Bill Doner, right, and Denny Cissell
Bill Doner, who once owned pretty much every great dragstrip on the West Coast and whose P.T. Barnum-like legend of booking and promoting outrageous events and stunts put him in a league of his own, is ready for his big comeback. Yes, the man who in the 1970s probably could have sold you the Brooklyn Bridge today wants to sell you London Bridge – as in London Bridge Raceway Park, his proposed new motorsports venue in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Doner is sitting on 100 acres of dedicated property on the outskirts of town and adjacent to a private airport, itching to break ground on his new Field of Dreams. A 3,000-foot-long, all-concrete dragstrip. Fourteen acres of paved pits. Nearly 26 acres of parking. Eight 10,000-square-foot race shops. Room for an off-road race course.
Plans have been drawn up, renderings created, studies conducted, permits granted, and research done. He has received guidance and input from former NHRA Vice President of Facilities Wayne McMurtry and from Ed Shaughnessy, who was in charge of pouring the well-regarded racing surface at Brainerd Int’l Raceway. And, best of all, he says, he has the overwhelming support of the city council and the mayor and a dedicated community chock-full of gearheads.
“There are very few cities in the United States that I’ve seen that are 100 percent behind a thing like this,” he said. “We sailed through with unanimous votes every time we went in front of the city council. The mayor, Mark Nexsen, is a huge fan. He wears his drag racing shirts and comes down whenever I give a talk. When their movie was coming out, I brought [Don] Prudhomme and [Tom] McEwen over here to do a benefit in late 2013, and we filled three movie theaters. We raised $10,000 for the cancer association, and it was a huge success. The whole town still talks about it.”
Long retired from the hustle and bustle of running a racetrack and living in beautiful La Quinta, Calif., just outside of Palm Springs, what lured Doner to the project in semiretirement was an old friend, Larry Huff, who before him had owned Orange County Int’l Raceway, and invited him to Lake Havasu City to check out the project.
“He invited me out to a Thursday night street cruise,” Doner remembers, “and I was so impressed by the number of hot rods, the people, the enthusiasm. It seems like there’s more hot rods per capita here than I’ve seen anywhere in my life, and a lot of old racers live here; Walt Austin and Bucky have winter places here, Gary Cochran – ‘Mr. C.’ – lives here, Bernie Wadekamper, who was a mechanic with Ed McCulloch, lives here. I was really impressed and decided to throw my hat in the ring.”
No more than six months later, Huff got sick – with cancer that just recently claimed him – and Doner took over as CEO with SoCal hot rodder Denny Cissell, who is well-known in the LHC community, as his right hand. Doner made the ultimate commitment, leaving his California home to move to Lake Havasu City.
Why should you care? What makes this potentially different than any other proposed racetrack?
Even though it has been more than 30 years since he ran a dragstrip, Doner has legacy that is well-cemented in drag racing lore, and it was celebrated three years ago when Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame bestowed upon Doner its prestigious Founder's Award. It’s easy to admire and hard to forget the level of showmanship and promotion that existed back then.
With his golden-throated cohort, Steve Evans, on the radio promising us a “fiberglass forest” of Funny Cars and foxes in bikinis, the duo created a 1970s phenomenon in which every race was a happening, and if you thought drag racing was, to quote “Jungle Jim” Liberman, “Faaar out,” you hadn’t seen anything until you saw a Doner and Evans production. Evans, sadly, has left us, but drag racing fans who missed out on those days might be getting a dose of Bill Doner 2.0 if the irrepressible impresario has his way.
Although he continued to voice frenetic radio commercials for other tracks, Doner hasn’t managed a racetrack since he turned Orange County Int’l Raceway over to Charlie Allen in 1980, but he’s excited about drag racing again, thanks in large part to the burgeoning Nostalgia Funny Car ranks that bring back some of the color and excitement to the class that Doner thinks has been missing the last three decades.
Just don’t expect to see soaring Kitecycles, leaping go-karts, or, even Linda Lovelace, but if Doner has his way, fans will see something else equally as exciting.
“I know I won’t be able to do some of the crazy stuff we did in the ‘70s, but you have to tune everything to the times,” he said. “The Nostalgia Funny Cars are very impressive, side-by-side racing and lots of them. I’m going to try to take them back and race even more like we used to. I know they don’t think they need to do the short, chirpy burnout anymore, but that’s part of the show for the crowd, and back then, the fans loved them. The old Funny Car guys will tell you those were the best of times. All of the drama that that built was amazing, and I hear more and more guys saying the same thing.
“I’d want to run them a lot and do promotional things I always did in the past. I could see bringing in 32 Funny Cars and start them all at once like we used to, put in whatever [other acts] you need to put with them – jet cars or whatever -- and you knock their socks off, and people will come from far and wide to watch it. Lake Havasu City is a terrific destination resort and looks right out onto the Colorado River. It’s about an hour from Bullhead City [Ariz.] and two hours from Las Vegas, maybe two and a half from Phoenix.
“The air is phenomenal, at sea level – when the drag boats come here, they go 20 mph faster than anywhere else – and there are a number of things you can do. I’m not swinging for the fences right off the bat or talking about any kind of real national event, but I like it out here; it’s not in the middle of LA or anything, and it’s where I feel comfortable. When I had Seattle [Int’l Raceway], it seemed like Kent, Wash., was like 20 million miles from anything, and when I first started asking guys to come up there, you’d think I was asking them to go to Hawaii. It was a long ways, but it just worked. If the track is as good as I think it’s going to be, the air is as good as I think it is, everything happens at a nifty racetrack like this. There are tracks like this all over the West Coast – Woodburn, Firebird, Bakersfield -- that do really well within their niche.
“I look at what’s going on out there and have some thoughts about things I’d do to tweak them. I got a chance to spend some time with [NHRA President] Tom Compton at Don Prudhomme’s party last December, and I think – regardless of all of the bellyaching that you hear that’s always been around – that NHRA is on the track in all of the right areas. I’m probably a little more promotional-minded than most other people, and I’d like to take a whack at this thing.”
Doner thinks today's Nostalgia Funny Cars evoke memories of yesteryear.
Doner hopes to break ground next year, followed by six to eight months of construction, with a hopeful opening at the end of 2016. Like any major project, financing is always the toughest part, and although Doner and company are close to their goals, they’re still looking for additional funding.
“We’re in position now looking for a major investor – or a series of investors – to talk to us,” he said. “I’ve never built a track from scratch; it’s not an easy task. The whole project was budgeted at about $5 million, and we’re only about a million shy of that; we’ve got a commitment for the rest of it put in place.”
Even though the site of London Bridge Raceway Park is just six miles from its famous namesake, Doner’s open to selling title-rights sponsorship to the track name. All options are open.
“For money, my man,” he told me, “I’ll change my name.”
My position here doesn’t allow me to endorse anyone’s business propositions, but if the place gets built, I told him I know I’d make the trip.
“Of course you would,” he replied confidently. “You don’t want to miss opening night here.”
