Drag Racing Online: The Magazine

Volume VIII, Issue 6, Page

Words by Ro McGonegal
J.S. Eliot Photo

As impossible as it may seem, Bill Jenkins is heading towards 76 years old. I’ve known him half that time, not pals or anything, but cordial when he wasn’t off in the ozone. When he was at the drag strip, though, he played coy, looked thoroughly engrossed, grunted a lot, and rarely said anything to me when I’d hover around his camp. I stayed away.
Now, I see him on television at an NHRA national event wearing his signature red fisherman’s chapeau, making mental notes on how well Jim Yates is doing, watching him launch, and probably cackling to himself because he is still in thick of it. Years ago, he admitted to me: “In the early years, I made a lot of good guesses; until 1970, I made a lot of educated guesses, although with the big-blocks, I felt lost. Though it might have seemed as if I was acting under a plan, I really hadn’t any at all. Things kept going wrong, things I had no excuse or reason for.”

There were times when I’d be over in Malvern (PA) at Speed Research & Development (now defunct) doing some chassis story or maybe they had a car in for clandestine repair or its owner was layin’ low from the Feds. Mostly I just used their belt sander to sharpen my mower blades. You could wing a rock from the SRD parking lot and hit the side of Jenkins’ shop, that’s how close he was. I never went over there unless I had a reason. I knew he disliked the idea of people just hanging out while he was trying on some knotty problem.

Occasionally, I did go in to see him. The immediate relationship would span several days or weeks, as I’d be researching and writing the story according to his schedule. Once in a while his inner kid would slip out and be a mischievous imp. I got a newspaper clipping in the mail, enclosed with a note from Bill. The squib was about a guy whose penis eventually fell off because he kept injecting it with cocaine to get high. Bill wrote something to the effect that he hoped that “I’d be careful and not let this happen to me! Ha!” 

One time I was over there talking with him for a piece I wanted to do about his formative years, his “training” as it were. He always made me a little bit nervous most of the time because I thought I should be asking him stellar questions. It seemed to me that he was always thinking about ten miles ahead. And he probably was. The Old Man is a member of Mensa (a score on a standardized IQ test in the top 2 percent of the respondents is required for membership), he has the proverbial photographic memory, and he’s one sharp mother. It was disconcerting when I would make a comment or ask him something and he would ignore me or not grunt back. I think it was because he was able to concentrate on several issues at once, so there was little time left over for niceties. It wasn’t anything personal; that’s just the way he is.

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