Indy has always been big for eight-time winner “Big Daddy,” especially 1972 and 1984. In the early ’70s he’d been written off, 1972 Indy saw him win the race and break into the sixes. In 1984 he’d retired; new tech had passed him by. Art Malone persuaded him to return for the win. Indy twice brought Big back from the dead.
True to its Hoosier heritage, Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis is unpretentious. It’s two stripes of asphalt tucked behind some oil storage tanks, across a skinny two-lane road from a sprawling cornfield. The Raceway is dwarfed in size and fame by the storied Brickyard about 4 miles east on U.S. 136, but it’s sacred to drag racing. It’s home to the National Hot Rod Association’s 60-year-old U.S. Nationals Labor Day classic, where names such as Glidden, Garlits, Muldowney, Prudhomme and Schumacher summon a sense of fierce competition, of individual triumph, of tragedy, pride and continuity.
Six-time winner Ed “The Ace” McCulloch captured the event’s significance: “Winning Indy for the first time, in 1971, was very special. I thought that was the biggest thing that could ever possibly happen in my life. It’s such a big deal for all the guys in my era. We’ve handed it down to generation after generation, and we always put so much emphasis on how big and prestigious the race is and what it means.”
Today’s racers share that passion. They’re careful trustees of the legacy. They recognize this race, steeped in history and tradition, has had a profound impact on racers, and vice versa. Here’s a look at some of them.
Virtually a one-man band with his Pro Stock entries through the years, Bob Glidden won 85 races, nine of them at Indianapolis. That was a record that remained unchallenged for nearly a quarter-century, until Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher went on his tear and matched that in 2012. The native of Whiteland, Indiana, just about 40 minutes from the U.S. Nationals grounds, said home-track advantage played a big part in his supremacy at Indianapolis. “I don’t think it was any magic. We were close to home and we had a better chance to get dialed in on our race car,” Glidden, who closed out his reign with four straight victories (1985-88), said.
Larry Morgan ended Glidden’s hometown streak in 1989. But Morgan said, “There’ll never be anybody as good as he was—ever. He was way ahead of his time in every way. He works 100-plus hours a week. I’m telling you, he’s not human. I’ve never seen anybody work like that.”
At age 70, the retired Glidden still has that lunch-bucket mentality. Despite undergoing experimental surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center to receive stem-cell implants in his heart a few years ago, he could put a longshoreman to shame today. He spent a week earlier this year digging up a septic system and said he felt better than he had in 10 years. Besides, golf didn’t suit him all that well. “I suck,” he said. “I’m horrible, but I’m fast.”
Glidden knows Schumacher is fast, too, and he said he has no problem sharing the Indianapolis-victories mark with the Top Fuel phenom. “No, heck, no; shoot, no,” Glidden said. “We had a lot of good luck and a lot of success at Indy, and that was in the past. This is now.” Alluding to Schumacher’s results from the past year or so, Glidden said, “They’ve been in a down time. They’re going to come back and kick butt. He’ll have several more Indy wins.” If Glidden isn’t there to see that prediction come true, it probably will be because he’s out plowing the back 40 by hand.
This September will mark 50 years since “Big Daddy” Don Garlits earned the first of his eight Indianapolis victories, beating Jack Williams. But the man synonymous with the sport said, “It seems like yesterday.” He said he remembers that “Jack left on me, and I had to play catch up, just nipping him in the traps. To Jack’s dying day, whenever we met, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I won that race!’ I always laughed, as Jack and I were the best of friends.”
Garlits said he ranks the 1975 NHRA Finals at Ontario, California, as his greatest victory, “The deck was stacked against me from the get-go, but I prevailed, set both ends of the record that held for seven years.” He also said, “The 1967 win at Indy is a very close second to Ontario, but drag racing wasn’t as popular in those days and didn’t get the publicity it got in 1975.”
For sentiment, 1984 stands out for Garlits. “When I drive into the gates at Indy, I always remember the 1984 event, when Art Malone and I teamed up again. We were pitted in the dirt, which later became a couple of inches of water, but never faltered. [We] set top time, then proceeded to win the event. I was retired at the time, but Art wanted to continue to the World Finals, which we won, and I was back in drag racing, big time. I then won two NHRA world championships, back to back.”
