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National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Drag Racing Topics:  NHRA

National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

Kenny Bernstein
Don Garlits
Bob Glidden
February 2, 2010


THE MODERATOR: I'd like to introduce Kenny Bernstein. Kenny is the fourth winningest driver in NHRA history with 69 wins. He has left as much of a mark on this sport of NHRA Drag Racing for what he did on the track as for what he has done off the track.
Kenny won the first four consecutive Funny Car Championships in 1985, and in the '90s, he reinvented himself as a Top Fuel driver where he became the first driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Kenny won five times at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and one of those five wins was the winter nationals in 1992. Kenny, can you talk about your memories of the auto club raceway, and specifically the Winter Nationals and what starting the season here in Pomona meant for you getting off to a good start on your season?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: Thank you for the comments. I appreciate it. You know, the Winter Nationals for me, being from Texas, we called it the big go west back in the early days. That's what they named it. For all the kids back when we were growing up, we couldn't wait to have our chance to go to Pomona for the Winter Nationals.
Then later when I did become able to do this as a profession, the Winter Nationals always marked the start, obviously of the season. But it was almost a welcome race in the sense that you had been off for a couple of months and you were anxious to get back to it. You wanted all the new cars, all the new looks, all the new teams whatever was coming would always show up at Pomona. Conditions were always great there in the February also, usually cool and overcast in most cases, unfortunately some rain and snow, too.
But you looked towards Pomona as the start as any sport, any of these guys that cover sports whether it's baseball, football, anything, you want to start good. So any time you can win the Winter Nationals and get going, '92 was a great year because we were going to have a great season that year.
THE MODERATOR: That's a good place to pick up with Bob Glidden. Bob, you have seven seasons off to a good start, a tremendous start by winning the Winter Nationals. Those are the most wins all time by any driver at the Winter Nationals. Bob won the race seven times, and those seven wins covered a 15-year period from 1975 to 1989. He also collected wins at the Winter Nationals in '76, '78, '79, '81 and 1985.
Bob has also won ten NHRA Full Throttle Championships, which is second most all time behind only John Force's 14 championships.
Bob, can you begin by picking up right where Kenny left off, how important it was for you to get your season off to a good start at the Winter Nationals?
BOB GLIDDEN: Well, it certainly was. In Pro Stock we would spend the time from the last race which was also at Pomona to the first race, trying to improve mostly our engine programs. When we got to Pomona, of course, we as everyone else, was excited to getting to to the first race each year.
But certainly it was proven to us that Pomona was a great spring board to the whole season. And if we could go and run well at Pomona, we ordinarily ran well throughout the season. Fortunately, for us, the track there at Pomona was just a great place for us to be. Because we were lucky enough to win a lot of races there.

Q. Kind of a basic question. Does winning ever get routine?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: Winning never gets old, and never becomes habit forming, believe me. There is nothing better and a better feeling than having success on a racetrack in our line of work. I mean, that's what we do it for.
In our sport you're only as good as your last win, your last time slip. So the best time to win is when you have a couple of weeks off after so you can enjoy it for a couple of weeks.
THE MODERATOR: Kenny Bernstein is number four all time with NHRA victories with 69. And Bob Glidden at number three all time with 85.
Bob, why don't you answer that question next?
BOB GLIDDEN: Well, when we first got started, you know however many years ago, 40 years ago, of course the first win seemed at that point like it was the most important thing in the world that happened to us. But as we get quite a lot older and we quit driving we find out that the last wins that we had were certainly the most important.
So to think that in any way that winning would become routine or I don't think any of us could win enough to get tired of it. So I think that is really the answer to that question. But a great question.
KENNY BERNSTEIN: I'd like to add something to, just a footnote so these guys know what a person Bob Glidden is. The first race I won was 1979 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against a guy named John Force, and we won the race. When they took the pictures in those days, you always got the cover of National Dragster with all three winners, Pro Stock, Top Fuel and Funny Car. This was in the Funny Car days.
I'll never forget, Glidden repositioned me in the photograph so that when they mailed out the National Dragster, the stamp that the post on office put on it wouldn't cover me up. It covered him up because he had had won before, and it was my first win. So I told him thank you, but I thank him again.
BOB GLIDDEN: You're too much. You know, when I started racing, of course Don Prudhomme had been winning a lot and had the Army sponsorship. And all of us little guys hoped we could be somewhat like Don period home. Then Kenny comes along and opens the whole world up to us in the business of sponsors.
And, gosh, Kenny, I know none of us have thanked you for it, but by gosh, thanks.
KENNY BERNSTEIN: Well, thank you, Bob.
THE MODERATOR: Any time you want to add anything to this call, please feel free to do so.

