RIP: A Legend Lost, And The Day He Honored His Word To Me

One of my former gigs was running a local musclecar magazine; that career opportunity brought me all over the country and connected me with interesting enthusiasts and celebrities from all variations of the automotive world. Many of those interactions might not have happened if it wasn’t for the job, but one opportunity that took place was to interview Mr. Bob Riggle, the pilot of the wheelstanding Hemi Under Glass Plymouth Barracuda that had entertained enthusiasts all over the country for many decades. On September 8, 2023, Bob Riggle passed away at the age of 88.

Prior to that rewarding interview, I had other opportunities to meet famous automotive icons and interact with them, including one of the most famous car guys: Jay Leno. Even prior to the gig at the magazine, however, I had met Jay – a genuine car guy – at car shows all around Southern California. Jay and I had had chatted on occasion, but it was interesting to know that there was someone even Jay looked up to; someone that he called one of his heroes. “When I was a kid, one of my heroes was a guy named Bob Riggle,” Jay had said during an interview. That’s saying something, and most of us share that sentiment.

Most every car guy knows who Jay Leno is, but if you don’t know who Bob Riggle is by name, you probably know who he is by the car that he drove. Thanks to the gig at the magazine, I was able to connect those two larger-than-life dots at the MATS (Musclecars At The Strip) event in Las Vegas back in March, 2016. That Saturday morning at the event, I had stopped to talk with Bob Riggle about his upcoming exhibition run down the famous dragstrip, and was hoping to get a few quotes to add to my upcoming article when I returned back home.

I got more than a few quotes, however, because Bob had told me that he wasn’t sure he was even going to make it that weekend. He had said that his ‘B’ car wasn’t quite ready after what happened in February that year, and he had to rush to get it finished. February? His B car? I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that, and I didn’t even know he had an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ car; I had assumed, like many, that there was only one Hemi Under Glass. Bob probably figured out from the look on my face that he needed to expand on his comment, and he obliged me.

This is the look that many know: the Hemi Under Glass Barracuda with its blown Hemi sitting in the back, where the kids normally would be found.

However, what Bob did while explaining that “B car” comment to me carried with it some implications – legal implications, at that. The gist of the story was that his ‘A’ car had been totaled, but it was how it was totaled – and with whom – that put Bob into a tight spot with me that morning. You see, Bob was under NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to not tell anyone – let alone a member of the automotive press – exactly what he was doing when he totaled his ‘A’ car.

“Well, I was giving Jay Leno a ride and we got a little sideways, and I rolled the car with Jay inside,” he had told me. I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but I was stopped in my tracks. There I was, standing directly on top of the biggest automotive story of the year. “Did Bob Riggle just tell me that he rolled the Hemi Under Glass with Jay Leno riding shotgun,” I thought to myself? Why yes, Bob Riggle did spill the beans, and I was the only one within earshot that heard it. All I could think about was going home and writing one of the biggest breaking stories of my editorial career. That was huge!

When the safety worker rushed over to check on Jay and Bob, he first asked Bob what his name is, and where they are. He passed. Then the worker asked Jay what his name was, and in true comic fashion Jay said, “I’m Bob Riggle.” Yeah, Jay was just fine, too.

I stood there, looking directly into the eyes of a man who just let it slip that he wrecked his car for the second time in his long career, and did so for the first time with the most famous of passengers. I knew the story before anyone else in the editorial world that Jay Leno and Bob Riggle did a little shake, rattle, and roll at Irwindale, and that created a little bit of a dilemma for me, as Bob continued to tell me about the incident.

“I just realized I shouldn’t have told you that,” Bob sheepishly confessed. “They had me sign an agreement that I wouldn’t tell anybody about it, so being a writer it would mean a lot to me if you didn’t publish the story, at least not until Jay releases the video,” he continued. So Bob Riggle and I both had a battle of conscience, and while he was telling me that it was important that I don’t let the cat out of the proverbial bag on that story, I rather selfishly thought to myself, “Well, what’s in it for me??”

Bob told me something that day that he never should have said to me, but I honored my word not to tell anyone about it, and he honored his word by giving me the interview of my career.

Bob Riggle is a gentleman, if anything, and he made me an offer that I could have refused if I wasn’t a gentleman myself. I could have rejected his offer, and become his worst nightmare, but I wasn’t – and never have been – a writer who lacked integrity or honor. While I stood there listening to him tell me the biggest story of the year, and then asking me not to tell it, he realized that he owed me. He owed me big time for that little indiscretion on his part.

