Wheelstander Bob Riggle shares his true "Frantic Fish" tales and a look at his latest Plymouth Barracuda build
For sheer audacity and showmanship, nothing can compare with the wheelstanding Hurst Hemi Under Glass Cuda. Manned by Bob Riggle, this "Frantic Fish" has wowed the crowds for more than four decades with nose-high runs down the drag strips of America. Did he try to keep count of all the times he managed this incredible feat?
"I've been asked that many times," he admits. "And I just don't know." We did the math together and figured his quarter-mile jaunts on two wheels number in the thousands. "That's probably more than most have ever done it on four wheels," he jokes. Not only that, he has yet another wheelstander in the works for one last hurrah. First, though, is a bit of background, along with some of his more memorable experiences. As you might imagine, doing all these wheelies was not without some serious risks and wild rides.
"Every time I got in the car I never knew if it would be the same," Riggle reveals. Like the time at the Irwindale, CA track in 1967 when he was spinning the car around in front of the tree. "When I let it down, I forgot to straighten out the front wheels," he candidly recalls. "I was in the right lane, and the car flipped around 180 degrees and climbed up the guardrail on the passenger side. Since I was facing backwards, I hit the throttle to do a smoky burnout, and keep from going over. Then I headed back to the pits to climb under the truck to hide," he laughs. Even though damage to the car was slight, everybody really wanted to know if he was okay. "I just made a mistake," he recalls.
That was the first and last time that ever happened, but at another unexpected event in Hollywood, FL he actually scared the other driver more than himself. During a match race with a hopped-up '57 Chevy Sedan Delivery, Riggle bested the other car off the line. But as he roared ahead to the end of the track with the Chevy in hot pursuit, his Cuda suddenly went airborne in the windy conditions, with the rear wheels lifting a full two feet off the ground.
"It scared the beejesus out of the other driver when he began to catch up and saw what was happening," Riggle says. "He thought I was going completely over. I didn't realize how high I was until I hit the ground."
By comparison, Riggle notes that the landings-at least on the front wheels-were normally fairly soft. He would let off the throttle then get back on it again to slow the descent a bit, feathering the nose down like landing an airplane. "But most folks don't realize that you can't get the car to wheelstand again at that point," he points out, "because you've been floating on an air pocket." Once that's gone, the car drops back down.
The dynamics of how the Hemi Under Glass cars did their magic is a lesson in trial-and-error engineering. No slide-rule engineers or computer-aided designers need apply. It was all developed by hands-on "break it and fix it" ingenuity. And the story of how Riggle ended up making a lucrative career as a wheelstand driver was somewhat by trial and error as well.
George Hurst of Hurst Shifters had a reputation for promotion that made PT Barnum's three-ring circus look like a carnival side show (as a case in point, recall his voluptuous spokesmodel Linda Vaughn, aka "Miss Hurst Shifter"). He dubbed these customized Plymouth Barracudas "Hemi Under Glass" because the engine in the back seat was clearly visible through the large rear window glass. And just to make sure spectators remembered the name, he had a large Hurst logo and "Bear-of-a-Cuda" slogan plastered on the underbelly, clearly visible once the nose headed skyward. There was a lot more to this Cuda than raw Hemi power, though.
Back in 1963, Riggle had his own custom welding shop, fabricating motorcycle frames. In his spare time, he raced an A/Gas car fitted with a fuel-injected nail-head Buick. Opportunity came knocking when Hurst Performance asked him to work in the R&D shop. While there, in that proverbial moment of sketching out an inspired idea on a dinner napkin, Ray Brock and George Hurst drew a '65 Plymouth Barracuda with its 426 Hemi bolted on top of the rear diff and backed by a Casale V-drive.
Actually, Riggle says the car wasn't originally intended to be a wheelstander, but the front end just wouldn't stay down. So the dual-quad carbs were swapped in favor of Hillborn injection, in order to prevent the alcohol fuel from sloshing and bogging when the nose went up. Initially the Hemi Under Glass drivetain was backed by an A833 four-speed and Corvette independent rear end, but that didn't last.
