Up Close with Steve Gibbs

Interview by Al Heisley, Editor
Straight Line News Magazine
May 12, 2022

SLN: You began your racing career back in the 1950s. When did you sign on with NHRA and Wally Parks?

SG: I started attending drag races in 1957 at the original San Gabriel Drag Strip, strictly as a fan. There was quite a bit of anti-NHRA sentiment during those days due to the fuel ban, so attending the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships at Famoso was a big deal at the time. It definitely set the hook for me to pursue any kind of involvement possible in the sport. In 1961 I began working at my local track, the second San Gabriel Drag Strip and eventually turned a pastime into a career. I was hired as manager of Irwindale Raceway in 1966 and later moved on to Fremont for a short time. It was that time that I became closely associated with NHRA...and Wally. I began to appreciate the association more as I became increasingly involved. Before being hired full-time, I attended many NHRA events as a safety crew member. At the 1969 Nationals at Indianapolis, Wally asked me to come to work for the association. My first duty was as advertising director of National Dragster, which didn't suit my background. Within a few months, I moved into the role of Jack Hart's assistant conducting the 1970 major events. Eventually, I became NHRA's Vice President of Competition. It was a role I played for almost thirty years.

SLN: When you had time, did you race in the early days of the association?

SG: I never owned or seriously raced a car. I came into the sport as a fan and was fortunate enough to turn that interest into a career. The closest I ever came to driving was at San Gabriel in the early years. I was given a chance to make a run in a friend's fuel dragster. Licenses were not required in those days...you just got in and drove. It never happened, as I was too tall to fit in the car. Looking back, it was probably a good thing. A lot of guys didn't survive that era. Years later, I did go through Frank Hawley's School and did well. I was a pretty good pilot, so I think I could have been a decent driver.

SLN: What did a day in the life of consist of as Wally’s right-hand man?

SG: There were many aspects to the NHRA operation, so Wally had a team of right-hand men...and women. He was a great leader who allowed us to do our jobs. Wally's real right-hand man during those early years was Jack Hart. Jack was the “mover and shaker” at NHRA and should be credited for so many advances in the sport...especially in terms of safety advances, insurance, event organizing, etc. I was fortunate to have Jack as a mentor. We didn't always agree on every issue, but his efforts were always in the sport’s best interest. He died at a young age...55. When it came to conducting major NHRA events in the 1960s and early 70s, Jack Hart was “the man” ... even more so than Wally in many ways. The original Division Directors played a huge role in formulating the direction of the sport in that era.
It was always a pleasure to call Wally after an event had been completed. He enjoyed being kept up to date on how things were going and how certain racers were doing. He had a passion for the sport...not just the business.

Working for Wally was something that I will be forever grateful for. He was a good man who has been judged unfairly by many.

SLN: What personal accomplishments did you experience with NHRA? What successes are you most proud of?

SG: When I first became involved in the National Event production in 1970, we only had seven races. We had no equipment...everything had to be supplied by the local track. Our timing equipment was the only thing that was shipped from track to track. Soon afterward, we were given a Hurst “Jaws of Life” rescue tool, and with support from Weber Clutches, I organized the second-generation Safety Safari with a new truck and trailer for the tour. It was primitive when compared to today's Safari operation but was a big step up at the time. Over the ensuing years and some 400 National Events, I was able to help develop better equipment, rules, systems, and event procedures...many of which are still in operation to this day. I believe I contributed a great deal to the growth of NHRA, and my fingerprints remain all over the sport. I believe my relationship with racers was a good one.

I also take a great deal of pride in the role I played in the creation of the NHRA Motorsports Museum and The Reunion events. When the museum was re-named “The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum,” ... which Wally resisted, he said to me, “This really should be “The Steve Gibbs Motorsports Museum.” Obviously, that wasn't going to happen, but coming from Wally himself, it is a compliment I will forever treasure.

Wally's original intent was to call it The Western Motorsports Museum, but he was over-ruled.

SLN: How long did you work for NHRA, and what happened that you decided to say enough is enough?

SG: I put in 35 years full-time and another 13 as a consultant. Once Wally was out of the picture, there was a fundamental change within the spirit of the organization that made it impossible for me to continue. I simply could not agree to the restrictive terms of a new contract that was offered. I had hoped to complete 50 years...but it was not to be. Upper management decided in 2016 to change the face of the California Hot Rod Reunion, issuing directives and policies that were, in my opinion, detrimental to the 25th running of the event. When I voiced my objections and criticisms, they simply did not want to hear about it. Following the negative reactions to what happened in 2016, they tried to reverse all the mandated changes, but the damage was done. The event is simply not the same.