Many won’t forget 1972, when Garlits staged a rival National Challenge at Tulsa, Oklahoma to protest what he considered weak NHRA purses. His race attracted more racers but not as many spectators as the Indianapolis event. His resistance was short-lived, and he was back at the U.S. Nationals in 1973. While he’s proud to back up his beliefs with action, Garlits said, “I don’t get a lot of satisfaction from the Tulsa event. It caused a lot of trouble for me but did raise the purses dramatically.”
“As far as the ‘one to win,’ Indy will always be that event,” Shirley Muldowney, the 1982 Top Fuel victor, said.
“Indy ‘82 was special.” A celebrated grudge match against her former companion and crew chief Connie Kalitta, that triumph cemented her legendary status. This unsupervised scofflaw who had graduated from the gritty streets of Schenectady, New York, was audacious and annoying to the men. She had infiltrated their bastion of bravado, conquered the toughest of the tough, and made no apologies. In a sport brimming with the most stubborn and defiant rebels, Muldowney was refreshingly equal. She was headstrong and flinty, a match for any of them—and they couldn’t stop her.
But she, too, was a rebel, like her rivals. She continues to speak her mind, even about the beloved race—her beloved sport—that she sees as a curious blend of cherished and cheapened, treasured and tarnished.
“Indy is not like it used to be,” Muldowney said. “Just doesn’t seem to have the same spark. I liked it when there were 32 cars, even more than that back in the ‘70s. I guess I just can’t get into those cookie-cutter cars. . .and all those talking commercials. It truly drives me nuts to listen to them. . .[they] say the same stuff race after race.” Multi-car teams dilute the satisfaction of winning, she indicated: “[That] sort of takes the real thrill of knowing you won the big one, and knowing you did it on your own. When you win it the way we did, you know you won it, fair and square—no gimmicks, just you and your team.”
A proudly self-professed hooligan, Don Prudhomme nevertheless said he did everything he could to promote drag racing the way NHRA founder Wally Parks wanted it to be done. “He was certainly like a second dad to me, and I never wanted to disappoint him,” Prudhomme said. So naturally, one of “The Snake’s” proudest moments was his top-end encounter with Parks immediately upon winning the U.S. Nationals Funny Car final in 1989.
That was Prudhomme’s seventh and final victory at Indianapolis and his fourth in a flopper. Materializing somehow at the nose of his car was Parks, and even before Prudhomme could remove his helmet, Parks, he said, “was telling me he was proud of me. As a young kid coming up, you didn’t get to hear that a lot.”
Something no one gets to hear anymore is ABC’s Wide World of Sports program. Exposure from that, Prudhomme said, was worth a mint: “It was a huge deal to [win the U.S. Nationals] when it was on Wide World of Sports.” His 1970 Top Fuel victory over Jim Nicoll reached prized-footage status because Nicoll’s clutch exploded at the finish, flinging shrapnel from his slingshot dragster and launching him over the guard wall at a terrifying 225-mph clip.
“They showed that scene on their 25th anniversary show,” Prudhomme said. “That particular race pretty much made my career. Millions of people were watching Wide World of Sports.”
The U.S. Nationals “put me on the map and put Garlits and Shirley and Glidden on the map. In today’s world, does it put you on the map? Mmm, I don’t think so. That’s just being honest. There are so many other great races,” he said. “I think most racers want to win the U.S. Nationals, even though it’s not the nicest or biggest or prettiest racetrack they go to. It’s still the most prestigious drag race, but I don’t think it’ll put anybody on the map anymore.”
Well-documented, most recently in the Snake and Mongoose feature film, is the yin-yang relationship the popular, outgoing, promotion-savvy Tom McEwen had with the more serious, intently focused and feared Don Prudhomme. Their friendship never shone brighter than it did Sept. 4, 1978, when McEwen earned his only U.S. Nationals crown at Prudhomme’s expense just two weeks after son Jamie had died of leukemia. McEwen and Prudhomme shared an emotional moment at the top end of the track that overshadowed the victories of Indianapolis dominators Glidden and Garlits.
Not as readily memorable was the 1969 race, when McEwen was the one to offer a comforting presence for badly burned buddy John Mulligan. “I had entered two cars that weekend, a dragster and a Funny Car,” McEwen recalled. Mulligan’s dragster caught fire in a clutch explosion during the opening round of eliminations, and the popular “Zookeeper” suffered severe burns. “I pulled my cars out and went to the hospital and stayed at the hospital,” McEwen, who tried to help facilitate Mulligan’s move to a renowned Southern California burn center, said. “He lived for 10 days or so. It was a sad deal.”