Q. Bob, you won this seven times, you won the National. Is there one race that the victory's in this historic race that stands out the most to you?
BOB GLIDDEN: Not really. We were so fortunate over the years. I've said it many times our career was like a story book. If we were writing the script it wouldn't have turned on out nearly as well. And we just appreciate all the wins that we've had. And certainly the wins in the latter part of on our career are the most -- we remembered the most.

Q. How about you, Kenny Bernstein, is there any one that stands out the most to you from this track?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: Well, I remember over the years the win of all things, there's two. One the wreck with Amato, when the finals there was something I don't forget very often. It knocked me goofy for a while.
But the one I really remember is the first one I ever went to. I was driving for Ray Alley's Engine Masters Funny Car. We were from Texas. We were in California. It was 1973, the very first one I ever went to as a driver.
We made it to the runner-up position and got beaten by the little guy there by the name of Don Schumacher in the final. What an accomplishment for three guys from Texas trying to run a race car with Ray and having fun. I don't think I'll ever forget that because we had never been to a Winter Nationals before. And to get to the finals was a really big deal. The only thing that could have been better was winning it. I almost felt like we did win it that day to be honest.

Q. How does Pomona kind of compare to maybe the U.S. Nationals? And what kind of things went into kind of planning for that race and just maybe just the atmosphere there compared to Indianapolis and going there and the importance that that race held?
BOB GLIDDEN: I need the question repeated. I really couldn't hear him.