The mind reels at what that might mean, but I went to enough Doner/Evans shows at Irwindale and Orange County as a rabid SoCal drag fan in the 1970s to know that the man doesn’t do things halfway.
“This is kind of my last hurrah,” he acknowledged. “A lot of people would say this is a goofy move, but at the same time, why not? Isn’t Clint Eastwood still acting?”
Don Prudhomme, left, with Antron Brown, center, and actor Mekhi Phifer (ER, 8 Mile) at this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race.
Former NHRA Top Fuel world champ Antron Brown’s participation in last weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race continued a long tradition of drag racers competing in the annual Southern California event that dates back to 1978, when NHRA legend Don “the Snake” Prudhomme took part in the festivities. Prudhomme, a longtime friend of IndyCar owner Chip Ganassi, was there to witness Brown’s efforts this year, which brought memories flooding back to the four-time NHRA Funny Car world champ.
The event has pitted non-racing celebrities, including astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin; former NFL stars Fred Dryer, Lynn Swann, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, and John Elway; Olympic medalists Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Jenner, and Carl Lewis; and all manner of entertainment stars, against an array of motorsports heroes from all walks, including motocross, hydroplanes, and, yes, drag racing. A fair number of Indy-, stock-, and sports-car racers also have taken part and naturally have an inherent advantage against the straight-liners and two-wheelers, but drag racers have held their own.
Former NHRA Top Fuel world champ Joe Amato actually took the checkered flag there in 1992, when he participated (for reasons unknown) in the celebrity portion. Until that year, drag racers hadn’t taken part in the event since 1980, when Prudhomme finished a disappointing 11th overall (with good reason, as you’ll see) and Tom McEwen even further back in 15th, so maybe they felt sorry for us. But after Amato won, the rules were changed again, and in 1993, John Force had to compete with the pros.
In the years since, NHRA Pros Cruz Pedregon (1994), Shelly Anderson (1995), Cristen Powell (1998), Gary Scelzi and Angelle Sampey (1999), Tony Pedregon and Whit Bazemore (2008), and Melanie Troxel (2013) also have tried their hands at turning corners on the tricky street course. Toyota-backed NHRA Sport Compact racers Matt Scranton (2005), Scott Kelley (2007), and Chris Rado (2011) also participated. Only Amato has won, but Tony Pedregon finished second in the pro ranks in 2008 behind only Craftsman Truck Series driver Mike Skinner (and fifth overall), with Bazemore hot on his bumper; Olympic cyclist and drag racer Marty Nothstein finished eighth.
(Above) "The Snake" competed in his first Pro/Celebrity race in 1978 and was chased down by one of his idols, Dan Gurney (below).
Prudhomme, left, with celebrities Kent McCord and Bruce Jenner at the 1979 event.
Prudhomme, hot off of three straight championships, was the first drag racer invited to take part in the event, in 1978, the second year it was held. At the time, Prudhomme owned a Ferrari Dino and had spent some time on the road course at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Sears Point Raceway in 1977, so he felt well equipped for the challenge, even though as a “pro” he would be dueling with road-course veterans such as Gordon Johncock and Dan Gurney and safety equipment icon (and Prudhomme friend) Bill Simpson, who also had open-wheel experience.
Prudhomme acquitted himself well in his debut, finishing third behind overall winner Johncock and Gurney.
"I started at the back of the pack and managed to get to second place, and I was chasing Johncock,” Prudhomme told the Milwaukee Sentinel in an interview prior to that year’s Olympics of Drag Racing at Great Lakes Dragaway. “When I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw that Dan Gurney was right on my tail. That was really something. There I was, leading Dan Gurney, a guy I had followed as a racing driver when I was growing up.”
Gurney got past Prudhomme but had kind words for his rival.
“When we parked the car, I got out, and there was Gurney. He turned to me and said, 'Not a bad little race, kid.' "
The field also included actor James Brolin, who won the celebrity portion ahead of songwriter Paul Williams, TV star Kent McCord (Adam-12), LA Rams defensive end Dryer, and William Shatner, Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil was the fifth pro.
After that, Prudhomme’s name was even bandied about for inclusion in the highly competitive International Race of Champions (IROC) circuit, but he wisely bowed out.
“You start [messing] around with those guys, that’s serious," he said, his voice full of respect. "You think you can drive a race car, but you get out there with those guys, it’s just way, way different. I knew enough to stick to drag racing.”
Prudhomme was invited back for the 1979 Pro/Celebrity race, and his longtime cohort "the Mongoose" was added to the heavyweight pro field that included IndyCar greats Al Unser, Rick Mears, and Tom Sneva as well as Aldo Andretti (Mario’s twin brother), Simpson, and O’Neil. The celebrity field consisted of Brolin, Dryer, McCord, eventual overall winner Jenner, actor Clint Eastwood, sports announcer Jayne Kennedy, and Rams running back John Cappelletti. Prudhomme finished a reasonable if disappointing 10th overall; McEwen – who had zero road-racing experience --- was 14th.
The former Hot Wheels drivers were both invited back for the 1980 race but again were in deep against their more experienced pro rivals: eventual overall winner Parnelli Jones, Mears, Sneva, and Gurney as well as NASCAR racers Kyle Petty and Neil Bonnett, road-racing champ David Hobbs, and Formula One ace Alan Jones. The celebrity field again included Brolin, who scored his second win, as well as Dryer (who had quickly become friends with McEwen and Prudhomme and still comes to the drags), Williams, announcer Ken Squier, TV star Larry Wilcox (CHiPs), outdoorsman Bill Jordan, and all-pro NFL wide receiver Swann.
Prudhomme was running fifth when Petty, accustomed to trading paint at speed, tried to squeeze past Prudhomme on a hairpin corner, leading to this little episode:
"We were crashing into each other a lot; it was like a demolition derby out there,” Prudhomme recalled. “You’d come up and hit a guy, and he’d be, ‘You [expletive]!’ and run into you and knock your door off."
Prudhomme’s battered Toyota eventually finished seventh and McEwen 11th.
Brown didn't fare a whole lot better in this year's race.
Even though Brown’s effort in this year’s Pro/Celebrity race was hampered by a collision that left his Toyota in less than winning shape, Prudhomme was impressed with Brown, who had some experience in go-karts. “He’s very talented,” said Prudhomme. “I’ve always been a road-racing fan, which is why I like Indy cars so much, but it’s very, very hard to do, which is why I was so impressed with Antron. He’s totally cut out for it. You could tell that he understood the car.”
Although he didn’t fare well on the closed road course in Long Beach, Prudhomme did score an impressive victory in the Toyota Pro Challenge on the two-mile-oval Michigan Int'l Speedway in July 1980, winning with a daring last-lap maneuver. Prudhomme was part of a six-driver field that also included Gary Gabelich, Mears, NASCAR’s David Pearson, sprint-car racer Gary Fedewa, and hydroplane-boat-racing legend Bill Muncey.
