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TUNE IN TO FS1 AT 11 P.M. EASTERN FOR SATURDAY NITRO FROM THE LUCAS OIL NHRA NATIONALS IN BRAINERD

Saluting two Southern California icons

10 Apr 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Souvenir replica pit passes were handed out to everyone in attendance.
"TV Tommy" Ivo, left, reconnected with Jeb Allen

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

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.

Jere Alhadeff

“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

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."

Thunderous applause.

Panel 2, from left: Jeb Allen, Ed McCulloch, Carl Olson, Rich Guasco, and Steve Gibbs

 

Jeb Allen
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.”

McCulloch

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.’ “

Gibbs

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.

Gas Ronda

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.