For no reason other than to prove a point, Bill made the decision to build and drive his own cars starting in 1966. To him, the stockers were the only game in town. He built his reputation and business upon them, and he could never really imagine himself behind the wheel of anything else.
Grumpy’s Toy I, 1966 Chevy II
Due to Bill’s inability to gain a Chrysler sponsorship deal of his own, he returned to the Chevrolet camp in 1966. A Regal Red L-79 327 (350 hp) Chevy II was purchased from Ammon R. Smith. Bill armed it with the knowledge he gained from the time spent with Carlo Volpe’s Corvette. The little Chevy II was readied to do battle come February.
With a weight-to-horsepower factor of approximately 8 pounds per hp, the car fell squarely into NHRA’s A/Stock, a class that was dominated by Chrysler’s street Hemis. Bill felt the car could be competitive there and, to the surprise of many, the Chevy II proved to be a winner, defeating most comers. The one thorn in Bill’s side was the Hemi Belvedere campaigned by Jere Stahl. Bill hadn’t counted on Jere building a Top Stocker in 1966, and it caught him by surprise.
Jere, who had no intentions of running an A/Stock car in 1966, changed his mind after building the headers for and driving Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine’s Hemi-powered test car. Because he had so much fun with the car, he contacted Dick Maxwell of Chrysler’s racing program and he proposed that, if he were to buy the car himself, they could give him a parts deal. Obviously a deal was struck and Jere went racing.
Though “Grumpy’s Toy” had initially been painted on the car, as a good gimmick, the slogan seemed appropriate in 1966. Bill was frustrated at having to play runner-up at three of the four NHRA national events. All three losses were to Jere Stahl. To rub salt in the wound, the pair match raced numerous times throughout the season, with Jere’s Belvedere winning more times than not.
“We knew if we beat Bill one week, we better be prepared because he would be coming back the next time with more horsepower,” Jere recalled. Whether a three- or five-race match, the pair tried to please the fans by running every round. Appearance money for these match races ranged from $1,000 to $2,000 per show.
The 327, as prepared by Jenkins, was putting out an estimated 420 hp and he was making use of every last one of them. The car consistently turned mid-11-second ETs and share the national record with Jere Stahl with an 11.66-second time.
As described in a Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine article, Bill started with a .030-inch overbore of the 327. He then stuffed it with Forgedtrue replacement pistons outfitted with Dykes-design rings. The heads were milled to allowable minimum chamber volume, bringing the compression up to 11.6:1. Though cylinder head modifications were limited, Bill was sure to at least start with a good set. The “461”-numbered castings were preferred; they proved to have slightly more port volume. Bill explains: “There were two distinct volumes out of the 461 casting, and the ones ending with suffix ‘X’ had 6 to 8 more cc. Some of the non-X heads were also larger, so you had to check the heads to be sure.” The story of Bill purchasing 24 cylinder heads, and returning 20 of them due to the fact they were of lesser volume, has circulated for years.
The valvetrain consisted of an Isky 550 flat- tappet camshaft with a 108-degree centerline and Crane roller rockers. An Edelbrock high-rise manifold was topped by a specially modified Holley 585-cfm carburetor. Numerous factors would determine jet choice and they would be swapped as required. The needle-and-seat assembly, along with power restrictions, was enlarged, increasing fuel flow. A stock single-point distributor running 39 degrees of total ignition advance received its power through a Prestolite transistor, and would fire the Champion plugs through Autolite wires. Exhaust initially exited through a set of Stahl four-tube headers, designed to Bill’s own specifications. Bill later switched to a pair of Doug Thorley’s Tri-Y headers; it was felt the primary length of the Stahl headers was too long. When Jenkins built his second Chevy II, he made the switch to Hooker Headers, his first paying sponsor.
To row the gears in the M-21 Muncie 4-speed manual transmission, Bill had created a shifter of his own design. He used a Hurst 3-speed shifter to move the four forward gears, with a separate lever for reverse. To actuate reverse, the 3-speed shifter was placed in the neutral position and the reverse lever pulled. This setup helped prevent the shifter from hanging up between gear changes. It had only one gate to travel through (as opposed to the standard 4-speed shifter, which had two). Consider this an early form of a vertical gate shifter with a reverse lockout, which was not available to consumers for a couple more years.