“I was on the outside of Muncey, locked up with him and Gabelich,” he recalled. “We were going around three abreast through the turns. I had my foot on the floor the whole way, but we were just stuck together. Something told me I needed to do something different, so on the last lap, I went way up the bank in Turn 3 while they went low, and as I came down the hill, my tach went up like 500 rpm, and I passed them and won the race. Sneva came up to me later and said, ‘Where in the hell did you learn that?’ I said, ‘I dunno, man; it just came to me.’ It was the coolest thing to have a guy like that say something about it.
"I just wanted to win.”
Yeah, he's got a few trophies ...
"Now I know why he was so pissed at me all the time."
“I just wanted to win” was pretty much “the Snake’s” lifetime credo when it came to anything with wheels, and he did it a lot in his early years, beginning with the Zeuschel-Fuller dragster, the Greer-Black-Prudhomme monster, Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, and on and on. And no one could forget his 1976 season, when he won seven of eight national events on the NHRA tour, an amazing accomplishment that I researched and wrote about in the recent Readers Choice issue of National Dragster. He complimented me on the article, which obviously brought back great memories and launched us off onto a whole new topic.
“I’m not like [Don] Garlits who probably remembers everyone he ever ran and every race he ever won,” said Prudhomme. “So sometimes when I walk out by the office out front here [into the reception area at his shop in Vista, Calif.] where I have all of my trophies, and I think, ‘My God, that’s a lot of trophies,’ and then I read that article; it was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ "
At the wheel of his Army Monza, Prudhomme won the first five races of the 1976 season and reached the final round of the sixth, the U.S. Nationals, where he was upset in the final by Gary Burgin, ending a run of 30 straight round-wins dating back to the end of the 1975 season. Prudhomme recovered from that tough loss to again win the final two events of the season to finish with a stunning 30-1 national event win-loss record and his second of four straight championships.
He set low e.t. at all eight national events, qualified No. 1 seven of eight times – ironically, Burgin is the one who stopped him from perfection there as well -- had top speed of the meet six times, and reset the national record twice. Prudhomme also won three divisional events -- at Fremont Raceway, Seattle Int’l Raceway, and Edgewater Raceway Park -- which at the time were part of the points-scoring equation.
Prudhomme holds no grudges for Burgin spoiling his perfect season and admires the work ethic of his fellow Southern Californian --“He was very, very good and a very bright guy,” he said. “He was one of those guys who could not only drive but really understood the engine” -- and when he saw that he beat longtime pal Ed “the Ace” McCulloch all four times they raced in 1976, including in three final rounds, he quipped, “Now I know why he was so pissed at me all the time.”
Prudhomme also claimed wins in 1976 at Beeline Dragway’s Winter Classic, Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Fox Hunt, Irwindale Raceway’s 64 Funny Car Spectacular, Byron Dragway’s Manufacturers Fuel Funny Car Showdown, the Super Stock Nationals at York U.S. Dragway, Lebanon Valley Dragway’s Northeast Funny Car Nationals, both the Pop Rod Funny Car Preview and the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway, both days of the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova Dragway, Fremont Raceway’s Back to School Race, Irwindale’s Funny Car Team Championships, and OCIR’s famed Manufacturers Meet and set track records at the Pomona, Gainesville, Columbus, Englishtown, Montreal, Indy, and Seattle national events as well as at match races at Beeline, OCIR, Irwindale, Fremont, Edgewater, Famoso Drag Strip, Byron Dragway, Connecticut Dragway, Quaker City Dragway, Sacramento Raceway, U.S. 131, and Pueblo Motorsports Park.
“I don’t know how I had time to even wind my watch,” he joked, looking back at that list, which only includes races at NHRA tracks for which I had results. “It was so cool back then; we didn’t tear up the engines like they do today. Those were just really the best times in racing.”
I’ve always thought about what kind of reception touring stars like Prudhomme got when they visited faraway tracks, wondering if the local heroes tried extra hard to beat him to defend their own turf in front of “their” fans.
“Oh yeah, definitely, that’s what it was all about,” he affirmed. “They wanted to show off for their fans, and I liked that; in fact, I thrived on it. We were all business from the moment we pulled in the gates. If something wasn’t working right, we’d tear it all apart – engine, clutch, tires, whatever it took. It didn’t matter that it was ‘only’ a match race – we wanted to win. We weren’t just there to cash a check.
“People always think that I just had a chip on my shoulder; I didn’t have any chip. I was just so devoted to the sport. It was like because I’d found my niche in life, I wasn’t going to let anyone take it away from me. That’s part of the reason that guys like me have a hard time dealing with it when it’s finally over. It’s a really tough thing to deal with.”
His racing career may be over, but we'll always have the stories, and for that I'm grateful.
If you’re an NHRA member, you can find my “Almost Perfect” story about Prudhomme’s 1976 season online at NationalDragster.net, Volume 56, Issue 06.
Thanks for reading. I'll see you next Friday.
Shirley Shahan was NHRA's first female winner, at the 1966 Winternationals, and ABC's Wide World of Sports coverage made her an instant celebrity.
Judi Boertman triumphed in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals.
Annie Whiteley’s victory in Top Alcohol Funny Car at last weekend’s SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas marked the 200th occasion on which a female racer has reached the winner’s circle at an NHRA national event, and Erica Enders-Stevens’ Pro Stock win not long after ratcheted the number to 201. This milestone feat comes on the heels of last year’s celebration in Topeka, where Courtney Force’s Funny Car win was the 100th in the Pro classes alone, but I like this milestone a whole lot better because it celebrates the width and breadth of the role that women play in the success of our sport. In all, 67 female winners have contributed to the still-rising total.
We all know that it was Shirley Muldowney who was the first female Pro winner, at the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, and most of you also are probably well aware that it was the “other” Shirley – Shirley Shahan – who broke the male-domination barrier with her historic Top Stock win at the 1966 Winternationals. Shahan’s win, in her Drag-on Lady S/SA '65 Plymouth, was historic but not necessarily a surprise. Late in 1965, Shahan had been runner-up in Top Stock at the Hot Rod Meet in Riverside, Calif., and followed with a runner-up at the 1966 AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale Raceway just before her big win in Pomona.
Fewer people remember, however, that between those two milestone “Shirley” wins a decade apart, there were two other female winners – interestingly, also a pair with similar-sounding names – who made it clear that the once male-dominated sport had better get used to the idea of female winners.
It took more than five years before Judi Boertman was the sport’s second female winner, scoring in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals, where she beat her husband, accomplished hitter Dave, who fouled in the final in a scenario that some wrote off either as a sacrifice to marital harmony or a gift. It was her first final, and he was a five-time winner, including two already that season. She was in his Winternationals-winning L/SA Dodge wagon, and he was in his J/SA Charger, with which he had won the Gatornationals. Both cars were sponsored by The Rod Shop (as was Pro Stock runner-up Mike Fons), so it was a win-win before they ever staged. Although the National Dragster staffer who penned the story 44 years ago for our July 30 issue wrote “a chivalrous husband obviously fouled,” I’m not about to guess what happened in the final. She had, after all, driven well enough to reach the final – and, as when some people called Matt Smith on the carpet for losing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final last year in Epping to wife Angie – there’s just not enough evidence for or against any shenanigans. (In fact, Dave had lost in the final at the Springnationals, the event preceding the Summernationals.)
