If you’re a drag racer, you know Steve Gibbs. He wasn’t a mechanical wiz, he wasn’t a racer, and he really didn’t have a hot rod in high school, but he had a deep love of drag racing that carried him to the heights of the sport.
Steve was born in a farming region of North Carolina. His parents divorced early on, and Steve’s young single mom moved to Baldwin Park, California, in 1947 when Steve was 7 years old. The primary reason for the move was Steve’s little sister. She had a heart condition, and the surgery she needed would be performed at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. (She passed away from leukemia two years later.)
Steve’s mother, Selma, remarried, and the family moved briefly to his stepfather’s home town of Chicago, then returned to Baldwin Park in 1953. His stepdad was a tool cutter and grinder.
Steve’s Baldwin Park high school was known as BP, or “Bum’s Paradise,” because of its blue-collar reputation. “I always had a knack for art and took some art classes. I majored in art at Mt. San Antonio College. I could have pursued a commercial art career, but drag racing got in the way,” he laughed.
Steve worked as a box boy at Market Basket while in school and later at an independent market called Moody’s Market, where his future wife, Gloria, worked as well. Steve and Gloria attended school together in Baldwin Park, and they were 20 when they married. In fact, food markets played a part in Steve’s path to a drag racing career.
Steve saved his box-boy money and bought a ’50 Ford club coupe for $450 at a used car lot in 1956. “It really wasn’t much of a car,” Steve admitted. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but I did get it painted Naples Orange. That was about it.”
Close to Baldwin Park was the original San Gabriel Dragstrip on Rivergrade Road. “I wouldn’t go inside; it was probably a dollar to get in. I’d park my Ford down from the strip, walk up, and watch the cars go in and race. I never knew what I was going to see going in: one-engine or two-engine dragsters, roadsters, and gassers. I was just fascinated by them. I hung around the track, but I never worked there. I had an affinity for drag racing, but I never had the money to build a car, and I wasn’t too mechanically inclined. Since I didn’t race, the next best thing to do was to try and work at the track.”
When a major flood control project began, the dragstrip was eliminated. It would be several years before a second San Gabriel Dragstrip was built just west of the original strip.
Steve and every hot rodder knew of Mickey Thompson, and when Thompson built the Challenger streamliner for Bonneville in 1959, Steve and his buddies Jim Catlyn and Mike Doty said, “Let’s go!”
They loaded Steve’s ’50 Ford and took off for Bonneville. Like everyone else who wasn’t competing, the guys played racer on the salt flats, losing the Ford’s muffler and exhaust pipe in the process. That was cool at Bonneville, especially cruising into Wendover with the flathead sounding off. Going home, not so much.
“It was late at night, I was asleep in the back seat, Jim was driving, and we were outside of Barstow when the hood flew up, bent over and caved in the roof. We unbolted the hood and left it on the side of the road.” As they neared the outskirts of civilization, Steve was sure they’d get pulled over for uncorked exhaust, at least. They lucked out and made it home, obviously not in one piece.
Steve and Gloria had married in 1960 and lived across from Cole’s Market, a small independent grocery store in Baldwin Park. Brothers Jack and Will Tice owned the Cole’s meat department, and they had an interest in the second San Gabriel Dragway, as it was called then.
“Gloria and I were customers in the store. One day I got up enough nerve to ask Jack if he needed any help at the dragstrip. He asked what I could do. I told him I loved drag racing and I had a little art talent and took journalism in school. He said, ‘Yeah, come on out. I can give you 10 dollars a week, and you can get into the races for free.’”
Steve’s studies in art and journalism paid dividends. With his steady hand he began perfectly numbering the cars at the strip with white shoe polish mixed with his own concoction that was semi-permanent, so much so that many of the racers left the numbers on the windows to show off at the local drive-ins.
As part of his duties, Steve willingly became the track reporter for Drag News and Drag Sport Illustrated. “I didn’t have a typewriter so I wrote the stories in longhand and would drive to Drag News in Pasadena, plus I wrote the copy used in radio ads as well. I got to work around people that I idolized.”
Jack Tice was a big fuel proponent, and since Ol’ San Gab was not governed by NHRA, it did not follow the fuel ban imposed by the sanctioning body. The fueler fans went to the strip in droves.
Steve was no longer on the outside looking in; he was in. He got to personally know the drag racing heroes he had watched from afar. He would have done it for nothing just for the opportunity. But through no fault of his own, Steve found himself out in 1963 when the dragstrip closed, as it was in the way of a major flood control project.
“I was only at San Gabriel a short time when the strip shut down in ’63. So I was no longer working in drag racing. But Jack Tice went to Fontana Drag City and I went to Fontana for a short time. This was all part-time work. I was working at a market and for Knudsen Creamery at the time.”
Steve had been in and out of working in drag racing twice when he put that part of his life behind him. He became a service writer at Smith Ford in Garden Grove.
“Jack Minnock had an interest in the San Gabriel dragstrip along with the Tice brothers, then he later got hooked up with Harry Snyder, who owned In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park. Gloria and I hung out at Harry’s first In-N-Out. Harry invested in Irwindale Raceway right off of Irwindale Avenue in Irwindale. Snyder was half owner and Minnock quarter owner. It was a good business opportunity for Snyder because the dragstrips were making good money,” Steve explained.
Anyone who attended Irwindale fondly remembers the aroma of nitromethane mixed with the smell of burgers cooking on the grill. “Harry had two snack bars,” Steve noted, “one on the spectator side by the grandstands on the right side, and one on the end of the dragstrip on the left side.” The snack bars did very well and supplemented Snyder’s income.
Snyder did it subtly by calling his burger stands snack bars. Many knew they were eating In-N-Out burgers—less the tomatoes, according to Steve—but why Snyder didn’t use the In-N-Out name is a head-scratcher, since by that time he had 12 stores in the San Gabriel Valley.
