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Indy in the 1970s: 'Snake,' Glidden, and rivalries abound at the Big Go

The U.S. Nationals is a race no fan should miss, and it’s also an event rich in legendary history. Exploring seven decades of the Big Go takes us to the 1970s, which featured big names, explosive rivalries, and the introduction of Pro Stock in a wild decade of racing. 
09 Jul 2024
Posted by NHRA.com staff
70 Years of U.S. Nationals magic
Don Prudhomme

The NHRA U.S. Nationals is an event rich in legendary history, celebrating 70 years of incredible memories at this year’s race, which takes place Aug. 28-Sept. 2 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.

It’s the world’s biggest drag race on the sport’s grandest stage, and a win at the NHRA U.S. Nationals simply means more. A victory at the Big Go has helped make careers legendary, created unforgettable legacies, and provided the backdrop for some of the sport’s most spectacular moments. 

Simply put, it’s a race no fan should miss, and it’s also an event rich in legendary history. Exploring seven decades of the Big Go takes us to the 1970s, which featured big names, explosive rivalries, and the introduction of Pro Stock in a wild decade of racing. 

Don “The Snake” Prudhomme put his name on the Indy map in the previous decade, but he really left his mark during an incredible run in the 1970s. He opened the decade with his third Top Fuel victory at the Big Go, winning a wild and explosive final round in 1970 after Jim Nicoll’s car exploded in the traps. His front-engine dragster was cut in two at his feet, while Prudhomme was visibly shaken during his emotional winner’s interview on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

That powerful moment stuck with Prudhomme, who eventually moved to Funny Car in 1973. He went right back to his winning ways, getting back-to-back Indy victories to become the first driver in NHRA history to win the Big Go in both nitro categories. He advanced to the next two finals as well, losing to Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max in 1975 and then Gary Burgin in 1976, ending an incredible streak of 30 straight round-wins.

A year later, Prudhomme won again, getting his fourth Indy win of the decade in 1977, a memorable stretch that helped carve out Prudhomme’s legendary status. It was also the height of "the Snake" and "Mongoose" rivalry with Prudhomme and Tom McEwen, and they faced off in one of the most memorable moments in Indy history in 1978. McEwen was mourning the loss of his teenage son, Jamie, who also was close friends with Prudhomme. Prudhomme had the performance advantage throughout the event but hazed the tires in the final round, as McEwen scored an emotional victory in what was his lone Indy victory. 

While Prudhomme won in Top Fuel to open the decade, another soon-to-be-legendary Don won in Funny Car, as Don Schumacher started the '70s with his lone U.S. Nationals victory. Other noteworthy winners in the nitro ranks in the 1970s included Funny Car’s Ed McCulloch, who won in back-to-back seasons in 1971 and 1972 before going nearly 10 years between Indy wins, Top Fuel’s Don Garlits, who added a pair of Indy victories, and Top Fuel’s Gary Beck, who also won twice in the '70s at the legendary facility.

Pro Stock also got its start in 1970, becoming an official category that year and opening the door for more Indy legacies to be made. It was a legend-filled decade, as Herb McCandless won the first U.S. Nationals in Pro Stock, Ronnie Sox grabbed the victory in 1971, and Bob Glidden, who ruled the Big Go for nearly 20 years, made his first appearance in the winner’s circle in 1973.

He repeated that win the following year and then picked up two more victories in the decade, closing it out strong with wins in 1978 and 1979. As good as the '70s were to Glidden in Indy, the 1980s were about to get even better for the iconic driver who will be the focus of the next decade of Indy lore. Other drivers who left their mark at the Big Go in the 1980s included Lee Shepherd, Garlits, Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, and Shirley Muldowney.

This year, the 70th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals promises to be one of the biggest in the illustrious history of the Big Go. It features everything from the final Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge of the year to the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout, as well as the special Sox & Martin Hemi Challenge presented by the McCandless Collection and racing in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, Congruity NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by LearnEV+, Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, and NHRA Holley EFI Factory X, plus special items like:

  • A special 70th anniversary NHRA U.S. Nationals pennant for the first 8,000 fans in attendance for eliminations on Monday, Sept. 2
  • Free parking for all fans and children 12-under admitted free
  • An unforgettable Top Eliminator Club experience, including NHRA driver appearances, food and drink, TEC gift bag, starting-line seats, and much more
  • The biggest field in drag racing; last year, more than 900 cars competed in Indy

All the greats have forged their legacies through their Indy success, including iconic drivers like Garlits, Prudhomme, Bernstein, McCulloch, Muldowney, Amato, Glidden, Warren Johnson, and many more. It's a list that also includes current stars like Tony Schumacher, John Force, Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, Doug Kalitta, and Matt Hagan.

Top Fuel’s Schumacher has an amazing 10 victories at the Big Go, the most of any driver in NHRA history, while Force’s five Funny Car wins are tied with McCulloch for the most in class history. Anderson’s 100th career win in 2022 gave the five-time champ seven overall wins in Pro Stock at the world’s biggest drag race, while Brown has five career wins across two classes at the U.S. Nationals.

Last year, Brown (Top Fuel), Capps (Funny Car), Matt Hartford (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all won, with Brown, Capps, and Smith winning in Indy for the second straight year. This year’s race will again be broadcast on FOX and FS1, including live eliminations on FOX on Monday, Sept. 2.

Doug Kalitta currently leads the Top Fuel ranks, while Austin Prock’s debut season in Funny Car has been a huge success as he leads the way. Dallas Glenn is the Pro Stock points leader, while Gaige Herrera remains undefeated in 2024 with six wins to his credit in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Other stars to watch include Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley, Shawn Langdon, and racing legend Tony Stewart, who will make his Indy Top Fuel debut, Funny Car’s Bob Tasca III and J.R. Todd, Pro Stock’s Aaron Stanfield and Troy Coughlin Jr., and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angie Smith and Richard Gadson.
To purchase tickets to the 70th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals, fans can visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. All children 12 and under will be admitted free in the general-admission area with a paid adult.