NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Six Seconds To Glory

25 Oct 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
The original book (left) and the reissue

If I say the name “Hal Higdon” to any self-professed Don Prudhomme mega fan, the four words I’d better hear back from them are “Six Seconds to Glory,” the title of the seminal drag racing book Higdon authored 40 years ago that gave the world an in-depth look at “the Snake” in all of his victory-consuming glory of the early 1970s, centering around his 1973 U.S. Nationals Funny Car victory.

The original book, treasured by “Snake” fans lucky to have landed a copy when it was published back in 1975, is now back in print after more than three decades off the market, thanks to Octane Publishing, based in Austin, Texas, which has reissued the book (complete with a new cover) and hopes to capitalize on the new wave of “Snake” mania surrounding the release of the new film Snake & Mongoose.

And guess who just finally got a copy?

Yep, that would be me, one of the biggest self-professed “Snake” fans on the planet, someone who was Higdon’s target mid-teen age when he wrote the book, a book that would end up in libraries all over the country, in towns big and small, except, of course, in mine.

I missed my chance to get or even read the book back then, and after it went out of print, I didn’t think much about it until I was going through old back issues of Drag Racing USA, in which they had excerpted a chapter in the October 1974 issue. I, of course, had read (and — OK, I confess — memorized) that segment many times over the years and decided I should track down a copy. I knew that my buddy, collectibles guru Mike Goyda, had some copies, and I had seen some for sale in prices ranging from $60 to $100 on sites like Amazon.com.

I did a web search and was surprised to stumble across the Octane Press site, where they were selling a paperback edition of the book for just $10! I jumped all over it, expecting to do nothing more with it than to enjoy it during a cross-country airplane flight, expand my knowledge of “Snake” trivia, and maybe put it aside in case I ever needed to write something about the 1973 U.S. Nationals.

It came and it went back, but that turned out to be a good thing in the end

But, as you loyal readers all have come to know over the years here, nothing’s ever that simple when it comes to ol' PB.

I ordered the book and had it sent to the work address. I tracked its progress from the Octane warehouses in Minnesota all the way to the Glendora, Calif., post office and waited. And waited. Two days after it arrived in zip code 91740, it hadn’t shown up, so I went back online and saw, to my horror, that the book had been returned to the sender: Addressee unknown. What, the post office doesn’t read the Insider?

Turns out that I had neglected to include the apparently all-important “NHRA” in the name field, and the post office had rejected it, “knowing” that 2035 Financial Way was a business address and that no citizen should be getting mail sent there.

In a panic, I reached out to both Octane and the fulfillment house and was stunned the next morning to receive an email from an Octane employee named Tobi Gros, who told me he’d get another copy out right away and, oh, hey, I noticed that you work at NHRA, so I’ll send you a second copy to share around the office. Too cool!

That correspondence led to a multi-email exchange between me and Tobi (a motorsports fan, aspiring drift pilot, and also a publicist for the company), and, determined to make the best of this mailing snafu, the reporter in me took over. I wanted to know how and why the book ended up back in print all these years later.

“Octane Press is an independent book publisher,” he explained. “We produce books in the motorsports, tractor, motorcycle, and adventure genres. We've brought a number of out-of-print racing books back this year. We published Race to Win by Derek Daly in May and Holman-Moody, the Legendary Race Team by Tom Cotter and Al Pearce this June. In the next couple years we'll be pouring more resources into producing original works in the genre.”

According to Tobi, Octane founder Lee Klancher — who is a fan of Higdon's prodigious writing on the subject of running — had a copy of the original book in the office and, after hearing about the release of Snake & Mongoose, he thought the timing was ideal to bring the book back.

So the gears in my brain started turning; hey, this might make a great column. So, hey, Tobi, how did you get the rights? Is Higdon still alive? He is? Can I get his contact information?

(Above) Hal Higdon today. (Below) Just some of Higdon's books: One of these things is not like the other ones ...

If I had bothered to do any kind of search on Higdon instead of on just the book’s title, I would have discovered that not only is 82-year-old Higdon still very much among us, he’s still practically the Dalai Lama of distance running. He’s the author of 36 books, most of them on running, and has contributed to the sport’s bible, Runner's World magazine, longer than any other writer (he had an article printed in that publication's second issue in 1966). Through his books and his website, he estimates that he has helped a half-million runners train for and participate in marathons. He has run 111 marathons himself, competed in eight Olympic Trials, won four world masters (35+) championships, and set longstanding records in his age group. He’s one of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), was a finalist in NASA's Journalist-in-Space program to ride the space shuttle, and earned the Career Achievement Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

So, how does a nice guy like that end up being a cult hero for old drag racing fans like me? I had to know. Tobi gave me Higdon’s cellphone number; I called him and — get this — he was at a marathon, in Chicago. We touched base a few days later. I found him to be engaging and entertaining, and he easily remembered the days spent with Prudhomme four decades ago. (A brief explanation of the book’s roots is included in the book’s introduction, but I’d rather hear it from the man himself.)

How did the book come about? How did he pull it off? I’ll tell you if you count to six (Six Seconds to Story by Phil Burgess).

