cramped cockpit, which didn’t help. “My head was mashed by the canopy,” he told me. “It wasn’t real comfortable. Despite all of the money and brains behind the project, it was, to put it bluntly, a dog.”
The age of aero experimentation seemed to die with the Super Mustang -- it wasn’t until the wedge Top Fuelers of the early 1970s started popping up that aero got another look. I think we’ve covered the whole wedge thing to death with a dozen columns in the summer of 2010 (late arrivers can find them in the archive at the right of the head of this column), so I’ll pick up next time with the brief aero rebirth of the mid-1980s.
I’ll be in Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals beginning Thursday (where I hope to spend time with Lee Beard talking about Gary Ormsby's streamliner) and will file that story next week unless something goes awry. Because it’s an all-day flight home from North Carolina Monday, I'm not sure when that will be, but I hope next Tuesday.
Even a week later, it’s hard to believe that Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins is gone. His loss still resonates from garage to pit area, felt by anyone who called himself or herself a longtime race fan, and even among the racers themselves. Don Prudhomme (whose birthday is today: Happy birthday, "Snake"!) called out of the blue last week just to chat about “the Grump,” and his admiration for Jenkins’ passion, uniqueness, and expertise was obvious. Raymond Beadle sent an email about how much Jenkins had helped him in his NASCAR days. ND Associate Editor John Jodauga compiled a wide array of comments from Jenkins' peers, friends, and followers -- Warren Johnson, Bob Glidden, Buddy Martin, Jere Stahl, Linda Vaughn, Larry Lombardo, Victor Cagnazzi, Dave Connolly, Larry Morgan, Jerry Haas, Bob Frey, and Rick Voegelin – for a four-page tribute in this week’s issue. Jodauga even was among those interviewed by Dennis Hevesi of The New York Times, which deemed Jenkins’ career so important that it published a lengthy and detailed obituary.
The readers of this column responded in kind with great Jenkins memories. As promised, here’s a look at "the Grump" from the Insider Nation.
Bill Jenkins, looking a little extra grumpy this day
The news hit hard for Pro Stock junkie Dan Bennett, a longtime friend, fellow reporter, data-acquisition specialist, and member of our Top 50 Drivers balloting in 2001.
“When the word started circulating that we had lost Bill Jenkins, Lewis Worden gave me a call. He suggested we get together to share memories of our hero and that I should try and get something written down. Looking at that previous sentence, I realize that the word ‘hero’ sounds like something from a grade-school notebook. Yet, for two grown men who have had the luck to get to know Bill, it's a perfectly accurate word.
“For those of you out there thinking, ‘Who are these guys?' please let me add some clarification. Starting in the late 1980s, four local racers from a very small town in Missouri decided to race Pro Stock. We put up with all the snickering and pointing, acting as if we hadn't heard. After a couple of years of buying (no rentals back then to speak of) engines from famous engine builders and having no success, it was hard to keep motivated. But then came the opportunity to buy an engine from Bill Jenkins – ‘the Grump’ himself.
“Bill thought he had some ideas that needed trying on a Pontiac engine. Yes, the engines were actually different back then, and the GM racers had their choice of Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile. Steve Ash paid the deposit. Jenkins let him know that parts were bought and kept him apprised of the progress. Part of the deal was that Jenkins would tune the engine at the events.
“Those pieces and the Jenkins Competition staff put together one of the strongest engines on the scene. We small-town guys, running in the same class with all the famous racers, qualified third at Gainesville that year. Other builders would have made sure their No. 1 team (or their own car) kept that piece for themselves. Not only did Jenkins do the right thing, he worked as hard between rounds as anyone we'd ever seen in trying to squeeze out every fraction of a horsepower for us. We saw an attention to detail we had never even considered. And we were silently impressed when a crewmember from one of many top 10 teams would arrive at our pit with a set of spark plugs for Jenkins to look at.
“Since all of us were just little guys who'd spent a lot of time reading Super Stock, Car Craft, and Hot Rod, it was pretty intimidating that first morning when Bill entered the pit. In a very short period of time, we found he was a really good guy. Though he may have had the strongest mind ever seen in drag racing, he wasn't one to flaunt it or beat anyone over the head with his intellect. He just loved cars, engines, and racing like the rest of us did. Learning when to approach him (after the work was done) and when to just leave him alone allowed us to very quickly develop a great relationship.
“So what did Lewie and I talk about the other night? Well, that's the funny thing. We kept bouncing from race to race, year to year, good times and challenging times. After about three hours, I think we realized that the outline we'd hope to develop didn't exist.
“If Jenkins had been simply the best Pro Stock racer in history, we could just list his wins and achievements. If he had just been a racer who'd dominated Stock and Super Stock like no other, we could have listed all those facts. If he was just the man who was one of the few to invent a new class still popular to this day, the story would have written itself. If it was just his honesty and integrity, we could explain how he did business and lived his life. If he was just a mechanical genius with a stupendous mind, we could tell everyone about the thoughtful answers we'd get when we asked questions. If he had just been one person with whom you could absolutely count on having a good time after the races, we'd say that -- though not be able to tell very many stories. But it's hard to describe all these things at the same time. Bill Jenkins was all that and more.
