Etta Glidden said her husband Bob, the iconic 10-time NHRA Pro Stock champion and 85-time winner, and Warren Johnson were “dead-ass enemies who took shots at each other on the track.”
Still, she and Arlene Johnson didn’t mind their little boys, Billy and Rusty Glidden and Kurt Johnson, playing with one another. And one day not too long ago, Etta Glidden was looking at the journal she kept during Bob’s heyday, and she found a reminder that she and Arlene Johnson were quite the rebels back in the day.
Etta And Arlene: The Rebels
Although she said she couldn’t remember what their issue was that day so many years ago, they had something they wanted to say and they demanded an audience with NHRA founder Wally Parks. “Arlene and I got together and stormed the tower. We were hot about something. We talked to Wally and got it off our chests,” Etta Glidden said. She laughed. “I think, ‘Oh my gosh — I did that?!’ Sometimes I can’t believe I took the initiative.”
She described herself as “not particularly competitive,” yet as a young mother, she raced locally and won nine trophies in three years. Her own racing days ended when Bob Glidden had an accident. His injuries were minor, but the crash had a major impact on her. Said Etta, “Someone had to stay alive to raise the kids.”
That was a different era, when women weren’t allowed in the pits. So Etta Glidden said she decided to help Bob be successful, working on his car alongside him. (After all, they dated just one month before they married more than 40 years ago, and their first of three dates was at the movies. The other two were long nights fussing with his race car. So although she knew how to get the sanctioning body’s attention, she was happy in her supporting-actress role. “I’m not a chief. I’m a warrior,” she said.
Arlene Johnson is handy with a wrench, too. She learned how to service husband Warren’s race-car tires, change a battery and work on a carburetor — not a huge stretch for a farm girl from Minnesota. But she also adapted to technology and soon contributed to the team effort by interpreting data. She took her unofficial duties seriously, for son Kurt Johnson said he remembers not having time to eat breakfast at home and eating his cereal, using the dashboard of the family sedan as his table.
By modern standards, women might be sad to know that Arlene Johnson concluded, “I kind of stay back where I feel I belong.”
Heart Like A Wheel
Shirley Muldowney’s trailblazing in the sport is legendary, but few recognize that she was a mother with not only parental responsibilities but also a full-time job away from the racetrack when she defied the status quo by beating the hot shoes of her day and winning championships. She recalled how she had one more special consideration after February 1958, after the arrival of son John.
“He was barely out of diapers when we began racing at a local strip, eighth-mile,” she said, adding that she and husband Jack Muldowney “both hated to leave him with his grandmother when he was really little. He would cry his eyes out when we didn’t take him with us. Finally, it was just the three of us — every time we went to the track. John loved being there right from the first day. I have the most wonderful picture of him — still in a diaper — standing in front of my 1940 Ford Coupe. He’s holding a wrench in his hand which is almost as big as he was then.”
So while her life might have seemed glamorous — and it certainly was adventurous — few realize that she, too, felt the pull of motherhood.
Alexis DeJoria: Juggling Motherhood And Motors
Today’s female racer can have it all.
Many mothers have drag raced, including Top Fuel drivers Rhonda Hartman-Smith, and Rachelle Splatt and Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Stephanie Reaves.
But Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, in the Tequila Patron Toyota, is the lone mother among current NHRA professional racers.
And the former Top Alcohol Funny Car team owner from Topanga Canyon, Calif., insists she is equally skilled at packing nine-year-old-daughter Isabella’s school lunch as she is packing the parachutes for her 7,000-horsepower, nitromethane-burning Tequila Patron Toyota Camry Funny Car.
“Mom’s at work when she’s at work. But when I’m at home I’m 100 percent home with her and I make her breakfast,” single-mom DeJoria said about her juggling act. “I pack her lunch. I take her to school, I pick her up from school. I make dinner. I’m a total, normal, 100-percent mom.”
Naturally she’s aware her job description and schedule aren’t necessarily mainstream or like those of Isabella’s friends’ mothers. But it seems normal for the two of them.
“Mom happens to work all weekend long and I’m home during the week,” DeJoria said.
DeJoria said she tries to bring her daughter to the races as much as possible. But, DeJoria said, “I don’t want it to interrupt her schoolwork, because education is the No. 1 thing, especially now that she’s older and there’s more work. If she misses a day, she’s so behind. So I try to be really careful, even though I bring the (home)work with me. I try to be fair and keep her on a good, regimented schedule.”
That DeJoria is breaking into the NHRA’s professional ranks when her daughter is older and a little more self-sufficient is coincidental. Mom attended Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School when Isabella was about two years old. “It just kind of worked out that way,” DeJoria said.
“Right now, I’m very much in that seat, and I plan to be here for quite awhile,” she said. “I love the fact I’m a mother. But if I were only a mom or only racing, I don’t think I would feel as complete as I do now, having both.”
Last fall, she had made her debut at Dallas and was scheduled to skip the Reading race. By the time she got to Las Vegas, she was champing at the bit to race again.
“I really wanted to be at Reading. I’m a racer through-and-through. It’s so hard being away from something I love for three weeks,” DeJoria said. “I absolutely wish I could’ve been there. I don’t want to watch it on TV. I want to be out there with my team!”
That fear factor always seems to be lurking for racing mothers. DeJoria has a different approach.
“In life there’s a lot of risks we take. Anything can happen, really,” she said. “Do I want to be really safe all the time and hide from danger? No. I want to go and experience life to the fullest in every way. And I tell [Isabella] that, too: Go experience life. Go have fun. Respect things for what they are, but don’t be fearful of trying new things.”
To do the opposite, she said, would send the wrong message.
She simply is like millions of other moms, mindful of directing her daughter in safe, healthy, and constructive habits.
“I try to keep her away from screens — Computer, phone, TV, any kind of screens,” DeJoria said of her boundary-setting. “She needs to be outside, playing, like all kids. And we need to be outside. It’s a positive thing for all of us.”
In her free time from the racetrack, she and Isabella ride their bicycles, go to the beach, and take hikes, among other activities. And that is what keeps both of them grounded.
Sometimes the mother-daughter schedule gets last-minute changes, and when that happens, DeJoria knows Isabella is in the care of family For example, DeJoria stayed at Atlanta Dragway the day after the Summit Southern Nationals and worked on her 60-foot times and reaction times in four test passes. Then she dashed out to Dallas at the end of the day to engage in her first Tequila Patron television commercial.
Dividing her attention between racing and motherhood, she said, “can be a challenge. But I love a good challenge. Life is a challenge. I love my daughter. I love racing. We make it work.”
No matter how much racing customs change and the sport evolves, one thing is certain: Every mother has her own style and carries it out in her own special way.