So the carefree McEwen has experienced his share of tragedies associated with the U.S. Nationals, but he has known his share of happy times, as well. “Indianapolis has had its ups and downs,” he said, “but it is what it is. We won the Bud Shootout in ’84 with the Coors Corvette. We’ve had low E.T. We were runner-up, but we only won the Bud Shootout in ’84 and then the big race in ’78 over Prudhomme.”
The latter, he said, “was a big deal. I had just lost Jamie, and I wasn’t going to run. Prudhomme talked me into going, because Jamie wanted me to race there. It turned out to be a big deal, a sad deal but a big deal.” During the NHRA’s 50th anniversary hoopla, fans voted that McEwen victory and that gesture of compassion and solidarity from his Hot Wheels nemesis as the sport’s most memorable moment.
Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster team have marched to the brink of yet another U.S. Nationals milestone achievement. After passing Don Garlits for the most victories in the Top Fuel class, he’s tied with Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden at nine and could become the event’s all-time leader. But Schumacher said he simply is “happy to be named with those guys.
“How do you even put it into words, coming from a kid whose first race was Indy and he went to the finals because of the tragic death of a hero [Blaine Johnson]? The whole thing is kind of overwhelming. To be there and to have a chance at that stuff for a bunch more years is awesome,” he said. “The massive success we’ve had there in unequaled. We’ve performed so well there that it’s kind of like when you get beat you’re in shock.”
Schumacher said he never figured winning nine U.S. Nationals in the modern era was easier than Glidden winning nine or Garlits eight on a smaller budget and with less technological advances and gadgets. “No, not even for a second,” Schumacher said. “In my opinion, it’s harder to get one now. Back then, they were substantially ahead of everyone else. They didn’t win by thousandths of a second. They won by a lot of seconds. It’s so ice-cold, Top-Gun-pilot stuff now.
“Then they worked on the cars. They innovated. The cars weren’t all the same. We have replicas now,” Schumacher said. “Back then, you changed an aerodynamic feature and put the motor in a different place and it was substantially faster.”
As for his run at Indianapolis, Schumacher said, “There’s something about drivers and racetracks. I’m not smart enough to tell you why. I’m just happy it’s Indy.”
Racing at the U.S. Nationals wasn’t a daydream scenario for Alan Johnson and younger brother Blaine. They didn’t have time for that on the family dairy farm in California’s Santa Maria Valley. “I didn’t get into motorsports until we sold our dairy and I was forced to find something else to do besides be a dairy farmer that I went to college to learn to do,” Alan Johnson said. “I’m not your classic drag-racing-fan-turned-competitor. At best we had two television stations. I didn’t watch much motorsports—I didn’t watch much TV, period. I didn’t follow drag racing like that. I was probably out moving sprinkler pipes or milking cows.”
So it was mechanical acumen, a strong work ethic and a touch of risk-taking that brought the duo to drag racing and to Indianapolis. But Alan Johnson’s unscripted rocket to the top of the successful-crew-chiefs list is as tragic as it is triumphant. He said he chooses neither to dwell solely on the loss of Blaine at Indianapolis in a 1996 qualifying accident nor the eight Top Fuel winner’s circle visits he earned with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon and Shawn Langdon.
“It’s not a matter of balancing,” he said. “I use the emotions of 1996 as motivation. I try not to dwell on victories in the past or the tragedies of the past. I just use that emotion to build the motivation that it takes to excel at that race. And even as big an event as it is and as much media attention and fan attention, it’s amazing how well our team and especially myself are able to focus on our immediate task.”
Notoriously intense while on the clock at any race, Johnson said the U.S. Nationals requires that laser-like attentiveness. “I suppose the magic part of it is just the fact it’s Indy, our oldest race. It’s like the World Series for us, but unless you’re just flat-ass lucky, it’s all about preparation.”
For reigning Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon, that didn’t go unnoticed. Minutes after hitting a $200,000 jackpot as the Traxxas Shootout winner and event winner last year for Johnson’s Al-Anabi team, he said, “It was very important for me as a driver to continue Alan’s legacy, to continue his winning tradition here. This is a big race. I’ve never seen Alan so focused. He had a different mentality this weekend. You could see it in him. He wanted this bad, and I wanted it for him, because he wanted it that bad.”