Q. How does the Winter Nationals, how did that race compare to maybe going to the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in terms of the atmosphere, the competitiveness, and maybe the importance as a drag racer?
BOB GLIDDEN: Well, I think at least to the Pro Stock guys, they're totally different. Here, again I'll say that we've had back in my years we had a month and a half or two months off. And had a lot of time to do a lot of work, hoping that we got better. The Winter Nationals was the point that we found out where we were standing for the season.
By the time we get to the Nationals, everyone's pretty much fallen into their seasons to how they're running and how they're going to do for the year. And the Nationals is just a completely different atmosphere for Pro Stock racers.
THE MODERATOR: Kenny, you want to tackle that question comparing the Winter Nationals to the U.S. Nationals?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: I agree on everything Bob said there. It is a different animal. But what we try to do, and what I try to do, let's put it that way is treat every race the same. One is not any different than the others when it comes to winning the event. It's more prestigious to win the U.S. Nationals by all means.
In all reality it pays a little more money, but the points which is what you're trying to garner is the nature of the beast to get in today into the countdown, but in the past just to win a championship.
So consequently I still to this day try to teach my team, don't get all caught up in the hoopla of the U.S. Nationals as being something outrageously special. It is, but it isn't. It is because of what it is tradition. But it isn't because you're racing pretty much the same guys you're racing every week on the same kind of racetrack, and you have to just do a better job and come out and win.
But I don't kid myself the US National does stand above everything else as far as the win goes. If you had to say you can win one race in your career and that's it, the U.S. Nationals would be the one you want to win.
THE MODERATOR: I short-changed Kenny. I only referenced his 1992 win at the Winter Nationals and that came in Top Fuel. Kenny also won the Winter Nationals in the Funny Car.
Before we move on to the next question. I'd like to introduce Don Garlits. Don is one of the earliest innovators of the sport. We've already met Bob Glidden and Kenny Bernstein who, of course, were huge parts of NHRA in the '70s, '80s, and the '90s. Don represents the '60s, and early part of the '70s in terms of NHRA and Winter Nationals. And of course, Garlits will perhaps best be remembered for his innovation where he moved the engine from the front of the Top Fuel dragster to the rear. When he first debuted it at the 1971 Winter Nationals, he won that race.
Don, can you start there by telling us the story about when you made that engineering move and coming to the Winter Nationals in '71 and winning that year?
DON GARLITS: I made the move after I had that terrible accident in Long Beach, and I cut off part of my right foot. It really made me mad. You know, I saw so many of my friends getting maimed and killed in those cars. And I thought, well, I'm going to try to design something here that will make it safer.
And I thought why can't we have a dragster that goes down a quarter mile in a straight line just fine if they're maneuvering around Indianapolis Raceway Park at 200 miles an hour in rear-engine cars. It didn't make any sense to me we couldn't do it in drag racing yet they could go in and out of traffic 200 miles an hour with a rear engine car, and a short wheel base at that.
So with that thought in mind, I went to work on it. It was harder than I thought. It took three months to work out the bugs. Of course, I wanted to show it at the Winter Nationals.
To me the Winter Nationals was a little different than some of the guys. I always looked at it as a race that was the start of the season. I came from Florida to California. Got to see all of the guys' new stuff. Got to visit all my friends at the manufacturing places, and then you go out to Pomona and you do your thing.
It just kind of set the tone for the whole year if you did real well. Of course, this was the days before 25 races in the season, where like Kenny says they're all the same now. He's got a point there. They weren't all the same in those days.
The Winter Nationals was a special deal because that's where we saw the new cars. That's where we tested our new stuff like that rear engine car was tested. Well, I tested a lot of stuff there. The first port nozzles in drag racing were tested there in Pomona. The wing on the car in 1963 was tested there in Pomona. It was a test bed. Of course if it didn't work real well, you went home and regrouped and you had time because there wasn't a race real soon afterwards.
But it was just a great deal because we loved it. It was out in California where all the manufacturers were, all the equipment was out there. The track was great, and there were lots of competitors.
I remember one time in a winter meet, not the Winter Nationals, but there was 125 fuel dragsters entered in the race.
THE MODERATOR: You talked about the 1971 race, you've talked about how important the Winter Nationals has been historically in debuting cars and parts. What was the reaction in 1971 when you showed up with your rear-engine dragster?
DON GARLITS: The wife of one of the Top Fuel guys came over. This about sums up the deal. She walked around that car and she says, I pray to God that this thing doesn't work. It is the ugliest dragster I have ever seen. And that just about sums it up.
There were a lot of guys praying to God it wouldn't work because they built brand-new cars. I remember one team particularly had two brand-new dragsters -- they were just really state-of-the-art sling shots -- but if this car worked, that meant those two brand-new cars weren't going to be the cars. So it was a lot of heady feelings in the air, you know.
But I was determined. I wanted to on set in front of all that stuff. I never forget the first time I actually drove it down a drag strip, and we were push starting in those days. I remember we pushed down to the end to turn around and I motioned to my crew to come over to the car. They said, what's wrong? I said over in the lane I'm was fixing to make a run in -- you were pushed down the lane you were going to run in and fire in the opposite lane and then turn around and come down that lane -- I said over in that lane is a three-inch bolt laying in the middle of my lane. Would you go over and get it. And Swindle said, Is it a fine thread or a coarse thread? I said it's a fine thread. That's how good you could see out of those cars.
KENNY BERNSTEIN: I'd like to add one thing. Some people were praying to God that thing didn't develop. I'll thank him along with everybody else for inventing it. And thanking the lord above for having him do it.
THE MODERATOR: That's a good point. Don won the Winter Nationals five times in his career, 1963, '71, '73, '75, and 1987. Five wins of the Winter Nationals over a 24-year span.

Q. Earlier in the call, Bob Glidden mentioned Don Prudhomme. And it's very ironic that he won't be competing with his team having decided to park it for lack of sponsorship. I wonder if Kenny especially, and the other gentlemen if they want to, could maybe comment on the fact that the Snake has decided to retire? And maybe comment on it as a state of the sport statement?
BOB GLIDDEN: Well, we hate that Don's not going to be performing this year and running. It's a great loss to the NHRA community and the sport in general, obviously.
He's a legend in this sport. A name in this sport that's synonymous with this sport just like Garlits. The bottom line is we don't want to lose any of those guys as long as he wants to do it, and I know that he enjoys doing it.
The facts are the facts though. This thing is very expensive out here. Has been for years, and it still continues to go. And consequently, Don and myself, and John Force, and a few people, this is how we make a living. So without sponsorships, we can't do it. You're not going to spend your own money.
I couldn't afford to do it, and I know Don doesn't want to do that either. If we had businesses to fall back on, if we were fortunate enough to have large companies to fall back on that we could utilize for advertising extents, that would be a different story. But the three of us don't. So in all reality, it's a great loss to NHRA racing and to us.
I hope that Don finds sponsorship for 2011. I think knowing him he will want to do that because he does enjoy it. But in all honesty, the bottom on line is it's dollars and cents. In some case for us without the sponsors, in our case, if COPARTS hadn't come aboard, if we hadn't gotten COPARTS, we wouldn't be here either. You would have had two of us out of the sport. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but I don't think it's good.