“I’ll tell you what,” Bob told me, “if I give you my phone number, I promise that once Jay releases the video you can call me the next day and I’ll give you all the time you want to talk about it. But you have to give me your word that you won’t tell anyone until Jay makes it public. Can we shake on that?”

Bob Riggle looked up at me, not like a guy on a ledge, but as a trusted friend. He sat in one of the most famous driver’s seats and shook my hand as I promised him I wouldn’t reveal his secret. Ten minutes earlier, I was nobody to Bob Riggle, I was just another face in the crowd, someone he never met or heard of, and yet he was trusting me with something that some would have jumped at the opportunity to write about without giving him a second thought.

But integity was always more important to me than clicks, so I shook his hand and gave him my word.  I kept his secret, and as he scribbled his phone number down on a Post-it note, I told him that I was most definitely going to take him up on his word, and he told me not to hesitate; that he would expect no less from me.

Bob Riggle scribbled down his phone number on a Post-it note, and shook my hand. He let a secret slip out and asked me not to tell anyone about it until it was officially released. Did I owe it to my readers to tell the story, or did I do the right thing by waiting?

I sat on that story, and followed Leno’s Garage both on Facebook and on YouTube, waiting for the story to drop; it wouldn’t happen for a couple of months. Finally, on June 24, 2016, the video of the Hemi Under Glass rollover was posted to the Jay Leno’s Garage YouTube channel, and the very next day I searched frantically for that orange Post-it note that Bob had scribbled his phone number on.

I called, and I got a voice recording, and I have to admit something swept over me and I was sure that I would never hear back from Bob. Maybe it was just the gut feeling I got after so many others had let me down over the years. Again, I felt a little selfish thinking that I kept my word and he owed it to me to keep his. Within a few minutes, my phone rang and as I looked down to the display it was Bob Riggle calling, and I was, once again, like a kid in a candy store. Mr. Bob Riggle made me a promise – a gentleman’s hand shake promise – and he was keeping it.

When I answered, Bob wasn’t sure who I was and asked me. He said he was on a long distance call and finished that up and called me right back. My number was not known to him, but I had an inkling that he was genuinely expecting my call since the video had dropped the day before. When we started talking, it wasn’t “business as usual,” it was like two old friends just talking about life and life around us, and we spent the first few minutes of our hour-long phone call just talking about anything but the accident.

We slowly eased into the topic du jour after a few minutes of idle chit chat, and Bob provided me with the best interview I had ever done. But it wasn’t about interviews, or articles, or rollover accidents that morning. No, it was about a man I admired as a kid, that made a promise to me as an adult, and kept it. I was a total stranger to him; he had no idea whether I was the kind of person to keep my word, but by the time we got to the nitty gritty, he knew that I was.

You might be cool, but are you “standing at the edge of the track watching the Hemi Under Glass perform one of its famous wheelstands” cool? That day in March 2016, I was that guy.

For the next 50 or so minutes Bob told me all the details of that incident, what his thoughts were, and even shared the story of the one other time in his 50-year career when he landed on the roof. He told me how he was worried that his wife, Nanci, would hear about it from someone else before he got a chance to get home and tell her himself – because that first accident that landed Bob in the hospital occurred in 1974, long before cell phones and the internet.

It was a bad accident, and he was in pain when he got home. “I thought I was coming home to die,” he had told me. Since then, Bob has retired, and Bob has come back to the fans who meant so much to him. But during our interview, Bob told me that he had promised his wife that he was finally retired.

Bob Riggle was a legend, and even at 80 years old he could drive a car better than you can – and do so on the rear wheels. You can read about my interview with Bob here, in this article. Sorry about the missing photos in the article – I have no control over that, so I shared some of them with you here.

It’s always sad to lose someone we know, but I can look back on it and say that I got to see a side of Bob Riggle that few got to see. I talked to him a couple of times after the article dropped, and he had thanked me, again, for keeping my word. Sometimes it’s more rewarding to do the right thing for one person, than it is to do the wrong thing for yourself.

RIP, Mr. Riggle, you were a true gentleman and it was my honor and my privilege to share one of the biggest stories of your life with my readers, again.

RIP Mr. Riggle. Riding off into the beyond, no doubt on the back wheels the entire way. Thank you for the interview.
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