Judy Lilly won four times in Super Stock, first at the 1972 Winternationals.
The following season, Judy Lilly became NHRA’s third female winner and the first in Super Stock when she beat Gary Herman to win the 1972 Winternationals with her Barracuda. Lilly, who became known to a generation as “Miss Mighty Mopar,” had been incredibly successful regionally in the Rocky Mountain area for a decade with cars wrenched by her husband, Lou (and later Dennis Maurer), prior to her breakthrough national event victory. Although she has long been identified as a Mopar loyalist, she actually began her career in a four-speed Corvette and '55-'57 Chevys, running in NHRA’s Sports Car classes, where she also was successful, scoring respective class wins in E/SP and D/SP in 1965 and 1966 and in E/SP at the 1966 Nationals in Indy. Her “factory deal” with Chrysler in the 1960s was the impetus for her to switch from Chevy to Mopar, but because the sponsorship consisted of only parts and advice -- no cash – she took up a side career as a hairdresser (for its schedule flexibility) to help foot the racing bills.
Lilly was certainly the female star of the first half of the 1970s, following that Winternationals win with three more scores – at the 1973 Springnationals, 1975 Gatornationals, and 1975 Fallnationals, as well as five division championships – before Muldowney became the fourth female winner at the 1976 Springnationals.
Charlene Wood won the Division 1 Stock title in 1975 and Le Grandnational in 1976.
Muldowney’s breakthrough Top Fuel win was followed two events later by Charlene Wood’s conquest of the Stock field at Le Grandnational in Canada, where she became the sport’s fifth female winner after driving her record-setting Tons A Fun I/SA Pontiac wagon to victory. Like Shahan and Lilly, Wood was no flash in the pan, having won the Division 1 championship the previous year.
A year later, Margaret Glembocki added to the total with a Super Stock win at the 1977 Fallnationals, and Amy Faulk closed a successful decade with her first victory in Super Stock, at the 1979 World Finals, which, as was the case then, also earned her the national championship. By decade’s end, women had visited the winner’s circle 14 times, led by Muldowney’s five victories.
In light of the milestone in Las Vegas, I thought it would be interesting to track down a couple of those early female winners and get their thoughts about how far we’ve come in the decades since they first made headlines.
Shirley (Shahan) Bridges, then and at the 2010 California Hot Rod Reunion
I ran into Shahan, whose last name is now Bridges, at the Irwindale Reunion/Steve Gibbs birthday party two weeks ago and told her of the then-impending 200-win milestone. I had interviewed her seven long years ago, early in this column’s history, to share her story (The Drag-on Lady: Racer, pioneer, mom), and I thought a return this week only fitting to give some perspective to the accomplishment.
“Back then, I couldn’t have imagined that someday we’d reach this milestone,” she told me earlier this week. “There were only a handful of us racing back then: myself, Judy Lilly, Maryann Foss, Paula Murphy, Barbara Hamilton, maybe a couple of others. I don’t think it was so much that women didn’t think they could race and win, but drag racing was so much a men’s sport. The guys worked on the cars, and the women just went to make the sandwiches.”
Her inclinations, however, were more competitive than culinary. Her dad had been a hot rodder and she had street raced a Studebaker pickup and just liked cars. The results of her junior high aptitude test suggested she would make a fine mechanic. When she proved just as good behind the wheel as husband H.L., he switched to wrenches and she to the wheel. They never looked back, and in 1965, they were brought onto the factory Chrysler team. “I don’t doubt that one of the reasons we got a car was because I was a female,” she admitted. But she certainly held up her end of the bargain.
Her easygoing personality and friendly nature helped her gain acceptance with “the guys,” and her Pomona win cemented the fact that she was a racer’s racer and not some housewife out for a weekend of thrills. The victory, broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, netted her a ton of initial attention – the suddenly famous 27-year-old mother of three was a guest star on the Hollywood Squares and To Tell the Truth game shows and invited to a special Sports Illustrated banquet – and made her an attractive draw to track managers back East who booked her to run match races. She quit her job, and off they went.
“At the time, I don’t think I realized how special it was to be the first female winner, or I probably would have capitalized on it more,” she said. “We raced a lot of match races and won a lot, but there was no publicity in that; nobody knew about it. Some of the tracks gave you press, but not a lot, so we kind of got lost. If I had the chance to do it over, I would have done it a little differently and promoted myself better. I think I could have won some more national events, but I’m still happy with my place.”
She also was the first female competitor in Pro Stock -- she qualified her AMC Hornet for the 1971 U.S. Nationals field – and follows the sport today, proud of her role in its history and of the accomplishments of today’s large group of successful female racers.
“The gals have just got it together these days; look at Erica,” she marveled. “Right now, she’s just a ball of fire.”
Judy Lilly, then and with Don Garlits at the 2012 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
I also tracked down Lilly, who’s still as busy as ever, but today, her horsepower comes in the four-legged variety. She still lives in Colorado, on 36 acres that’s home to her barrel-racing horses, cattle, “and animals of all kind.”
She still follows the sport she loves so much, but when asked to reflect on all of the women who have followed her and her 1960s and 1970s contemporaries to the winner’s circle, Lilly admitted that she doesn’t consider herself a pioneer.
“I never thought about how my winning would affect anyone else,” she said. “I was always one of those people who fought my own battles, and whatever anyone else did, that was their deal. I didn’t have any real ‘cause’ to do anything other than what I thought was right. As soon as we climbed that one mountain, all we did was look for another mountain to climb. We never thought about what we had just accomplished.”
Lilly, who was named Car Craft Magazine Super Stock Driver of the Year in 1972, 1976, and 1977, was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2005 and is one of just six women to compete in Pro Stock (Shahan, Lucinda McFarland, Shay Nichols, Grace Howell, and Enders-Stevens), and she still follows the class. Her favorite driver – “her hero” – even though he has switched to Top Fuel, is Dave Connolly.
“I think a good deal of Erica’s success is that she had a good coach in Dave Connolly,” she said. “I never really had the benefit of someone teaching me how to do things, and if there’s anyone I’m envious of today, it’s those racers who had someone there to teach them the right way to do things, like [John] Force and his daughters, or even Judi Boertman, who had Dave to teach her. A lot of things that Lou and I did in the beginning were not done as correctly, mechanically, as they should have been.”
And, like Shahan, in general, Lilly says she never felt really ostracized by her male peers (there were a few exceptions) because everyone competed on an equal basis.
“We had something that we wanted to do, and we went out and did it,” she explained. “I’ve always believed that you should be able to go out and play any game as long as they don’t have to change the rules for you personally to be able to do it. I believe that drag racing is one of the very few sports that felt that way. Being a male or a female made no difference. Whether you’re black or green or purple, it shouldn’t make any difference. I think anyone can be a success at anything that they’ve got a little bit of talent for if they stay after it and keep practicing.”
