Remembering Bob Glidden, one of NHRA’s best that there ever was

Photo courtesy of Pro Set Racing trading cards
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The first time I met drag racer Bob Glidden was the 1982 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, literally a short burnout away from Glidden’s home and shop in nearby Whiteland, Indiana.

As I walked over to his pit area, I went armed with the information that Glidden was one of the toughest, hardest competitors that NHRA drag racing has ever seen.

With that in mind, I went over to speak with Glidden with some hesitation. I was prepared for someone with a brusque personality and disposition.

Instead, Glidden and wife Etta could not have been more friendly and welcoming. They offered me a chair and we began what was more like a get-to-know-each-other conversation rather than just another media interview.

Even though Bob was getting ready for another run down the quarter-mile dragstrip and was overseeing the preparation by the crew of his Ford Pro Stock, he patiently answered all my questions over the 20-minute interview.

I remember walking away thinking how could people think he was brusque or even an ogre, when he was completely the opposite – one of the nicest interview subjects I’ve ever met.

However, it didn’t take me long to figure out why his fellow competitors talked despairingly about Glidden. Outside his Ford, he was the nicest, easiest-going persons there was.

But put Glidden behind the wheel and he morphed into a guy fellow drivers would love to hate because, invariably, of his incredible level of fiery competitiveness.

Oh yeah, and because they were so damn tired of constantly being beaten by the string bean skinny guy from suburban Indianapolis, who did all his own body and motor work in a little shop out back of his house.

In drag racing terms, and to borrow a line from an Elvis Presley song, Glidden was the devil in disguise when it came to piloting a Pro Stocker: Mr. Nice Guy until he closed the door on his Ford and rolled up to the starting line.

All those memories came flashing back to me when I started receiving emails and texts from friends in the business Sunday night that Glidden, a winner of 85 races and 10 Pro Stock championships and who was ranked No. 4 on NHRA’s all-time list of it’s 50 greatest drivers, had passed away at the age of 73 after a long illness.

In the late 1970s and especially from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, Glidden was the sport’s biggest driver for much of his career before John Force became the most prolific racer in NHRA history in the late 1980s through today.

Glidden was the NHRA’s biggest winner until Force came along. Speaking of Force, here’s what he had to say when he learned of Glidden’s passing Sunday:

“We all know what Bob Glidden has accomplished in a lifetime. Feats that will never be broken, accomplishments that will never be broken. We know what he’s accomplished and what he’s done. He was the man.

“But there’s the other side of Bob Glidden, the personal side of Glidden, him as a person. The love that he had for his family, his boys and Etta. How he always treated everyone with respect, even if it was just in passing. That was the side of the man that I loved the most. He will be missed. I miss him already. But he’ll be with us every day.”

Glidden’s name was golden in the sport. Not only was he a big fan favorite, he also rarely had to worry about having enough sponsorship on his Ford. Rather, there were times where he seemingly had more sponsors than he really needed, there were that many companies that wanted their brand to be affiliated with Glidden.

Over the years, I interviewed Glidden a number of times and each and every instance was like the first: he was always genuinely easy-going with a slight hint of a drawl, friendly and a real treat to talk with.

He made me feel welcome each time we spoke. At times, he almost seemed embarrassed that a reporter from USA Today would want to talk to good old Bob from tiny Whiteland, population 4,200.

Sure, he had some bad days in his career, but he rarely let his frustration or anger show on his seemingly always-smiling face.

He and Etta, who was constantly at Bob’s side for more than 40 years, were the perfect couple, as if joined at the hip. Etta attended to the business side of the true family operation, sold t-shirts, and handled pretty much everything that needed to be taken care of, allowing Bob to focus on just one thing only: driving his bad-ass fast hot rod to victory.

Even though he had occasional spot starts until 2010, Glidden officially retired from NHRA drag racing in early 1997 to take on another challenge: building motors for Ford-powered NASCAR Cup cars. He was a success at that, as if there was any doubt he would be.

It’s been a number of years since I last saw Glidden. He battled health problems off and on for a long time. But every time I heard his name or fans brought it up, it was with both excitement and reverence.

He was one of the sport’s biggest stars for a long time, on the same level as Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Kenny Bernstein, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and many more.

I once asked Glidden why he never considered switching to what, by that point, had become the kings of the sport, the big attention-getters and attendance draws: Top Fuel and Funny Car. Why did he stick with Pro Stock, which, even though it has its own big share of fans, didn’t quite have the lure that Top Fuel and Funny Car had?

Glidden said simply, “Because Pro Stock is pure and true. They look a lot like the cars you see and drive on the street or buy at the dealer. That’s what drag racing was built upon. Plus, there’s so many guys in Top Fuel and Funny Car, I don’t know if I’d have the same kind of success as I have in Pro Stock. This is home, this is where I have been, where I want to be and where I will stay for the rest of my career.”

It’s not an exaggeration or oversimplification to say that the NHRA would not be what it is today had it not been for a guy like Bob Glidden. That is plain fact. He and others like him were the core, the backbone of a sport built on one thing and one thing only: speed.

And for the longest time, no one did it better than Glidden. He will most certainly be missed, even by all the guys who he beat the pants off of so many times.

But you know what? That’s not an embarrassment to all the guys who lost to Glidden over the years. Rather, it should be considered a badge of honor: they raced the best and lost to the best.