EngineLabs Tries to Pry Secrets out of Bob Glidden


EngineLabs is launching this week with the objective of analyzing the many avenues of engine technology, especially racing and street performance. Our calling is to share advice, showcase new ideas and expose risks in the competitive and exciting universe of the internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, but predictably, many in the industry will charge that we’re not a friend of the profession; but rather, we are the axis of evil and will seek to expose proprietary intelligence that is more classified than the CocaCola formula.

One of the most fortified cornerstones of any engine program–whether at the OEMs, on a major race team or in a weekend warrior’s garage–is secrecy. But if EngineLabs is to be successful, our prying eyes and ears need to uncover at least a few of the latest and greatest tricks from the engine shops, the aftermarket and leading manufacturers. We acknowledge there can be some measure of friction in covering engine technology. However, can we also agree that there is some degree of overreaction and pretentiousness within the powertrain community with regards to secrecy?

Pro Stock drag racing is one of the most secretive motorsport disciplines, at least in pit ritual. You can squawk about the high-stakes involved in Formula 1 and sports car prototypes, but the ultra-close racing in Pro Stock over the years indicates there is a very high-octane rivalry yet competitive balance going on between the major engine builders.

I wanted to know more about this unique dynamic, so I called Bob Glidden, Pro Stock’s winningest driver and certainly its most celebrated guardian of the secret manifesto. A winner of 85 Pro Stock races and 10 NHRA championships, Glidden developed and built his own engines with the help of wife Etta and his two sons, Billy and Rusty.

“Even with the simplest things, there’s no point in feeding your competitors any information, period,” explains Glidden, now 68 years old. “I didn’t want them to gain any edge, and that’s what it’s all about.”

The great manifold coverup

The Pro Stock secrecy veil is so obvious in the drag racing pits when compared to the other pro classes. Top Fuel teams will tear down their engines right in front of the spectators. Pro Stock teams go to extreme lengths to conceal their engines from prying eyes. I’ve even seen beer cartons taped around intake manifolds (at least it was the team’s sponsor!).

Glidden’s reputation for secrecy, of course, was memorialized following his wild finish-line crash at Atlanta in 1986. After barrel rolling six or seven times, Glidden crawled out of the rollcage and shrugged off the safety crew only to remove his fire jacket and place it over the intake manifold.

When we started hiring outside people, it was really our downfall. — Bob Glidden

“It was my technology and there was no point in letting the cameras get inside my manifold,” defends Glidden. “The top was gone, carbs and everything were gone.”

Okay, Bob, it’s nearly 30 years later. What was the big secret? What would the cameras have seen?

“They would have seen the size and shape of the ports and the angles of the plenum,” says Glidden. “That was technology that I didn’t intend to pass on. I imagine we ran bigger ports than anyone else, but I don’t have a clue what the other people ran.”

Winning in the big-block era

Glidden’s reaction is understandable, given the state of affairs in Pro Stock at the time. The first generation of Pro Stock cars were governed by the weight-per-cubic-inch benchmark, which evolved in a spider’s web of weight breaks often decided by inside politics. No longer wanting to manage more than 20 possible variations of different engine sizes and vehicle wheelbases, the NHRA in 1982 set down one formula: 500 cubic inches and 2,350-pound minimum weight.

Glidden had been very successful running a small-block Ford in the early era, including a stretch in 1978 when he won a record nine straight national events. With very little notice, he had to resurrect the old Boss 429 architecture to compete against GM’s purpose-built DRCE platform when the 500-inch rule was mandated.

“We did everything in-house,” says Glidden, who won five straight Pro Stock titles from 1985 to 1989. “I always kept two baseline engines that we didn’t change–just kept them fresh and ready to race. When we found something better, those became our baseline engines.

John Force, left, celebrates Bob Glidden's induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Images courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

“We didn’t attempt major changes,” adds Glidden, who was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2005 and is ranked Number 4 on the NHRA’s Top 50 Driver list. “You could very easily get lost with your own changes. Most of the development was with cylinder heads and intakes. That was a never ending deal.”

Glidden retired from full-time racing in 1997 to help with Ford’s NASCAR engine development. His last real competitive pass came in 2003, and he did return to the track in 2010 to consult with another team.

“When we started hiring outside people, it was really our downfall,” admits Glidden. “I hired them to get work done but all our information kept getting passed on”

The engine technology landscape certainly has changed since Glidden epitomized the independent builder. A cross-pollinating workforce, as Glidden noted, is partly responsible for fewer secrets within the industry. But there are other factors, the least of which is the practice of reverse engineering. Digital mapping, computer modeling and CNC machines all but ensure that if a secret does get out, it will be replicated within hours.

In keeping with the spirit of this conversation but in the context of our mission, we’ve set up a hotline for ideas: EngineLabs@PowerAutomedia.com. But EngineLabs is not designed to be a clearinghouse for proprietary and highly sensitive informaton. Don’t email us your competitor’s cam profile, but you can ask us to do a story on adapting a NASCAR-like camshaft with multiple grinds to help your Saturday night dirt-track car even out cylinder-to-cylinder variation. (BTW, there will be a story on that very topic coming soon!)

Anyway, you get the point. We want to hear suggestions, tips, tricks and even criticism that can help us present the exciting universe of engine technology to all engine enthusiasts. Again, email us at EngineLabs@PowerAutomedia.com.


About the author

Mike Magda

Mike Magda is a veteran automotive writer with credits in publications such as Racecar Engineering, Hot Rod, Engine Technology International, Motor Trend, Automobile, Automotive Testing Technology and Professional Motorsport World. He was the editor of four national automotive magazines, including Chevy High Performance, and has authored hundreds of automotive technical briefings. In covering nearly every type of motorsport, Mike has collaborated with many of racing's top engine builders and factory engineers.
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