Today’s female winners not only carry on in the tradition of their groundbreaking peers, but also embrace Lilly’s ethos, wanting to be known not as “female racers” but just “racers.” Stats nuts, historians, and the media will always want to keep tabs on the various breakdown of winners, whether by car make or gender or class, but to me, at least, when we do choose to categorize the accomplishments of the female drag racers, it’s more from a pride that speaks to the incredible diversity of our winners, something that no other motorsport can claim – and we’ve been showing that for almost 50 years now.
Irwindale Raceway didn’t have the mystique of Lions Drag Strip nor the opulence of its other Southern California neighbor, Orange County Int’l Raceway, so you might think that a reunion for racers and fans of the gritty little track in the San Gabriel Valley might not draw the same size crowd to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California that the previous Lions and OCIR reunions did.
And you’d be wrong.
All available seats quickly sold out (and plenty of folks were outside begging to be let in, and, to be honest, quite a few people were standing inside), packing the museum’s Hall of Champions with what was about double the attendance of the previous two reunions. And while many were eager to share their fond memories of the ‘Dale, the success of the star-studded Irwindale Reunion also no doubt was attributable to the evening’s special honored guest -- former Irwindale manager, NHRA Vice President/Competition Director, lifelong drag racing booster, friend to all racers, and 75th birthday celebrant Steve Gibbs – who was lauded as much as the track during the three-hour, two-panel presentation.
The dual bill was a joint effort between Larry Fisher’s museum staff and the Gibbs family and proved the perfect way to honor both, given their mutual ties.
Guests mingled for two hours before the show began and were treated to a complimentary In-N-Out lunch, which was only fitting because the famed SoCal burger establishment’s history is deeply entwined with the racetrack’s lore. Not only did the track serve the famed burgers from its concession stands, but In-N-Out founder Harry Snyder also was an early co-owner of the track.
I was thrilled to meet up with Jeb Allen, about whom I’ve written so much but had never met (he left racing about the same time that I began working at NHRA), and he was happy to be back among the many friends he hadn’t seen in decades, including “TV Tommy” Ivo, against whom he’d match raced as a teenager in the 1970s.
Race cars of all manner were on display, from nitro Cackle cars and land-speed cars to Carl Swift’s Poor Boy’s Thunderbolt ’51 Ford (a regular winner at Irwindale) and Tom Tucker's Tucker’s Truck ’57 Ranchero (another Irwindale regular).
And the stars? I filled two pages in my notebook just trying to keep track of the quarter-mile celebrities on hand, and I know that I probably missed some.
The two panels -- which were expertly and wittily hosted by NHRA Funny Car world champ Jack Beckman -- featured Jeb Allen, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Carl Olson, Rich Guasco, Tommy “the Watchdog” Allen, Skip Hess, Larry Sutton, Jerry Darien, Gary Densham, and Butch Leal, plus Gibbs, and the audience was a show unto itself: Ivo, Art Chrisman, Roland Leong, Tom McEwen, Ed Pink, Shirley Shahan, Brad Anderson, Bill Bagshaw, Gas Ronda, Leroy “Doc” Hales, Jim Adolph, Don Irvin, Marvin Graham, Donnie Couch, Pat Galvin, Jeff Courtie, Kenny Youngblood, Al Teague, Gary “Mr. C” Cochran, Tom Jobe (of Surfers fame), Dennis Holding, Jim Fox, Dave McClelland, Ed Iskenderian, “Bones” Balogh, Art Carr, Harry Hibler, Nick Arias, Steve Porter, Herb Ries, Mike Kuhl, John Lombardo, Jim Kirby, Jerry Mallicoat, Gary Southern, Dennis Taylor, Ron Stearns, Nick Paciulli, Steve Levy, Jimmy Scott, Bob Davis, Ed Carter, Frank Genco, Brett Johansen, Don Rackeman, Walt Stevens, Sonny Diaz, Danny Broussard, Glenn Way, Harry “Hairy” Burkholder, Bill Schultz, Gerry Glenn, Ed Osepian, Bubby Wilton, and John Rasmussen. Even Danny Ongais was spotted early in the day but didn’t hang around, and at least three of Gibbs’ original Irwindale staff members -- Tom Kennedy, Mel Deyo, and Bonnis Herd – were there for their old boss. That’s quite a turnout, wouldn’t you say?
After lunch, the focus shifted inside, where Beckman offered an oral history of the track -- and a classic “spiked enchilada” joke that, sadly, not nearly enough people got; Google it – then queried the panelists on their memories about the track and their careers. The tall tales and short stories don’t really fit into an easily transcribed fashion, but I’ll share some of the more colorful ones.
Panel 1, from left: Tommy Allen, Larry Sutton, Jerry Darien, Skip Hess, Gary Densham, and Butch Leal
Darien -- who competed at Irwindale for years, first in an altered and later in Alcohol Dragster, worked part-time at the track, and even served as the starter for a period of time -- shared a funny story from his time working dragster staging and hot-car tech at Irwindale, where he crossed swords with Don Prudhomme. “I walked over to him and said, ‘I’ll tech your car now if you like,’ and he went off on me and told me what a crock tech was, etc., etc., so I walked away and went back to staging. Pretty soon, here comes Prudhomme, wanting to make a run; I told him, ‘Can’t help you, sir; you haven’t been through tech,’ and I sent him back through the short gate. A little while later, he came up and told me, ‘Sir, I’m ready if you’d like to tech me in.’ We got along fine after that.”
Darien also recalled a story about Top Fuel racer Don Durbin, who had wounded the iron 392 engine in his Favorite Thing dragster. “I was the last one there and ready to lock up, and Don told me, ‘Jerry, leave me in here with some electricity.' I came back the next morning, and there’s all these smoking drills all over his pit; he’d honed that 392 block .030 over overnight.” Ah, those were different times.
After his stint on the panel (above), Tommy Allen, like many in attendance, joined other past Irwindale participants in signing a large photograph of the track.
Tommy Allen, who was among Irwindale’s most successful Top Fuel racers and even set the NHRA national speed record at Irwindale at 213.76 mph in 1966, reminisced about the night he met future car owner Larry Huff at Carlsbad Raceway. Huff introduced him to Bill Hopper (of Cyr & Hopper fame). “They had a brand-new 392 Chrysler with the best of everything and asked if they could put it in my car,” said Allen. “Bill had lots of money, and I had no money, so this was an easy decision. We had instant success.”
One of Allen’s most memorable victories came in a winner-take-all battle with Dave Beebe. Beebe and his brother, Tim, usually frequented Lions but went to Irwindale one Saturday night and ended up paired with Allen, Irwindale’s golden boy, in the final. Beebe had beaten Allen the previous two times they had raced at Lions, so there was a lot of anticipation, and with the clock ticking against the curfew, the air was electric, which turned out to be the only thing electric.