“The one thing Lewis and I managed to quickly agree on was the level of our feelings of loss. He wasn't a relative, a loved one, or even a close friend who you talked to frequently. But still, there was an ache just knowing that he is gone.
“We had enough fun after hours and enough conversations that keep me from putting the man on a throne or writing about how he was a saint. Bill had flaws like all of us do, and probably a time or two, he would have done differently if he had the chance. But through all that, his combination of strengths taught us more about cars, racing, and life than any other person I've met in my life.
“That's what makes someone a hero.”
Is that Garlits?
We all know that Jenkins battled the Sox & Martin team in the 1970s, but Jerry Adams passed along the photos at right of a little-known clash between the two that stood out at Florida’s Sunshine Speedway in February 1973. Lombardo was wheeling Jenkins’ one-off red Vega (Grumpy’s Toy IX) against the S&M Duster and crashed into the guardrail. While all eyes were on Lombardo’s plight, Ronnie Sox had problems of his own and ended up off the end of the strip.
“National DRAGSTER posted an article in the March 9, 1973, issue about the destruction, but no pictures,” reported Adams. “They called it ‘the most expensive match race ever,’ and I still have the article cut out that I framed with these pictures.
“Most people attending didn't know that Ronnie Sox went off the end of the very short Sunshine Speedway track, so we ran to the track end, and I took these photos. The ND said Sox's brakes locked up. ‘Grumpy's’ next Vega was painted white, probably since he wrecked two red cars, his '66 Nova and the Vega."
Fred Simmonds, who for years was General Motors’ drag racing chief, mused, “How would you like to have a small-block Chevy engine-building team consisting of Bill Jenkins, John Lingenfelter, and Smoky Yunick? Nearly unstoppable! I bet they're comparing notes and telling ‘war stories’ to each other right now! ‘Da Grump’ was one of a kind and will be sorely missed.”
If you look closely at the first photo, it appears that none other than "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was standing by for a firsthand inspection of the carnage.
More stories …
Craig Sanburn: “One day, while driving home from the national event qualifying at Sears Point, my brother and I pulled up to a stoplight and noticed ‘the Grump’ next to us at the light, heading to the hotel in his rental car. We both stared long enough that he noticed us and gave us a head nod and sort of a grin. I revved my four-banger stock commuter and laughed. The light turned green, and I floored it, getting the jump on ‘Grumpy,’ who we assumed had no idea we were racing him! To our delight, all of a sudden, here comes ‘Grumpy,’ pulling alongside! With pedal to the floor, we went neck and neck for a couple blocks and let off. We outran ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins! He got back alongside and gave another head nod and a smile. It was, of course, a great moment in our lives and a little fun for him. I'll never forget it! I'm smiling just thinking about it. RIP, 'Grumpy.' ”
Mike Goyda: “In 1958, Bill was involved with John Good, who owned a Hemi-powered dragster for which Bill had built the engine. They ran 150 mph at Lancaster Drag-O-Way here in Lancaster, Pa. Attached is a photo of Bill's jacket presented to him for the accomplishment. The interesting thing about the jacket is the name on the front. Many people do not know that before he was ‘Grumpy,’ he was 'Jiggs.' This is in my personal collection.”
Gary L. Crumrine: “I think the biggest tribute, and the way we remember ‘Grumpy’ the best, is that as we grew up in that long ago time, we tended to put people in the classification of hero or villain. With ‘Grumpy,’ you found someone willing to wear either mantle, although I believe he relished the latter. Deep down, though, he would also take time to acknowledge the kid who stood in awe of all the activity going on around them (myself included). Bill was a real gem of a character, one of a very few who, like you said, could live up to his hype and fame, and win, lose, or draw, nobody came away unhappy. If you beat him, you beat the best; if you lost, well, you lost to the best, so there was no disgrace in that. With him, it was a win/win no matter what the result was.
“I admit to having been a Mopar fan back then with Sox & Martin and Dick Landy leading the charge, eventually shifting my allegiance to ‘Dyno Don’ and the Ford camp. And every time you turned around, they were all taking their shots at ‘the Grumpy one.’ He took on all comers with a fierce determination and never complained or backed down. He just chomped down on his cigar and went back to work. Bill ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins: A man you either loved or loved to hate, but someone who EVERYONE respected and admired. Farewell, my hero.”
Milt Heger: “I was at the Winters, next to the fence at the starting line, when he won in '70. I was on a visit to New Jersey last May and took a trip to Lancaster, Pa., with my childhood best friend, Adam. Cruising down the freeway, I saw a sign that read ‘Malvern’ and said, ‘I know what's in Malvern!’ We found Bill's shop, but he wasn't in. The guys in the shop were great, showed us around, and were testing an engine at the time as well! How cool was that?! There were Wallys and other trophies literally everywhere. They told us Bill would be in in a while, so we ran off to lunch and came back. He was there in his office with his cigar and talked with us for a few minutes. We couldn't believe this had happened for us! It was a special thing indeed to meet him in his shop and in such a sacred Chevy place. We were truly lucky that day, and we will miss Bill greatly. Godspeed, Mr. Jenkins.”
