Wrecked drag cars don’t always die; sometimes, they get rebuilt. Nothing could be more true in the case of HEMI® Under Glass, the 1969 Barracuda made famous in exhibitions on drag strips across America during the ’70s and made even more famous when long-time driver and mechanic Bob Riggle and Jay Leno flipped the car several times during a 2016 taping of an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. Thankfully, both Bob and Jay walked away unscathed, but the car was extensively damaged. Fast forward two years and after a complete rebuild, the car is once again ready for the road and for fans to marvel at as it passes down the strip doing quarter-mile wheel stand. This is, of course, accomplished by moving the weight of that massive HEMI engine to the rear of the car, hence the name HEMI Under Glass.
The current owner of the car, Joe Spagnoli, is a Hurst legend in his own right. He has perhaps the most impressive collection of unique Hurst vehicles in the world, including numerous iconic pace cars and the Hurst “Shifter Car”, which the car world will forever associate with Linda Vaughn. Joe’s dream had always been to add a Hurst HEMI Under Glass to his collection and now that bucket list item has been checked off the list. He’s got one, and in particular, the one he always wanted: the ’69.
Well, wait a sec, there was more than one HUG? The answer is yes; in fact, there were several of them. Riggle has said there were nine HEMI Under Glass Barracudas built, with Hurst Performance creating the vehicles from 1965 to 1975 to showcase their products. The cars were so popular with fans that die-cast models were produced. Riggle was a key figure in its development, as both a driver and a fabricator. The original idea was that relocating the 426 to directly above the rear wheels would create more tire friction and therefore more torque, getting quicker launch and faster results down the track. What was not anticipated was that so much torque would cause the front end to lift straight up in the air and stay there. With that stroke of physics, and the marketing genius of George Hurst, an exhibition icon was born.
I first met Joe Spagnoli at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale and we quickly bonded over our love for cars and the Cubs. Joe is the owner of Yak-Zies, a Wrigleyville institution and purveyor of perhaps the best ribs on the North Side of the city. Whenever I’m in Chicago for a Cubs game, you can find me spending pre-game at Yak-Zies. But, of course, that’s work for Joe. His hobby – or obsession – is Hurst. His collection is housed in a nondescript building close to O’Hare Airport and I jumped at Joe’s offer to see it… and, of course, hear it.
As Joe and his shop manager, Dan Vasic, rolled up the exterior garage door, my eyes feasted on a sea of shining metal, an automotive fashion show of curves and gleaming paint. Here was the original Hurst “Shifter Car”, a ’72 Hurst Old convertible, a cadre of 442 W-30s, a bunch of Indy pace cars, a ’73 El Dorado that served as a pace car, a ’69 Hurst Olds, and up on a rack, a ’72 Hurst Olds Indy pace car. You probably get the idea that Joe is a Hurst pace car fanatic. Along the back wall is a ’77 Delta Olds pace car that was driven in by James Garner to pace the race. It’s number one of only two cars. The Indy 500 museum owns the other one. He also has the very last 442 ever built; it’s a 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue powered by a Northstar engine that was built by Olds for SEMA.
And these were all just in the first room. Walking through the interior garage doors revealed the showcase room containing more Hurst vehicles, including a 1968 Olds which is the only one ever produced with white interior. Across the room is a 1976 Buick sporting Hurst T tops and it was the pace car for the 1976 Indy 500. Against the back wall are three Camaros and two Challengers that were concept cars that Joe developed with Hurst in 2009 AND 2010. And parked in the middle was the crown jewel of the collection, the ’69 Hurst HEMI Under Glass. Since a rollover accident in 2016, the car has been perfectly restored to its original glory. The sheet metal, the paint, the decals… all pristine. And, of course, that massive power plant, glowering under the curved back glass of the Barracuda. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of the car, seen videos of the car making wheelie runs on drag strips and, of course, the episode of Jay’s show where the car was rolled.
But seeing the car in person was something special, something unique. I knew that I was in the presence of drag racing lore. And then, Joe fired the engine. Wow!! I’ve been to NHRA races, stood behind two top fuel dragsters as they launched and felt the energy of their horsepower wash over me. That is an unforgettable feeling and as the HEMI Under Glass roared to life, I had that feeling again. Probably because I was standing right next to the passenger side pipes! I jumped back and managed not to drop the phone as I captured my experience. Both of Joe’s shop dogs, Sarge and Henry, looked at me like I was a total amateur.
Seeing is believing, but hearing and feeling is what its all about. The next logical step, I guess, would be to strap in and take a run with Bob himself… but let’s do it on a drag strip and not the center of an oval. Just in case.
And to put the cherry on top, Joe let me drive the Hurst Challenger serial #1 home for the night. After doing some burnouts in the alley next to the shop to warm up the tires, I was seriously considering not bringing it back.
By Chris Jacobs