“We pushed down five minutes before the curfew, but just as we pulled up to stage and we’re an eyelash away from leaving the starting line, every light in the place goes out,” he recounted. “By the time they got the lights back on, it was too late to run the race.”
Gibbs offered both $200 for their work with the promise to run the final the next week in qualifying, but both decided to defer that makeup in case they faced off in eliminations, which, as great stories go, happened, and it happened in the final again. “Gibbs asked us if we wanted to run once for the last week and one run for that night,” said Allen. “I asked Tim Beebe, and he said, ‘We’re only making one run, and not only are we running for last week’s Top Fuel money and this week’s Top Fuel money, we’re running for runner-up money [for both]. It’s all or nothing.’ I had one of the best lights of my career, and at 1,000 feet, I’m counting the money. Just as I’m reaching up for the parachute lever, I see Dave Beebe’s wheel, and across the finish line we go. Neither of us knew who won, and there’s this kid standing there, maybe 12 to 13 years old, and I asked him if he knew who won. He said, ‘The car with the red parachute’; I looked down, and my parachute was red, and Dave’s was blue.”
Allen also shared the story of how he earned his “Watchdog” nickname, which, like Don Garlits’ “Big Daddy,” came courtesy of the late Bernie Partridge.
“There was a pool of extra money that went in after every race, and if you could win three Top Fuel shows in a row, you’d get this extra money, plus the normal money,” he explained. “But it seemed like every time someone won two races in a row, they would come up against me at the third race, and I’d beat them. This happened on a number of occasions, and Bernie said, ‘Hey, this guy’s like a watchdog; he’s watching over all that money. Maybe someday he’ll win it.’ That name stuck with me, and guess who was the first guy to win the pot? Me.”
Densham, who progressed from A/Gas Supercharged cars to Funny Cars, recalled how he got started in drag racing, building a car in his backyard on a wooden jig, and how he raided the 392 Chryslers that powered the water pumps at the dairies in Cerritos, Calif., (nicknamed “Dairy Valley”) when the dairies were shut down. “I had a great supply of 392s to blow up that we paid about $15 apiece for,” he said. “Back then, you could make it if you ran conservatively and took care of your parts. You could travel to all of the races in the area and pretty much break even with appearance and purse money.
“The first time we saw the Chi-Town Hustler at Lions, we knew we had to have a Funny Car, so I built a Pinto with a 392 Chrysler in it, but I didn’t have a clue about how to race nitro. Some guys came from Top Fuel to Funny Car, but a lot of us were just idiots who thought we’d just get into it and see what it was like. One of my first weekends out with the car at Irwindale, I blew that 392 up and caught on fire. Back then, I was skinny enough to climb out the side window while it burned to the ground. There was a young man standing down there, so I took my helmet off and threw it to him. He thought he’d be a good guy and catch it so it didn’t get scratched, but the trouble is it was melted when he grabbed hold of it, and he ended up getting hurt worse than I did."
Densham also recounted a memorable 64 Funny Cars show at Irwindale in 1976, where he entered, worked on, and drove two cars – his old Barracuda and a new Monza -- to get some of the generous purse that was available. It was a Chicago-style show, with each car making three runs to set one of the two low e.t.s that earned you a spot in the final, with $300 to win your “qualifying” pairing and $200 if you lost. Densham won all three rounds with the Barracuda and one with the Monza – making for a sweet payday of $1,600 – but also ran a career-best 6.31 with the Barracuda to reach the final, where he lost to the unbeatable Prudhomme (“We all raced for second place that year,” he admitted); he ended up making an amazing seven runs in one day.
Hess, who rose to supercharged gas fame and later founded BMX Products, which brought us the Motomag wheel and Mongoose line of bicycles (great article here), moved to Temple City in the San Gabriel Valley to be close to Irwindale.
“It seemed like that was the hotbed of racing,” he acknowledged. “Whether it was Don Nicholson or Bourgeois & Wade or Steve Plueger, they were all in the area. And then there was Don Blair at Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena, who, God bless him, would let me pay for my parts the following week after a race because I had no money. When I raced Gary Densham, he had even less money, yet somehow we got to the races each weekend because there was that $300, $400 to win. Those were the good days."
Hess also gave insight into the creation of the Revell Kit Mustang, one of the first supercharged gassers (parallel to George Montgomery in the Midwest) with a modern body on a gasser chassis that followed his famed Shores & Hess and Skipper’s Critter Anglia.
“With my Anglia, I had 15 ‘near accidents’; it was the most evil and ill-handling machine ever,” he recalled. “I got hooked up with Tom McEwen at a UDRA meeting, and he told me to contact Ford. I said, ‘Ford? No one runs Fords.’ He hooked me up with the right guys there, and they said they wanted me to be their West Coast guy, and I could have anything I wanted. I said, ‘Really? OK; how about some of those overhead cam motors? Thirty-two-spline axles? NASCAR rear ends? C6 transmissions?’ and they said, ‘Sure!’ and they even shipped me the body. I had Jim Kirby build me the car, and it was way ahead of its time.”
Leal, known for his doorslammer work – first with 409 Chevys and then Ford, including an amazing Thunderbolt -- and later a successful Pro Stock career, even tried his hand at Funny Car, first with an injected car (running 100 percent nitro; “I never wanted to use a hydrometer,” he explained), then added a blower on his new Logghe-built Barracuda, but before he had a chance to run it, he got an offer on the car from a fella back East. Guy by the name of Don Schumacher. But Leal was ready to sell.
As he explained it, he had tagged along with the late, great Jack Chrisman to Lions one Saturday evening to learn the supercharged nitro ropes. “First run, Jack's car hangs a valve and blows the roof off of his car, so we go back to his place,” recalled Leal. “Now, Jack, he could do anything. So he puts a new roof on the car, sprays it with paint, and we head out to Bakersfield, and it did it again. This time, it burned his hands, and I began to think, ‘Y’know, I might not like this blower thing,’ but I say nothing to nobody. So I go home, and Schumacher calls and says, 'I hear you have a car for sale.’ No one knew that, not even myself. He made a generous offer, and I said, ‘How long will it take you to get here?’ That made up my mind completely. He came out, paid me, then gave me $2,500 to take the car to the LA airport and have it flown back to Chicago. That blew my mind. It only cost me $150 in gas. I was makin’ some money!”
As he was at Lions and Orange County, Sutton was the starter at Irwindale’s Last Drag Race, having moved over to take control of the starting line after Lions' demise in late 1972. He also raced in just about every category, and sometimes on the same day he was racing, he was also the starter, making for a busy day.
“When it was my turn to run, I’d have a backup starter fill in for me, and I’d run to the car at the front of the staging lanes, get in, and make my run,” he said. “There’d be a motorcycle waiting for me at the other end of the track. I’d tell the crew what I needed done to the car, then go right back to the starting line. I think a lot of people thought there were two Larry Suttons, except those times where I’d be in too big of a hurry and forget to take off my fire pants.”
Asked to compare current drivers to those back in the day, Sutton launched into a long yet brilliantly funny soliloquy.
