Bob Glidden, 66, on the comeback trail
CLERMONT, Ind. -- The biggest cheers at the 56th annual NHRA Mac Tools U.S. Nationals weren't directed at Larry Dixon, Ashley Force Hood, or any of the other class winners.
Instead, that standing ovation Sunday afternoon was for a slender 66-year-old racer who didn't even qualify for Monday's finals at O'Reilly Raceway Park.
But this old codger wasn't just any hired shoe. Bob Glidden is drag racing royalty, and he was treated as such in his return to the cockpit 13 years after he retired from full-time competition and seven years since he last made a quarter-mile pass.
A lot has changed in the drag racing world since 2003, but Glidden didn't skip a beat. And although Glidden was a nonqualifier for the 16-car finals field in Cunningham Motorsports' Ford Mustang Pro Stock car, he showed that with a bit more time in a virtually unfamiliar car, he and the team could soon be challenging the likes of reigning champion Mike Edwards in the near future.
Glidden confirmed to ESPN.com that he has agreed to finish out the season for team boss Jim Cunningham as teammate to rising female star Erica Enders. Glidden may have made the short trip to his Whiteland, Ind., home a day earlier than he had hoped, but he emerged as the feel-good story of the U.S. Nationals.
Given the short amount of time they worked together, the fact that Glidden came within a tenth of a second of making the finals was testament to his enduring talent. A brief test session at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Mich., just a week prior to the Nationals was enough to convince the 10-time Pro Stock champion that he still had what it takes to compete with the NHRA's elite.
When asked what he had been up to for the past seven years, Glidden had a one-word reply: "Nothing." Spending his days playing golf left him defeated and depressed, until a conversation with Cunningham made Glidden realize what was missing in his life.
"It was just a week ago that Jim said, 'Why don't you come back and drive this thing?'" Glidden related. "He said they were going to test before Indy, so I said, 'I'll tell you what: I'll come and make a run, but I'll probably come back and say, 'No, I don't want any part of this.'
"But before I even backed up from the burnout, I was so charged up. It was so exciting. I knew that I at least wanted to try to do it. I had not dreamed in any way that I would get back in one of these cars. Now I'm so excited I can't even put it in words -- especially that first run, in a Pro Stock car at Indy."
Glidden's best qualifying run at Indy of 6.703 seconds/205.91 mph was 24th fastest among the 30 Pro Stock entries. But despite his rustiness, he nearly matched teammate Enders' best pass of 6.673 seconds, and his reaction time for his first run was a remarkable 0.003 of a second.
"Jim Cunningham's guys have worked with the car and tried to make the car fit me," Glidden said. "They've been babysitting me to try to help me do the right things, and they've made it pretty easy for me.
"I'm looking forward after this race to going back to Maryland with his guys to try and find some power to get us more competitive. We're not going to get it in the show here, but it's coming."
Cunningham general manager George Lark said that Glidden's presence instantly energized the team, which is based at Capitol Raceway in Crofton, Md. But what made him happiest is the effect that Glidden's return had on the man himself.
"Bob and I talk a lot, and we were discussing why we weren't qualifying," related Lark. "I said, 'Gosh darn it, why don't you get in the car and drive?' So he came out, looked around and said, 'I'm gonna do it!' We went testing, and he's a different person now. He was down on everything, and now he's all hyped up. After the testing, his wife said he's a different man. It's gonna be good.
"The team are all enjoying it and they're all working that much harder," Lark continued. "Bob said give 'em six to eight weeks and we'll be running with the rest of them. I'll chain him in that seat for the rest of the year if I have to. It gives me a lot of pride to have him in our car, and I'm glad it's helping him get over feeling down. So it's really helping him, and we're having fun too. We might not qualify here, but down the road we'll be up there."
Glidden's sterling record includes 85 event wins, including nine consecutive in 1979. He was the No. 1 qualifier for every NHRA Pro Stock race in 1987 on the way to accomplishing that feat for 22 straight events. In that era, he set a record by winning an astounding 50 consecutive rounds.
His 10 championships include a streak of five straight from 1985-89, and his last win came in 1995. Glidden retired from full-time competition at the end of the 1997 season, but he made sporadic appearances through 2003.
With that vast experience, it's no surprise that he quickly got back into the groove despite the massive technological changes that have swept through drag racing in the 21st century.
"The cars are much quicker," he said. "They're running 1,000 more engine RPM and they're totally different. The team has helped me make the transition, and I'm certainly not there yet. But in our test runs, to be honest, I'm not sure I've ever done a better job driving a race car."
That's great news for drag racing fans, who will have a living legend to cheer for, at least through the end of the season. And given the way returning to the strip has rejuvenated Glidden, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him return for a full-campaign encore in 2011.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.