I find it interesting – the almost total lack of support the NHRA website gives to the reunions (The National Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green, and the California Hot Rod Reunion) as these two events are a primary source of funding for the museum. Even though I am no longer involved, it bothers me to see either of these activities being jeopardized. It's hard to understand.

SLN: Tell us about your life with Gordy and her role in your life of racing?

SG: Gordy (Gloria) and I were high school sweethearts, and many dates were at the drags. She enjoyed the sport and always supported my career and where it happened to take us. She made many close friends within the racing community and was quite active with DRAW and Racers for Christ. She was a wonderful mother to our three daughters. I was gone a great deal of the time running races, and she did a great job keeping the home front together.

Drag Racing provided us with many memorable experiences and the chance to travel the world. We would have been married nearly 59 years when she passed from pancreatic cancer in 2019. She was a real sweetheart. Her memorial service was overwhelming, as it clearly showed the respect she earned for her personal contributions to the sport.

SLN: Once retired from NHRA, you didn’t stay still for long. You started Nitro Revival. Tell the readers about the event and how much fun you’re having doing it.

SG: After giving up a 48-year career with NHRA, I didn't know what was next, but I was certainly not ready to walk away. With the encouragement and support of many friends – especially the late Ron Johnson, the Nitro Revival idea was hatched. As evidenced by their actions at the 2016 California Hot Rod Reunion, it was clear that NHRA was frowning on the Cackle activity, and the event was a shambles. With Ron Johnson's backing, my daughter Cindy and I decided to create an event that embraced the Cackle folks and other vintage classes and go our own way. Our first modest event was at Barona in 2017 and was well received. We went to Laguna Seca the following year and then to Irwindale in 2019. The Irwindale facility is ideal for our type of event, which is in some ways more of a “car show” and social event than a race. We feature some great cars making exhibition runs, but do not want to lose sight of the “reunion” aspect of things...to celebrate our roots and common experiences. I believe we have been successful in spite of dealing with the COVID mess for the past two years. We are fortunate to have the Irwindale facility available to us and the full support and cooperation of track operator Tim Huddleston. It's the perfect venue for Nitro Revival. The 2022 edition is shaping up to be the best yet, thanks to ever-increasing support from folks like The McLennan Foundation, Red Line Oil, and Good Vibrations.

SLN: You recently embarked on an extended drive around the US with your daughter, Stephanie. Describe that trip for us.
SG: It was a remarkable experience... an entire month on the road covering 8,300 miles! It was a joy having my youngest daughter, Stephanie Gibbs Kinder, with me for most of the trip. It was a chance to visit dozens of old friends along the way, sadly a couple of them for the last time, as both Rex Pearmain and Red Greth passed away a short time later. So many lasting friendships were made during my years conducting National Events – with racers, track operators, and event workers, and we had the chance to see so many of these folks.

We visited my birthplace in North Carolina and spent time with family members who still live there.
During the trip, we attended The International Drag Racing Hall of Fame Ceremony, as I have been on the Board of Selectors for over 25 years. I made the induction comments for John “Tarzan” Austin. He was unable to attend, so I accepted the award on his behalf. He passed away soon afterward.

I'm in my eighties now, so I'm grateful for the good health that allows for trips like this one. I expect there will be more.

SLN: You must be happy about your daughter Cindy’s longtime interest and involvement in your sport. Tell us about her being part of your history in drag racing!

SG: Cinder was always my “racer kid.” She was interested in the cars and the people. It seemed to be her calling, as she was almost always doing something connected with drag racing, from making lunches for local National Event workers to working for the NHRA Field Office, to being on the Divisional Certification Team, to eventually managing Spokane Raceway. She understands and appreciates what the sport and what the people are all about. She respects and celebrates the history of drag racing.

Additionally, she is a very talented artist. Her pencil portraits are second to none, and the majority of her work involves drag racing. Her work must be seen to be appreciated.

The Nitro Revival project has given us a chance to work together, and it has been a wonderful experience. I'm not ready to drop out anytime soon, but it's good to know that Cindy will continue things when that day comes.