Q. In terms of the two guys covering all 50 years of the Winter Nationals, what has been the greatest advance in the sport, whether it be technology or the reliance Kenny was referring to of the heavy reliance on sponsorship? What has changed the sport the most that you guys can see?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: I think it's twofold, really. The technology has certainly changed the sport through the years. I mean if Don hadn't invented the rear engine dragster to be successful, we'd be in a world of hurt today probably more as far as physically goes. And there's been inventions in all classes from the git-go. And the bottom line is the rules dictate what you can do. So the guys are great at taking advantage of all of that.
Now I think it changed a few years ago back in the early '80s, mid '80s. It became a combination of certainly technology. Look at what Dale Armstrong brought to the table with us through the years. My goodness, I can't thank him enough. Bottom line it changed to you had to have the dollars to hire the best people, buy the best parts, and do that research and development to move to the next level. So I think sponsorship became very key along with technology side by side.
So our sport today's a little different. We've got quite a few rules that are basically there to help sustain the sport and not have us spend money just crazy. Because there's no doubt if there's a new widget or gidget, we're going to try to make it or do it. So I'm all for the rules being tougher so you can't just continue to obsolete every part every other week, that doesn't make sense. So that falls back to the monetary side.

Q. Bob, can you take it from a Pro Stock angle?
BOB GLIDDEN: Certainly the biggest change is financially. And the financial changes have brought along a lot of technology changes. But in the end it's controlled with money, so that's about what it boils down to.
DON GARLITS: I have to refer back to Kenny. He hit the nail on the head. If we didn't have the rules there would be so many new widgets and gidgets. The problem is they waited too long to put the cap on some of this stuff. This thing could have been slowed down a number of years ago and made the sport a lot less expensive and maybe not even as dangerous. Because you've got to admit, when you go 325, 330 miles an hour, and you hit something you're in a world of hurt no matter what kind of car you've got. So that's it.
It's come down to a monetary thing, and that's shown by the amount of cars entered in these fields. You take a field like the Winter Nationals. There ought to be 32 Top Fuel cars there easy, but they can't be there because it's too expensive.
And it's a grim situation because even NHRA realizes that. But the genie's out of the bottle now, you see? And it's hard to get him back in. If they were to come out and say we're not going to allow this, we're not going to allow that, and the car slowed down to 275, you've got disappointed spectators. So it's a tough call. It's a two-edged sword. If they slow them down and get less expensive, it might upset the spectators, so who knows. It's a tough field.

Q. Mr. Garlits and Mr. Glidden. Don, you won this five times, Bob seven. How were you able to dominate this one event so many times? Did you have a secret? Did you have a key? What was it?
DON GARLITS: All of my races were won with the same thought in mind. I went to every race trying to win the race and still leave with the engines I never blew an engine up purposely just to get around. Leaned on it beyond what I felt the thing could take.
Another thing I always did, I usually ran my car pretty close to what was right on the ragged edge of spinning the tires. And I knew that it just wasn't going to go much quicker than that without spinning the tires. So no matter who I came up against, whether the guy had a better time than me, I stayed with my game plan and planned on getting from point A to point B and have an engine on the other end. And that won me more races than you could shake a stick at.
A lot of times guys just gave up the race. They leaned on it because they thought well, Garlits is going to do something tricky so they'd lean on it and spin the tires or break it or something. And I'd just go on with my normal whatever I was running that day.
Sometimes I ran a little better, but not very often. If you look at my times, mostly they ran pretty consistent the whole day. And that was pretty much what I felt the car could get out of the track on that particular day.

Q. Your thoughts on the Winter Nationals and what was the secret to your success there?
BOB GLIDDEN: Well, I don't believe there were any secrets to anyone's success. I think that ordinarily we went there more prepared than most or than all of the other teams. In Pro Stock it was a little bit different than in Top Fuel and Funny Car.
When we got there, what we had for power is what we had. And you just tried to use it as best you could. Even though we won a lot of races, we probably lost a couple races that we should have won if we were really in a quicker car. But I think we went there better prepared most of the times than the other teams.