Kelly Long: “I saw him start the Toy and drive it to the concession stand to get a burger at Tulsa Int'l Raceway in ’72.”
Bob Lukas: “I met him and talked with him many times at Connecticut Dragway and even ate with him and his crew by chance at a McDonald's after racing a couple of times. I first saw him at Dover Drag Strip in 1965 with Doc Burgess and I think the first Black Arrow. Everyone there said it was Doc's car (I was told he was a veterinarian) and Bill was a tuner and engine builder. In later years, I realized who he was. I am sure he didn't really remember me when we would briefly talk at Connecticut Dragway, but he would always say hello or acknowledge me. Like you said, there is a small group of racers who brought excitement to our young lives in the golden years of drag racing. Some good bench racing is going on with Ronnie Sox, ‘Da Grump,’ and ‘Dyno Don’ now together.”
Cliff Morgan: “We lost another one … arghhh. You know what a funny memory of ‘Da Grump’ I have? It was when he did the pose in Hot Rod in the '70s, where he was laying on his side in a parody of the Burt Reynolds pose from that time. I thought it was funny, and one of the remarks Hot Rod did was that Jenkins’ body was ‘custom by fork.’ HA! Had to throw a little humor in there; otherwise, it gets too depressing. I think I'll tell God that I'm gonna boycott death.”
Mike Theulen: “This ‘Grump’ story goes back to the early ‘70s. I was a young boy, and every Memorial Day, we would make the trip to Thunder Valley in Marion, S.D., to watch the Pro Stock match race. One year after ‘Grump’ had the Vega loaded up, I mustered the courage to go say something to him. I said, ‘ 'Grumpy,' I pray to you every night for speed secrets!’ He had a can of beer wrapped in a rag and a little bit of a smile. He took a long drink, looked down, and said, ‘Son, there ain't no secrets, just hard work!’ Still true to this day!”
Whitman Ball: “I met Bill when he was just a kid out of high school, like me. He got a job with our area’s leading 'hot rod shop’ with Dean Stanton. I had a small-block ‘58 Impala, and one of the 348 guys passed me on our Friday night use of a particular road. Jenkins took my almost-new car and tossed things out from under the hood, added a few other things, played for a few hours — and said, 'Let’s try it.' He did back then what he continued doing forever — all was well till the 348 guys found out about him. The Modifiers club -- Dean, Bill, plus John Good and a few others — made this car nut what I am today, still a car nut 57 years later. Rest in peace, ‘Grump’; hope they have good Havanas up there.”
Don Schleich: “I was working with Diamond Race Cars in the early ‘80s when 'the Grump’ ordered a new Pro Stock Camaro. He made several trips to the shop on Long Island to check on the progress. After talking with him on several occasions, I was impressed with the attention he took to the slightest detail involving the Camaro we were building. He was more than cordial to deal with and obviously knew exactly what he wanted. We found some common ground with old airplanes, and he was very interested in the fact that my brother and I happened to own his two favorite old planes, a North American AT-6 trainer and a Beechcraft Staggerwing biplane. I spoke to him a few times after that at the Englishtown race, but it has been several years since I have seen him. God rest his soul; there have been very few that could match his talent as an innovator and engine builder!”
Bruce Wheeler: “I first became aware of ‘da Grump’ well before he became ‘Grumpy’ (although he was still sort of grumpy, even then). I was the ‘stock side’ starter at York U.S. 30 Drag-O-Way the opening year there, 1960 (York ran four lanes wide, two for ‘hot’ cars, the other two for stockers and bikes.). Jenkins and Dave Strickler were among a group of future East Coast legends who raced there every Saturday night, each of them winning a fair share of events that summer. Both of them competed in column-shifted, three-speed-equipped '57 Chevys, and both of them shifted those three-speeds like they were T10s! Incredible! Aloha, 'Grumpy'; thanks for the memories!”
Betty Sexton, who with her husband, Larry, has competed in Top Alcohol Dragster, Comp, and Super Gas throughout the years, wrote about the time in Gainesville when Larry approached Jenkins: “Can I ask you a question?” to which “Grumpy” simply responded, “If you’re able.” She continued, “But over the years, they had quite a few conversations and became good talking buddies. One time at the PRI Show in Indianapolis, Larry bought him a cigar and few drinks, but Larry couldn't keep up with ’Grumpy.’ What a wonderful life. I'm sure there were tough times, but look at how much The Man has done for racing. A true legend and an honor to have known him. Rest in peace, our dear friend; keep our fellow racers in heaven safe until we race again.”
Thanks again to everyone for sharing their stories. RIP, “Grumpy.”