“Harry had a guy named Dave Teeter who ran the concession stands. Harry had his two teenage sons, Guy and Rich Snyder, working at the dragstrip cleaning the concessions. Rich would become the driving force behind the expansion of the company after Harry passed, while Guy was responsible for the In-N-Out drag racing sponsorships. After Rich was killed in a plane crash, Guy and his mother, Ester, ran the company until his passing.”
“Jack Minnock called me and asked if I was interested in part-time work at Irwindale,” Steve said. “I was out there on weekends doing the drag races. Then Harry Snyder came to me in 1966 and asked if I would like to work full time. The pay was decent, so I quit my job at the Ford agency and went to work at the track. I got to know Harry and his wife, Esther, real well. Esther kept the books for the track; I’d turn in the payroll, and she’d write the checks. Jim Blake was the track manager and I was his assistant. A short time later, they let Blake go and I became the manager until 1968.”
Steve had an offer to manage the dragstrip in Fremont, California, plus the owner planned to build two additional dragstrips. With that opportunity Steve left Irwindale, on good terms, he added.
It was a big move, almost 400 miles from home for Steve and Gloria. His experience with running large fuel and Funny Car meets gave Steve an advantage, to be sure. But it wasn’t to be.
The who’s who of Funny Car teams converged on Fremont in late October 1968 for a huge weekend of racing, only to find the promoter who had hired Steve had a run-in with the money people and split, leaving Steve holding the bag—with little cash in it. The promised appearance money wasn’t there to give to the teams, which left Steve to evenly dole out what cash there was. He also informed them he was out of a job. Worse yet, the meet was hit with rain, meaning very little more money would be forthcoming.
That evening Steve got a phone call from Jim “Jungle Jim” Liberman, asking him to meet with the racers. Steve expected an earful, but the opposite was true. The racers knew when Steve was at Irwindale he was a straight shooter and knew he had nothing to do with the disaster. They pooled their money and handed Steve several thousand dollars to pick up the pieces and make his way back to the San Gabriel Valley.
A lot went through Steve’s mind on the trip back home as to where he would go from there. He questioned his career in drag racing, but others didn’t.
By then, Steve was known as “a racer’s best friend” by the racers, and that reputation carried a lot of weight when it came to Wally Parks, founder of NHRA. Plus, Steve was not one to put money first and volunteered his time often. Case in point: Working for the NHRA emergency crew for the experience impressed Mr. Parks. “Wally Parks hired me in 1969, and I’ve been with NHRA ever since. Wally became like a second father.”
When Steve wrote radio ads for Drag News, he never envisioned one day being offered the position of advertising director for NHRA’s National Dragster magazine. “I did that for six months before Jack Hart [executive vice president of NHRA] said, ‘We really need you over here running these races. Would you want to come over here and drop the National Dragster advertising thing?’ I said, ‘You bet!’ I became Jack Hart’s assistant in 1970.”
Steve soon took over a lot of responsibility for the NHRA events. “Jack had a serious health issue right in the middle of the season, and just before the U.S. Nationals, he wound up in the hospital. I wasn’t much more than a kid just over 30 years old, and ended up running the Nationals in Indianapolis, the biggest in all of drag racing. Shortly after that challenge, I became competition director, then vice president of competition for 25 years. Twenty-some races a year, and a lot of travel. I was gone a lot, plus I had a lot of responsibility. I felt it was time to end that part of my career in 1998. It was time to do something different.”
“Dode Martin and Jim Nelson of Dragmaster restored the dragster that won the 1964 Winternationals and donated it to the NHRA office in North Hollywood,” Steve said. “It just sat there; it was more of a decoration than anything else. But it helped lay the groundwork to someday have a museum to preserve NHRA’s history and house historical dragsters. We began collecting drag racing artifacts.”
Initial conversations about a drag racing museum were “a fantasy more than anything else,” Steve said. “But when Don Garlits started his museum in Florida, I could see cars getting away from us. I respected what Don was doing, but drag racing started in California, not in Florida, so it was only natural as drag racing history started to accumulate that we get involved with a museum.
“I talked NHRA into letting me rent a 1,500-square-foot building in a little industrial complex right across the street from the Pomona dragstrip. We didn’t call it a museum, we called it Historical Services. We had Calvin Rice’s dragster that won the 1955 Nationals, Art Chrisman’s dragsters, and we eventually had 15 cars and memorabilia jammed in the small building. John Zenda ran Historical Services at that time. When John passed away, Greg Sharp became the director. It was in 1998 that the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum on the Pomona Fairgrounds became a reality.”
After Steve attended a funeral of a drag racer, visiting with racers he hadn’t seen in years, he began thinking of an event to bring together racers and teams that hadn’t seen or raced against each other for a long, long time. That type of event was long overdue.
“When we put on the first Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield in 1992, one of the things I was able to accomplish was to be assured any money we made at the reunion would be dedicated to Historical Services or for the future museum,” Steve said.
John Zenda really got behind the reunion to get it off the ground. He met with retired and active NHRA drag racers, land speed racing clubs of the Southern California Timing Association, hot rod organizations, and drag racing fans to promote the first event. He got the word out in spades.
Steve was still very much in the business of officiating at the drag races and gives much of the credit for the reunion’s success to the late John Zenda, and also the other NHRA staff members who volunteered their efforts.
At the time, only one Hot Rod Reunion was planned. Steve never thought it would take on a life of its own. Yet NHRA held its 25th California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Dragstrip in 2016, bringing a whole new generation of drag racing fans to watch the same one- and two-engine dragsters, roadsters, and gassers that attracted a young Steve Gibbs.
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