Scelzi’s 1998 Top Fuel victory at Indianapolis also salved some of the family’s wounds. “That first one with Scelzi, the first one we won after my brother’s death, was probably the biggest one for us. That was the most emotional. That seemed like we overcame a huge hurdle in our lives,” Johnson said.
Curiously, he used the word “calm” when reflecting on the U.S. Nationals, a race that both rewarded and robbed him. He said the whole event is an opportunity to honor Blaine’s memory and for the family to gather at the memorial tree on the Lucas Oil Raceway grounds that’s accompanied by a plaque with Blaine Johnson’s image. “We do spend some time on Sunday at my brother’s memorial,” Alan Johnson said. “It’s a time to reflect. There’s just a calm about going back there.
“The person who defines Indy for me is my brother,” he said. “When I think of Indy, I think of my brother.”
Cruz Pedregon won the Funny Car U.S. Nationals title three times in the ’90s, and his introduction to this event was via announcer Dave McClelland’s radio reports.
Pedregon, schooled in the Southern California style of drag racing, knew the sport from watching father Frank Sr. race. Indianapolis seemed light years away, as he and brothers Frankie and Tony huddled around the family radio at Gardena, California, throughout Labor Day weekend.
“We would turn on this country-music station at 5:30 every day. Dave McClelland would broadcast for five or 10 minutes with results each day from Indianapolis. It was a little ‘staticky,’ and we tape-recorded the results so we could play them over and over and listen to all the details,” Cruz Pedregon said. “It was the coolest thing. You have to remember this was before the Internet. He inspired us.” His first visit was as a spectator in 1989, when he received the Top Alcohol Dragster driver-of-the-year award.
“My jaw fell to the ground. It was surreal, right there by the cornfields. I thought, ‘So this is the U.S. Nationals.’ Little did I know that three years later I would be standing in the Funny Car winner’s circle with the [Joe Gibbs-owned] McDonald’s car.” He often has told McClelland, “You created a monster with those broadcasts.”
Indy, Truly the Big Go
With the Countdown to the Championship debuting at the 2007 U.S. Nationals, the Labor Day dynamics have changed dramatically. “You can’t really overshadow the U.S. Nationals. The only thing you can do is add to it,” Top Fuel driver Clay Millican said. Colleague Bob Vandergriff agreed: “It just adds to the drama of the biggest race of the season.” Many agree with Pro Stocker Greg Anderson, who said, “The U.S. Nationals is the biggest and coolest race of the year, so I am not about to discount it as just another practice race before the start of the Countdown.”
Anderson sat in front of the media, stupefied, in 2001. He just had earned the first of his six U.S. Nationals crowns. “How in the world did I win Indy?” He solved the mystery, winning four straight times (2003-06) and again in 2011. “I love racing at that racetrack. I love that race. It means the world to me,” he said. Anderson has 74 victories to rank No. 4 so far on the NHRA’s all-time list, but he said, “None of them quite stacks up to Indy.”
Darrell Gwynn had planned to be vying for a second straight Indianapolis Top Fuel trophy in 1990. Instead, as the NHRA’s marquee race approached, the paralyzed racer was recovering from a wicked crash at England’s Santa Pod dragstrip that April. As Erik Arneson detailed in his biography of Gwynn, “In the early stages of the healing process, Darrell set one primary goal he wanted to reach. Scribbling on a piece of paper while trying to relearn to write his name, he penned ‘DARRELL…DARRELL GWYNN…U.S. NATIONALS.’ Darrell wanted to be healthy enough to return to Indianapolis.”
New Jersey native Antron Brown, the only racer to win both in a dragster and on a bike, said, “My dad and uncle used to make special trips to Indy. Everybody wanted to go to the U.S. Nationals. So my first time racing there, on a Pro Stock Motorcycle, was more than a dream come true. It’s the biggest stage set for our sport.” Brown has passed on the joy of drag racing to his children, Anson, Arianna, and Adler. With his family living just a few miles from the fabled racetrack, the third generation of Browns shares in the glory. “It’s so cool that my kids get to drive on it for [Jr. Dragster] test-and-tune,” he said. And one of his favorite photos shows him in the winner’s circle there with wife Billie Jo and their kids sitting on the wall after he won the 2011 Top Fuel title for his history-making third U.S. Nationals.