To get the Chevy II to launch and hook at 6,000-plus rpm on the 7-inch-wide tires, Bill took Jere Stahl’s idea and ran soft compound M&H slicks at 7 to 12 pounds of air pressure, thus creating a larger footprint and gaining more traction. As Jere recalled, “I walked over to Bill’s car after a WCS meet at Sanford, Maine, in June and let air out of his tires. Then I told him to either drive the way I’m going to explain or I’d drive it and show him. From that day on, there was no beating him by truck lengths again.”
Jere admits that Dave Strickler told him what to do the previous year when he saw him struggling with low-pressure tires on his Junior Stock 1957 Chevy. “It was a day we were both at the York Airport breaking in engines the week before Indy in 1965. It took five rounds to win D/Stock that year, and every one of my opponents had pulled a red light and I was still ahead of them at the Christmas tree. The 1957 had something like 7 inches of travel in the front end, a 2.36:1 first gear transmission, Henry’s axles, and [a] beefed-up rear end. I was making 7,000-rpm banzai starts like an A/FXer. It demoralized most of my opponents! Those guys didn’t dare to really clean their tires for fear of breaking something in the drive line.”
Jere also said, “I didn’t do the tire pressure thing to Bill’s Chevy II as a way of helping a competitor; I did it because I had no competition in A/S. I also owed Bill because I had learned so much from him in 1963 to 1964.”
To further help the car hook, Bill devised his own set of traction bars and added more leaf springs. He added an extra shock absorber to the rear of the left leaf, because the spring had a tendency of deflecting away from the frame during initial acceleration. The 4.88:1 rear gears were annealed to a C55 rating to help prevent breakage. Bill had discovered, a long time back, that most gears were too brittle as supplied by the manufacturer. This caused them to break easily. To the best of Bill’s recollection, this is the first of his innovations that General Motors put in its parts book.
Though General Motors had a strict “no racing” policy in place, it hid behind the guise of product development or “Product Promotions Engineering” and threw support where it best suited its needs. The flow of factory support for Bill began late in the summer of 1966, when Vince Piggins came knocking on the door. Bill remembers, “Initially it was nothing special, just some research and development work; nothing specific. Though the pay wasn’t significant, cars and parts, over the years, were never an issue.” Over time, most of Bill’s dealings were with Paul Prior, an engineer who answered directly to Vince Piggins. Paul provided great help to Bill when it came to sourcing parts through different departments.
The New York International Raceway was the home of the Second Annual Super Stock Nationals held in July. Bill captured A/S class honors and brought home the Top Stock Eliminator crown. He defeated Tom Kerr in the finals with an easy 12.76-second pass. This proved to be the only major win for the Chevy II.
The Top Stock prize, at the NHRA Nationals in September, was contested by 25 cars. The final round came down to Jere Stahl’s street Hemi and Bill’s Chevy II. The day before, rumors that the Chevy II was not running legal were circulating. Even worse, on the evening before the finals, Bill paid a visit to a local dirt track racer and used his garage. He swapped short-blocks with the help of crew members Joe Tryson and Bruce Tucker. Bill admitted only that there were some things that may have been questionable, so he felt it best to swap the engine.
Bruce Tucker reflected on the amount of thrashing taking place that weekend by saying, “We were rebuilding transmissions in hotel bathtubs, and rebuilding rear carriers in waste baskets. It was a mess. Everything was done at the hotel because it was the only place you could work on the car.”
It proved for naught. Bill caught the red light in the final round and handed Stahl the win.
When it came to building winning lower-class Stock champions, Jenkins Competition had no peers. Nine different cars guaranteed Jenkins’ name made the winner’s circle at Indy.
On the return trip from the Nationals, the Chevy II was destroyed in a towing accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Crew member Bruce Tucker, driving the tow rig, passed out behind the wheel. Thankfully, there were no injuries in the incident, but the car was a complete write-off. The drivetrain was salvaged; what remained of the Chevy II was sent to a wrecking yard, where it sat for the next 20-plus years before being recycled.