“Today, the drivers have very little to do,” he started slowly, then kept building, with each example cited more incredulously and louder than the last. “Their car gets pulled up to the lane by their crew – of thousands – and the driver dons his $2,000 helmet that’s designer like their [firesuit]. They climb into their padded seat and their padded roll cage, put on their six-piece [safety belts], and the crew starts the car. He does a burnout and backs up but doesn’t even drive to the starting line. The crew pushes him to the line. So he’s got a billet block, billet heads, and billet crank, and a crewman walks up and turns on the computer. He leaves the line and gets down there a ways, and it drops a hole, and right in the lights, the blower pops, but one of [Dennis] Taylor’s restraints holds it in place. He doesn’t even have to pull the parachute or shut off the motor because it’s all electronics. He doesn’t even have to turn off the racetrack because they come out there with a quad with a roller on it, and they push him off the track. Then he gets out of the car, and someone takes all his safety gear off of him so he can be interviewed. Just then, his opponent comes up to him and gives him a big hug because he’s glad he’s safe. Then, when he’s done with the interview, he gets into a golf cart -- that someone else is driving – and he goes back to his beautiful 18-wheeler and sends his family and friends to the hospitality trailer to have fine cuisine by the hired chef while he goes to the lounge because he’s exhausted.
“In the early days at Irwindale, he’d show up at the track with the car on a flatbed trailer, maybe a couple of friends to help, and the owner. They get ready to run, so the driver dons his ironing-board-cover one-layer firesuit and puts on his helmet that he wears during the week to ride his Harley. So they go to push-start him, and the fire-up road is really narrow, and he’s trying to keep the car on the push bar and keep the car straight because if he goes to the side, he’s going under the fence. He can’t hear anything because the new people who are push-starting him are screaming bloody murder. He’s got to let go of the steering wheel with one hand to hit the [ignition] switch. He doesn’t have an electric starter. He makes the turn and hopes the starter does not see the leaking front and rear seals into which he’s stuffed rags. He pulls up there and leaves and hopes that his single-disc, three-finger clutch – not a 100-finger, six-disc clutch – doesn’t slip so it won’t come apart and come through the welded aluminum bellhousing that may not hold up.
“He’s blazing down the course, and suddenly the breathers start breathing, and he’s getting a face full of oil. The blower comes off, and because Taylor hasn’t yet invented the blower restraint, the blower bounces down the track alongside the car. He reaches over and pulls the 16-foot ring-slot parachute that he just bought at the war surplus store. He can’t understand why it blew up because he only has 20 runs on the steel box rods. He’s slipping and sliding in his own oil, on fire, and his Vans are starting to get real hot on his feet. He makes the last turnoff with his opponent – the one who burned him down on the starting line – and he is so mad, but his car is still on fire, and there’s no one down there to help him, so he gets some Irwindale dirt and throws it on the motor to put the fire out. He’s so mad at his opponent that he wants to break his nose. He’s waiting for his crew, and he’s waiting for a long, long time. When they finally show up and he asks where they’ve been, they tell him that when they made the turn after the push-start that the toolbox fell out of the back of the truck, and they had to pick up all of the tools. They get back to the pit area, where they don’t have 10 motors to choose from – that was their only engine -- and the guy he just beat and whose neck he wanted to break walks up and offers his whole car and crew to them to put their motor in his car. That’s the difference between early racing and nowadays."
Panel 2, from left: Jeb Allen, Ed McCulloch, Carl Olson, Rich Guasco, and Steve Gibbs
Olson, left, and Guasco
Jeb Allen was 11 when Irwindale opened, and his first job with the family team – parents Guy and Betty and brothers Ed and Les – was getting burgers from the snack bar, but he ascended to the cockpit by age 17 and eventually won world championships in NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA.
It wasn’t always easy being the young kid on the block. He remembered being challenged by the New Jersey state law that required all participants to be 18 years old, which he just barely was when he won his first Top Fuel crown at the 1972 Summernationals, and by the daunting comeback after his famous 1973 Tulsa, Okla., tumble with John Wiebe.
“It was really hard to get things back together and get the nerve to get back out there,” he recalled. “I paid $25 for the ambulance to show up, but the first run, I shut it off early, the second run, I shut it off early, and on the third run, it blew the blower off 300 feet downtrack. It smacked me in the head, cracked my helmet, and dented the roll bar. I wondered to myself, ‘Should I continue to be doing this?’ Today I might have quit, but I just kept on and fortunately had some interesting times ahead.”
Olson – who, as Beckman pointed out, only earned one NHRA national event win (1972 Winternationals) yet had plenty of other major-event wins – remembered his first Top Fuel win, at Irwindale’s Grand Prix in 1969. Running with Jack Ewell and Tom Bell, in their third time out with a new car, they also set low e.t., top speed, and a new track record. “I thought, ‘Man, this is easy; bring out a new car and whip everybody,’ but obviously, it didn’t turn out that way,” he said. “The Grand Prix was an invitation-only, 32-car Top Fuel show with the 32 cars that had run the quickest that year at Irwindale Raceway. Rereading the article about that event in Drag News, it solidified the reason why I believe that the late 1960s and early 1970s were the golden days of drag racing in Southern California.”
Olson went on to read a listing of the Grand Prix field, which included luminaries such as Kelly Brown, John Collins, Larry Dixon Sr., Jim Dunn, Pat Foster, Jeep Hampshire, Gary Hazen, Bobby Hightower, Tommy Larkin, Butch Maas, McEwen, Frank Pedregon, Prudhomme, Rick Ramsey, Dwight Salisbury, Billy Tidwell, James Warren, Hank Westmoreland, Norm Wilcox, and more.
Guasco, the longtime owner of the famed Dale Emery-driven Pure Hell fuel altered that held track records all up and down the West Coast, ran at Irwindale both with the altered and his later Pure Hell Funny Cars and, like many people, loved the bite that the track provided at Irwindale, which wasn’t always the case at other places.
“At Lions, as soon as the sun went down, everything got wet,” he remembered. “At Irwindale, it could be 1 o’clock in the morning, and there was still great traction. The people were nice, and that’s where I first met Steve Gibbs. Later, when he was the track manager at Fremont, he introduced me to Ed Carter. Dale had just flipped the [Pure Hell] truck and trailer on the way home from a race, and Ed had the Proud American Funny Car, and he needed a motor, so I put my motor in his car. First race out, we were runner-up, and I made more money there than I’d ever made with the altered.
“One time out at Irwindale, and this was after we just lost a Funny Car that burned to the ground – in those days, we didn’t have double-tubing headers; if you got oil on the headers, it was an automatic fire – we made a run, and the car caught fire. We hurry up and get down there, and one of the firemen is trying to lift the body up without doing the latch; I had just lost a car, so the only thing I could think of was to hit the guy so he wouldn’t ruin this body. I guess I thought I was Ed McCulloch. That didn’t go over too good.”