First Test Run
For the initial test run, the instant the driver dumped the clutch, all four wheels launched off the track, rocking the car back on its rear bumper. When those spinning big meats dropped back down on the track, though, they grabbed the asphalt and instantly shredded the Corvette IRS (independent rear suspension). It was later replaced with a Sure-Grip straight axle with 4.56 ratio.
With that teething pain sorted out, the car's debut at Bristol for the 1965 season mesmerized the crowds. Sure they had seen cars pull wheelies off the line, but the Hemi Under Glass took that to a whole new extreme. The car proved so popular that the 'Cuda was updated to a 1966 model for the following season. Rather than rebuild a new Hemi Under Glass, Riggle converted the '65 model's sheetmetal with '66 components.
When George Hurst asked Riggle to man the pilot's seat, he immediately agreed, even though he had never driven it. He soon found out just how difficult it is to drive a car with no steering control. Note that the independent brakes had yet to be installed, and the driver had to look out the side window to check his position on the track while shifting manually.
Getting the Job
In his first run for all the Hurst execs, Riggle made it about 300 feet down the strip before taking an unexpected left turn. On the second time, he went to the right instead. George Hurst was not smiling. Riggle knew he'd probably have only one more shot to show that he could reel in the thrashing Cuda. On the third try, he rolled off the line in Second gear to bring up the front more slowly, instead of lifting off all four tires at once. This did the trick, and he waved to George as he marched by, nose in the air.
Riggle got the job as driver of the Hemi Under Glass, but things didn't always go smoothly, even after honing his driving skills. One time he lost his bearings at the end of a track, ended up in the grass, and rolled the car, busting out the rear glass. He was out of sight from spectators, though, and with the help of the fire crew, righted the car and drove it back to the pits as if nothing had happened.
Over the years Riggle improved on the design of the car, adding his personal touches such as a viewing port cut into the firewall so he could see down the track. And to add even more fun, a shower of sparks coming off the rear end. He discovered this showy effect after cutting a section of titanium with an abrasive wheel. He attached a piece by countersinking bolts into the bottom of the material. After it got worn down to the bolt heads, he would later buy more titanium scrap from an aircraft salvage yard.
Ten Busy Seconds
For the third Hemi Under Glass, the custom-fabricated frame was fitted with a new 1967 body, a new 426 Hemi, and independent brakes. The latter consisted of two master cylinders, each operated by a Hurst shifter handle, making for a much more controllable ride.
Today, all three of the early steel-bodied Hemi Under Glass Cudas (about 30 different variations were built, all told, many with fiberglass bodies) are in a private collection owned by Bill Sefton, who also heads up Mr. Norm's Garage. When he acquired the cars from Bob Riggle, there was one condition: Sefton insisted on a ride with Riggle in the 1968 car, to demonstrate how he herded this handful of Hemis on the strip. Riding shotgun on one wild pass, "It was pretty frantic in that cockpit," Sefton admits, shaking his head in disbelief. "It was the ten busiest seconds I've seen in my entire life.
Now in his seventies, Riggle hasn't given up on driving the Hemi Under Glass. "My heart has never left it," he smiles. "The hardest thing for me was to quit."
The New Hemi Cuda
So not surprisingly, he's working on another, newer version with Mr. Norm's Garage, using a restored '69 Cuda. This time, however, the Cuda will be powered a modern 6.1-liter Gen 3 Hemi, supercharged by a liquid-cooled Kenne Bell blower. Fitted with dual-port fuel injection and boosted by more than 20 pounds of forced induction, this mill should produce anywhere from 1500 to 2000 horses, Riggle claims.
Besides updating the engine, Riggle has finally installed a device he designed nearly a dozen years ago that allows him to steer the six-inch nylon wheels mounted on the wheelie bars via a lever in the cockpit. He's also adding an air shifter, to make operating the vehicle easier and safer.
"The whole thing with a wheelstander is that it has to hook up within 15 to 20 feet," Riggle notes. "Then it's like flying a piece of plywood."
But some things shouldn't be changed: there's still a big cutout in the firewall for a viewing port, and a titanium pad in the rear to throw sparks. So it'll be the good ol' days all over again, when Riggle rides again at Mopars at Strip in April of 2012. That's a sight you won't want to miss.