To Pro Stock’s Warren Johnson, motivation was simple: “You have to win Indy for a complete racing resume.” His is plenty strong, with six U.S. Nationals victories from 1984-99. He said he entered the race for the first time in 1971 to determine if he wanted to make drag racing his fulltime career. “I figured I might as well see what their biggest race was like. So I entered the U.S. Nationals to test the waters and see if there was a future in it for me.” He has won 97 races, second most in NHRA history. Although he didn’t start winning at Indianapolis until 1984, his dominance included four consecutive victories (1992-95). His most recent came in 1999, when he drove his Superman-themed car for DC Comics. Pulling off what he called “a very Clark Kent-like experience,” Johnson broke a cylinder-head valve in his best engine in his first qualifying run and dashed home to fix it, changing from his fire suit in the team van en route to the airport. “Although that sounds extreme,” he said, “I did what I had to in order to win. There really isn’t any magic in winning. It’s all preparation, preparation, preparation.”
Top Fuel owner-driver Terry McMillen said he has come to Indianapolis “with my boys Brian, Jason and Andy since I started drag racing. We came here as fans and watched and dreamed of racing here. When my middle son, Jason, passed away [in 1989, with aortic valve problems], it was tough. Racing at the U.S. Nationals was a dream we had as a family. We carry Jason’s memory on the wing of the dragster at every race.” Youngest son Cameron, zooming in on a first birthday, will join the tradition this August.
Funny Car veteran Gary Densham brought John Force Racing a $225,000 paycheck from the 2004 U.S. Nationals, winning both the race and the Skoal Showdown bonus event in the golden anniversary weekend of this fabled event. It was quite a haul for the California high school shop teacher, who first came to Indianapolis for the race’s 25th edition. Densham said he made the trek before political correctness killed the sport. He said he “was afraid drag racing would fold up and blow away and die. I figured people wouldn’t want noisy, stinky racetracks near their homes. So I decided I’d better drag my home-built trailer and hot rod to Indy.” But, Densham said, “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing.”
Four-time Indianapolis winner and three-time series champion Larry Dixon frames the U.S. Nationals with childhood memories of dad Larry Dixon Sr. competing in Top Fuel. “Indy is the oldest race on the NHRA tour. It’s the one the statisticians always rate you on. The one race we would tow back East for was the U.S. Nationals. It’s the one everybody went to. When there were national events with eight cars, Indy would have 32-car shows. When I started racing, I dreamt about being able to win at the tracks where my dad raced, to put the Dixon name in the win column at those tracks. It meant everything to me.”
Funny Car crew chief-driver Mike Neff said before the 2011 U.S. Nationals, “I’ve never won Indy as a crew chief or a driver.” Since then, he has won three times, twice as his own tuner (2011, 2012), then last year as Robert Hight’s crew chief. He has played a key part in the John Force Racing legacy of 12 overall Funny Car victories and nine in the past 13 years. John Force won four times (1993, 1996, 1998 and 2003), Densham scored in 2004, Ashley Force Hood was a back-to-back winner (2009-10), and Hight earned three victories (2006, 2008, 2013). That’s partly why Force, who moved his racing headquarters to nearby Brownsburg, told the Indianapolis Business Journal, “I’m a Hoosier, golldangit. I simply love it there. I love it so much, hell, I don’t know—I may run for mayor someday.” Neff, incidentally, was a winning-team crew member five times (in Funny Car with Cruz Pedregon in 1992 and 1994 and Bazemore in 2001 and in Top Fuel with Cory McClenathan in 1996 and 1999).
Pull Quote ”It just blows my mind. It overwhelms me to see it all. No other organization has anything like that: 500 to 1,000 entries, thousands of runs in a single weekend, something going on all the time for six days. The sheer logistics of it alone, well, it’s a mind-blower.” – NHRA founder Wally Parks
Indy has been bittersweet for The Mongoo$e. He defeated Snake in “The Most Memorable Indy Race” in 1978 shortly after the death of his son. He also won the Big Bud Shootout in ‘984. Sadly, he’s witnessed the death of close friends, especially Top Fuel legend John Mulligan.
Tuning guru and team owner Alan Johnson has experienced the most dramatic highs and lows at Indy. He’s led five drivers to nine victories. These include a T/AD title with brother Blaine, who died in 1996 while qualifying their family Top Fueler.
Indy’s 50th anniversary witnessed SoCal school teacher Gary Densham double up for John Force Racing. He earned a cool $225,000 by winning F/C Eliminator and the Skoal Showdown, which replaced the Big Bud Shootout.
Text by Susan Wade and Photos by Auto Imagery and Ron Lewis