17 October 2014

Grumpy's Toy X

This Vega started as a body-inwhite and was tubbed and caged before housing a 550-horsepower small-block Chevy

Few things are discarded more readily than last year’s race car, especially in the professional ranks. Sponsors want their names on the newest body style, and off-season improvements transform the previous season’s dominator into obsolete scrap — a donor of hardware and noncritical bits. That’s especially true in drag racing, where constant development and spur-of-the-moment mods make a mess of a fastidiously built car.

But somehow enough of this Chevrolet Vega — number 10 in a long line of "Grumpy’s Toy" cars campaigned by Bill Jenkins — survived to be restored. It was not Jenkins’ first Vega nor the car with the most National Hot Rod Association wins, and it was not his most innovative effort. But because it represents a key transition point in the design of Pro Stock cars, there can be no doubt that this car matters.

Jenkins, whose nickname of Grumpy was more marketing gimmick than reality, was a founder of the Pro Stock class and already a giant among racers when he switched from Camaros to Chevy’s new subcompact in 1972. Number 10 continued the "Grumpy’s Toy" line, eventually wearing the slanted nose of ’74 models. Like its predecessor, this one started life with a steel Vega shell, a “body-in-white.” That method of construction had reached the end of the line, though. The next Vega, number 11, abandoned any pretense of being a “real car,” with its full tubing frame, McPherson strut front suspension and radical dry-sump oil system.

"Grumpy’s Toy" X left Jenkins’ shop four decades ago, having won two NHRA national events, and settled into a life of local competition. A longtime Jenkins fan, Mark Pappas of Park Ridge, Illinois, bought it with the help of Grumpy and his crew after meeting at a muscle car gathering in 2011. Not only did Jenkins help locate the car, he provided many original components and built the 331-cubicinch small-block V-8 using period parts — and continued helping with details until his death in 2012. The painstaking restoration, to a finer level of finish than in its racing days, has preserved an icon of drag racing history.

Despite his close contact with Jenkins and their many conversations, Pappas has lost none of the awe for the man who has been a hero to so many. Even after buying, researching and restoring "Grumpy’s Toy" X, he is humbled. “It’s an honor to have the car,” Pappas says.

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