Speaking of the sometimes-pugilistic McCulloch, “the Ace” delivered, as almost demanded, some great stories of his numerous run-ins with authorities, both inside and outside the racing facility. Prompted by an audience question, McCulloch launched into a hilarious story about a fateful night in Bakersfield.
“It was Saturday night, and we’d probably had a couple of beers,” he began, a preamble that only pushed the audience closer to the edges of their seats. “I’m driving, and Dan Olson is in shotgun. We had some pretty good M-80s, and Olson is lighting them with the cigarette lighter and pitching them out the right side of the car. We pass a sheriff’s car going the other way, then turns back and comes back up to the right side of our car. Remember, I’m on the left side of the car. Olson tosses [another firecracker out], and it lands right on the hood of the sheriff’s car. He blocks us with his car, gets out, and – now, I don’t get this – comes to my side of the car and tells me to get out of the car. I ask, ‘Why?’ and he says, ‘Get out of the car, or I’m going to drag you out of the car.’ I said, ‘Knock yourself out,’ and I take a pretty good blow from a billy club. Well, sad but true, I deck this guy, lay him right out. About 30 seconds later, there’s 15 sheriffs, I’m handcuffed in the back of the sheriff’s car, and Olson’s standing over there twiddling his thumbs. We pull out of the track and take a right, which is a back road, and I figure they’re going to beat the crap out of me, but they take me to jail. [Wife] Linda called McEwen, who calls Jack Williams, who knows the judge in town, and a couple of hours later I’m out, and the next day, we win the race. The moral of that story is, ‘You can raise a little hell and still win.’ “
The spotlight then shifted to Gibbs, whose legacy in the sport – which began at the old San Gabriel Dragway and went on to include track management at a number of dragstrips before a long and successful career with NHRA’s Competition Department – was cemented by his tireless work in the NHRA Historical Services Department that ultimately led to the creation and founding of the NHRA Museum. Along the way, he earned the friendship, trust, and admiration of thousands of racers.
As Beckman pointed out, “He likely means more to most people in this room than any drag racer that went down the quarter-mile, and we’re doing it in a building that probably wouldn’t exist were it not for him.”
Hess lauded Gibbs as “probably the greatest contributor to drag racing that I know. He contributed his life to this sport.”
Jeb Allen added, “As a kid, I watched Steve orchestrate the races and the people and all of things he did. When it became my turn to be a driver, I was 12 to 15 years younger than everyone else, so I felt like he babysat me for a few years, but when I’d see him coming, I’d go, ‘Uh-oh, I did something wrong again.’ He always provided a grounding situation for me in my life.”
To which McCulloch slyly added, “Steve had to babysit me a lot, too. I love the guy to death, and in my opinion, there’s no one who’s done more for drag racing than Steve Gibbs.”
Olson, who worked side by side with Gibbs for years at NHRA, remembered when he was hired there in 1976: “Like [he had done for] so many people, Steve took me under his wing and showed me the ropes and how it all works on the other side of the ropes. He was really good at looking out for me.”
Gibbs had plenty of great Irwindale stories to tell, such as how Leroy Chadderton, unbeknownst to his crew, had gone off the end of Irwindale’s top end and into the dark rock pit beyond (the crew came to the tower asking after him, and it practically took a search party to find him), and the time that a little fun with fireworks, gasoline, and an abandoned Dodge station wagon turned into a four-alarm blaze that brought the fire department streaming into the facility. “It went off like Apocalypse Now; it took my breath away,” he recalled, still shaking his head decades later.
Gibbs was joined at the event by many of his family members, including his 91-year-old mother, Selma, who, he recalled, was “not happy at all” when he decided to quit his job as a Ford service writer to pursue a career in drag racing.
Gibbs remembered how his mother once was a waitress in a little coffee shop in nearby Covina, and one of her regular customers was drag racing star Gas Ronda – now 88 -- who also was in attendance at the reunion where they were, well, reunited. “She knew exactly what he wanted when he came to lunch, and she can make a ‘Gas Ronda sandwich’ to this day, exactly how Gas liked it back then.
“The connections here today are incredible, how this all entwines. At the time I was running Irwindale, Gas was the main star of that era,” he said, then addressed the former Ford star and others in the room. “Gas. Art Chrisman. All the guys who are here today and were so much a part of my life, thank you. I had the privilege to cross paths with all of these guys, and I feel blessed to just be here, to have had the experiences that I’ve had, and to be still kicking at 75.”
After gifts were bestowed upon the birthday boy (from April 1), daughter Cindy led the crowd in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday to You," cake was served, and a giant birthday card was made available to all of his admirers.
The Gibbs family members saluted their hero.
Gibbs contacted me after the event to share additional information and emotions about the wonderful day.
“The event was not even on the calendar at the start of the year,” he said. “It all started when my family and some friends wanted to do ‘something’ at the museum for my 75th birthday. I guess making it to 75, with all of the ‘hazards’ of the job, was worth celebrating. Anyway, when we realized the year coincided with the Irwindale 50th anniversary and my connection to Irwindale, it seemed to be a natural to merge the two events and perhaps make a little money for the museum. I think it worked.
“I really want to credit my family, especially my wife [Gloria] and [daughter] Cindy, for making this happen. Cindy really ramrodded the deal through social media and personal contacts. She arranged for all of the panelist selections and appearances and also the display cars. She secured the deal with In-N-Out and contacted the ‘hard-to-get’ folks like Gas Ronda and Danny Ongais. My wife took care of the family involvement, and daughters Debby and Stephanie covered the costs of the cakes. Every family member paid to attend. This whole thing would not have happened without their involvement. We obviously appreciate the efforts of the museum staff.
“The whole thing was personally very rewarding, but more importantly, it helped to draw together a huge number of drag racing legends, whose numbers are declining far too fast.”
It was an unforgettable day celebrating two great icons of our sport. I attended some of my first races at Irwindale in the early 1970s and worked beside Gibbs for years at NHRA. I’m glad I was there to acknowledge both, who have long been a part of my life, too.
The morning of the museum presentation, a special Pomona Racers Reunion was held at the Apex Imaging facility in Pomona. My former National Dragster colleague John Jodauga stopped by on his way to the museum and shared this report.
Present were, from left, Flavio Cavalcanti, Hal Hargrave, Steve Porter, Herb Ries, Dennis Holding, Jack Beckman, Brent Cannon, Mel Deyo, Jim Fox, and Kate Hargrave. On display were re-created versions of the early-1960s Frantic Four Top Fuel car of Weekly, Rivero, Fox & Holding and the team’s '63 Chevy pickup push vehicle, which the Hargrave family purchased in early 2002.
The Hargrave family has been in Pomona for several generations and was a Mobil oil distributor and owner of several service stations throughout the Inland Empire. Randy Hargrave, a crewmember for the Frantic Four in 1962 and 1963, purchased the Apex painting operation, which specialized in painting and modernizing gas stations, in the early 1980s. After he passed away two years ago, his family set out to display his collection of hundreds of historic signs and nostalgic automotive memorabilia.