Although running was his forte, G.P. Putnam had published his book, Pro Football U.S.A., a revealing behind-the-scenes look at what drives NFL players and had him do a similar book on auto racing. He already had an entrée to motorsports with a very successful book on the Indy 500 (30 Days in May), so for Finding the Groove he followed the football book’s successful strategy and interviewed 27 racing drivers from all forms of motorsports, asking about the secrets of their success. One of them was Prudhomme (Don Garlits was another). Higdon remembers that his interview with Prudhomme was polite and short, over a hamburger and a Coke in Van Nuys, Calif., and it took up just four pages in the book vs. 16 for Bobby Unser.

Flash forward a couple of years; Putnam asked Higdon to do a book specifically on drag racing, aimed at the teenage/young adult market, so he headed back to Indy and off to the U.S. Nationals, where his old interview subject Prudhomme won. The book did not start out to be about Prudhomme per se, but when “the Snake” won the event, it seemed a natural.

Now, for those of you familiar with the legend of Prudhomme and his intense nature back then, it’s pretty clear that he’d eat you alive or just as soon run you over than talk to you if you got in his way and that sitting down to talk about himself for some kid’s book was about as high on his to-do list as helping “the Mongoose” with his tune-up.

But Higdon had taken an interesting approach to covering the event, shooting rolls and rolls of film instead of taking notes, a shrewd move that paid off when he sat down with Prudhomme a few months later. He made a scrapbook of his images that they went through on the coffee table at Prudhomme’s home; the first one was of Prudhomme, an hour before the final. “I asked him, ‘What were you thinking about when I took this picture?’ and he got it immediately,” recalled Higdon. “It was interesting because he’d been kind of an aloof guy, trying to keep media people at a distance, but he bought into the project right away. We developed a rapport, and the book developed out of that. I still consider it one of my best books, and that was mostly because of the insight that he offered and how the story ended up being organized.”

The two had a couple of later meetings whenever Prudhomme was match racing near Higdon’s Midwest base, and he became good friends with Prudhomme and his wife, Lynn. “I came from a competitor’s background from running, so I got him because he was interested in winning,” he said. “We hit it off pretty well.”

Although they haven’t seen each other in decades — save for a chance encounter once at an airport — and the groundswell of interest in running has kept him from writing any recent books on motorsports or following Prudhomme’s career, Higdon says he is anxious to see the Snake & Mongoose film to catch up on his old friend’s life.

(Above) "The Snake," with NHRA's Wally Parks in the winner's circle after winning the 1973 U.S. Nationals, which provided the background for Six Seconds To Glory. (Below) One of Higdon's photos from the original book.

So, Hal Higdon thinks that Six Seconds to Glory is one of his best books, does he? That’s pretty good stuff. But how does the book’s subject remember the experience, and what does he think of it all these years later?

Funny you should ask, because I did ask.

I caught up with “the Snake” earlier this week as he recovered from a long weekend in Bakersfield at the California Hot Rod Reunion, and he was eager to talk about the book.

“I still have a copy of it and, as my life has slowed down a little, I’ve found the time to start doing some more reading, so I picked it up again and, you know, it was really well done,” he said. “I think it explained the sport really well, it explained me, ‘the Ace’ [Ed McCulloch], and what we were all about during that period of time and had all kinds of other things, like what Bob Brandt was doing on the starting line while I was going down the quarter-mile. He did a helluva job. If people enjoyed the movie, I think they’ll really enjoy the book."

The only disappointment for Prudhomme about the reprint is that it doesn’t have any photos. “That’s a shame because there are some really cool photos in there,” said Prudhomme, who, as we were talking, went to his bedroom to fetch his copy, which sits on his nightstand, and leafed through the pages. “Man, there’s Leroy Goldstein, Ivo, and there’s ‘Ace’ sucking on some ice while his crew works on the car. The photos alone are worth a thousand words.”

According to Tobi at Octane, Higdon was unable to find the 40-year-old photos he had originally used. “We would have included all the photos from the original printing if it had been possible, but Hal was unable to find the originals,” Tobi told me. “We considered using the images from an original print of the book, but the quality loss would have been too high. If the photos do still turn up at some point, we will revise the book on the next print run.”

ND photographer Marc Gewertz brought in his original copy for me to look through, and the photos definitely are cool, but I wouldn’t let that dissuade anyone from dropping $10 on the print-only edition. You can buy it here. You can also read an excerpt here. (And before you besiege me with emails, yes, they're aware that the top photo of the cover, circa 1982, is not period-correct, but was chosen it for its look. Both are Steve Reyes' images, by the way.)

Prudhomme also told me that Bill Stephens has been working with him on a book about his life that sounds like it might be the definitive “Snake” book if it makes it to print.

“Man, we talked for months on end, and, because I really like him, I opened up to him about my childhood, about where I’m from … everything about me, my family, growing up, why I am who I am, what drove me to do what I did. Everything. That’s the kind of stuff I like; what drives people. There’s a lot of stuff that a lot of people — including you — don't know about me, so I was looking forward to it. We’ve had some problems with some parts of getting it finished, so I’m not sure right now what’s going on, but I’ll let you know.”

I, in turn, will let you guys know, and perhaps next week I’ll share what I learned by reading Six Seconds to Glory during my trip this weekend to Las Vegas. I’ll see you next week.