Retired dragster comes out of moth balls
Once tucked away in the back of a barn and nearly forgotten, a legendary vehicle is now basking in the Florida sunshine. Having made a mark in racing history, the dragster or “cackle car” owned and driven by St. James City resident Bob Gladstone, has once again been restored to its original glory and periodically attending car shows in the U.S.
“My partner, Bud Barnes, and I built the dragster in 1964 and raced until 1968,” said Gladstone. “We didn’t win many races, but we put on a great show and this sparked the beginning of top fuel dragsters. Back in those days, there were less than a dozen cars racing like ours and in no time there were hundreds. Our’s was not the fastest car with a speed of 7.37 seconds at 207 miles per hour, but it sure did bring in a crowd.”
Barnes and Gladstone had been racing partners for over 40 years and accomplished a lot during their careers. Both Barnes and Gladstone began racing in the mid 1950s in central Michigan, Barnes in a 1956 Chevy with a 2654 Vette motor and Gladstone with a 1951 V8 Studebaker that was fully automatic. Racing was primarily on the dirt tracks of an old airfield until is was later paved, giving racers an asphalt surface to run on.
According to Gladstone, his car, the Michigander, was built by him and Barnes using a Logghe chassis encased in a hand-formed aluminum frame produced by Wayne Farr. The vehicle was powered by a 392 engine from a 1957 Chrysler and the blower was a GMC 6-71 with a 4-port Hilborn injector and ran on an 85 percent nitro mixture for fuel. All told, the cost of building the race car was approximately $10,000.
“Starting a dragster is like setting off a controlled bomb,” said Gladstone. “When my children were little, I used to make them wait inside our camper when we started the car up because it was so dangerous. For years my daughter complained that she never saw the car run unless it was through the camper window and then all she could see was flames and smoke.”
Some of the tracks Gladstone and Barnes raced in the Midwest during those days included Milan, Central Michigan, the 131 Drag-way, Tri-City Dragway, U.S. 30 in Indiana and West Salem, Ohio. According to Gladstone, he and his partner would race the Midwest circuit during the summer months and then in Florida during the winter.
Among the career highlights of the Michigander was a trip to England.
“One of the most memorable experiences for us happened in 1966 when we were part of a small contingent of drag racers to travel to England to help in the opening of Sonta Pod Dragway,” Gladstone said. “We were to make an exhibition run and in those days, the dragsters would burn rubber all the way down the strip.”
When the Michigander was retired, Gladstone bought out his partner and put the vehicle into storage. According to Gladstone, the racer was left intact with one exception. He had sold the blower to a fellow racer, which he later regretted.
“When I began taking the dragster to car shows, I would tow it on a trailer and one day, at one show, a little boy came up to me and asked if it ran and I had to tell him no. Right then and there I knew I had to make it run again,” Gladstone said. “I tracked down the guy who I sold the blower to and, as it turned out, he was never able to get it to work for him so I bought it back, even though it cost me more than what I sold it for.
“I told my family that if I ever saw that little boy again, I couldn’t wait to tell him that, yes, it runs.”
For the last several years, Gladstone and his Michigander have made many appearances around Michigan and has been a regular at the NHRA’s National Hot Rod Reunions to provide demonstrations.
Most recently, Gladstone traveled to a nationally attended vintage car show in Gainsville.