Q. All three of you when you were coming out here especially to begin with, but long tows coming out here, you didn't have the big rigs like we do now. And I'm wondering when you got here can you have recollections of being stressed out whether your equipment would actually work? You were going to be performing in front of the manufacturers and the people who made the parts, and the stress of finding on out what your competition was going to do. Like if someone was showing up with a rear engine dragster for the first time. Do you remember those kind of worries? Was that stress playing in your mind or were you just out here to have a good time?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: Well, I think in the early days and bottom line in the early days for me it was just fun to come out here and compete. I remember towing from Texas, man, 24 hours straight nonstop. Me and one other guy, and never stopping in a hotel or nothing, just doing it. And I know Garlits did the same thing and Bob. But I was just excited to get here in the early days.
Now when we got in this thing was a real business in the '80s, and you took on a different approach and you wanted to win and were expected to win. But that first one I came to in '73, I was just tickled to get out and have some fun in the sunshine. But it was cold back in Texas in January and February.
BOB GLIDDEN: Back when we first started the stress was getting there in the junction that we had to get there in, not racing the cars. The racing the car part was easy.
I can recall the first trip we made out there, going home over the mountain at Needles, I blew the engine in my truck. So the stress was really in getting there and getting home, not in racing the car.
DON GARLITS: In the beginning we came out for the fun of it, and it was fun. It wasn't any big deal about the sponsors, there were no great big sponsors. It was maybe Wynns gave us $1,000. We towed on open trailers and four-door sedans. The used ones I might add.
We were all good mechanics. Most of those cars ran real good. They didn't look all that good, but they were pretty sound automobiles. We could make that trip from Tampa to Los Angeles in 54 hours, me and Art Malone and me and Connie Swindle. And we did it many times just like that.
It was fun. And Kenny's right, it was the '80s when everything changed and the big corporate sponsors came on board, then it got to be stressful. It was not stressful up until then. It was just a fun thing, and we were having a heal hell of a time doing it.

Q. When you talk about cost reduction, safety, slowing the cars down, are you gentlemen okay with the fact that the Winter Nationals and all the races are run in Top Fuel and Funny Car an 8th of a mile rather than a quarter of a mile? And do you see a need to go back to a quarter of a mile at some point?
KENNY BERNSTEIN: I'm comfortable with it in the safety aspect of where we were going before we made this reduction. And I think the racing today is closer than ever. I think there are some good sides to it, and the not so good. The not so good is you very seldom will see a car pass somebody at the finish line like you did when it was a quarter mile when someone's car would give up and you would sneak by them, because 1,000 foot comes up awful quick.
It has put more pressure on drivers. They've got to be on their toes on the starting line because it's such an advantage if you happen to be a good leaver.
I think safety-wise it was the smart thing to do at the time. I don't have a problem with it today. Could we go back to quarter mile racing? Yeah, if the safety was there. In other words if you could bring the cars under control and make them not destroy themselves at the last 300 feet and run 300. All you have to do is run 300 miles an hour for the fans, 301.
It doesn't matter if it's 320. None of us knows the difference other than the fact that the number comes on the board. So I'm good with the 1,000 foot, and all safety aspects. I think it's made for good racing.
I think traditionally it's not good, of course, like the quarter mile. But it needs to be a safe quarter mile if they possibly can. I'm not sure that we can get there under what I see right now.
DON GARLITS: I concur with Kenny. When they went to the 1,000 foot I was for it 100%. But I was under the impression it was going to be a short-term deal until they got engines under control. Crew chiefs under control, I guess I should say. They're the ones that are turning the knobs and that's what needs to be done.
They need to put some strict rules in there. Because I've sat up in the stands at several events now with the fans that don't like the 1,000-foot racing. Now if everybody was racing 1,000-foot, it would be different. But they see this big finish line down there with the scoreboards and they see these Funny Cars shutting off early, they think. Well, they're shutting off at the 1,000-foot mark, but it does look like it's shutting on off early because the scoreboards and the rest of the cars are going further.
And I think NHRA does need to address that. I think we should go back to quarter mile racing, and put some very strict limitations on the dragsters. And Kenny's 100% right. Let them go 300, 301, 299. When somebody wrecked put a 300 on the board and that would be good. Mostly they'd run 295, 296 right in there. They don't need to go 320. He's right. You can't tell the difference.
If it wasn't for the scoreboards, in fact, my personal opinion the scoreboards are one of the worst things to ever happen to the sport. I look at the cars leave the line, I'm sitting in the stands. All of the fans. Here come the dragsters down the track, realtime, and everybody turns to look at the scoreboards. It's ridiculous. But that's the way it is, you know. It's one of those things that just happen to us. We didn't realize it was happening.



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