SLN: How do you envision the future of drag racing?

SG: It's a complicated question, calling for complicated answers...but the bottom line is that I have serious concerns. Drag races only last a matter of seconds, so it takes a considerable volume of participants to make things work. Unfortunately, those large numbers are declining for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest issue, in my opinion, is the loss of racing facilities. We see drag strips closing at an alarming rate while new ones are not being built. Without a convenient place to participate, folks simply take up other activities. It's economics at work. A drag strip uses a big piece of real estate, and we have seen over and over again that the property becomes more valuable for other purposes. The cost of building new facilities is prohibitive, as well as getting past environmental hurdles. Just think of the tracks we have lost, or are losing, in recent times...Englishtown, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, West Palm Beach. Others are in jeopardy. It's a scary scenario. Without a place to play, there is no game.

On the professional side, I think the cost of racing, on a competitive level, in a 23-race series is becoming unsustainable. There is a very limited number of people who can play the game. Age is a factor. The biggest star of the sport just turned 73 years old. It is becoming harder and harder for young people to become involved. There are exceptions, but not in significant numbers. In general, it's an aging sport.

The NHRA website paints a pretty clear picture. Very little attention is given to grassroots activity. Frontline drag racing has gone from a participant-driven sport, based on a high volume of entries, to a spectator sport focused on personalities and spectacle.
There is still an appeal to drag racing, but the leaders of the sport will have huge challenges in keeping up with the times.

Steve Gibbs

A List of Achievements

1961 First worked as an event staff member – at San Gabriel Drag Strip

1966 First full-time employment in drag racing – Irwindale Raceway

1966 First Manager position – Irwindale Raceway

1968 Manager of Fremont Raceway

1969 Manager of Corpus Christi Raceway

1969 Hired by Wally Parks as a full-time employee of the National Hot Rod Association.

1972 Named Competition Director of National Hot Rod Association

Initiated numerous contributions to NHRA Drag Racing, including the re-establishment of the NHRA Safety Safari

Car Craft Magazine “Hi-Riser” recipient.

1980 Named Vice President Competition of National Hot Rod Association As Event Director – Conducted approximately 400 NHRA National Events

1990 Initiated NHRA Historical Services – the forerunner of The NHRA Motorsports Museum

1991 Recipient of 25th Anniversary Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing Team “Ollie” Award

1992 Initiated NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion

1994 Named to Selection Committee – International Drag Racing Hall of Fame with twenty-eight years of consecutive service.

1995 Recipient of NHRA Lifetime Achievement “Wally” Award

1997 Initiated NHRA Motorsports Museum at L.A. County Fairgrounds

Named to NHRA Museum Board of Directors

1998 Retired as NHRA Vice President Competition

1998 Named Vice President – NHRA Motorsports Museum

1998 Recipient of California Hot Rod Reunion Lifetime Achievement Award

2004 Retired as Director of NHRA Motorsports Museum

2006 Inducted into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame

2007 Recipient of Bakersfield March Meet Recognition Award

2007 Recipient of Distinguished Achievement Award by East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame

2009 Recipient of California Hot Rod Reunion Board of Director's Award

2010 Inducted into Maple Grove Raceway Walk of Fame

2011 Named as Grand Marshal - 20th Anniversary California Hot Rod Reunion

2012 Organized and administered five Nitro Alumni Auctions to benefit NHRA Motorsports Museum – Over $125,000 in cash benefits.

2017 Concluded 48 years of service to NHRA and NHRA Museum.

2017 Named as Grand Marshal – 2017 Old Tucson Dragway Reunion

2017 Initiated Nitro Revival – First event produced at Barona Raceway

2017 Named Person of the Year by Nitro Hot Rods Magazine

2017 Inducted into British Drag Racing Hall of Fame - Lucas Oil Global Achievement Award

2017 Nominated for induction into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

2018 Produced second Nitro Revival at Laguna Seca Raceway

2018 One of Seven Final Nominees for induction into The Motorsports

Hall of Fame of America. Other nominees: “Jungle Jim” Liberman, George Montgomery, Don Schumacher, Bob Stange, The “Surfers,” and Linda Vaughn.

2019 Produced third Nitro Revival at Irwindale Drag Strip.

Nominated for induction into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

2021 Nominated for SEMA Hall of Fame

2021 Inducted into Dragfest Legion of Honor.

2022 Nominated for induction into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America