Gibbs--NHRA Director of Competition-- Gentleman
by Don Prieto - 1998
People in power are often disliked. People in power are seldom
trusted by those who are subject to that power. Never is a person
in power both liked and trusted---especially in the world of
People in a position of making big decisions are often hated
for the results of their decisions. People who make big decisions
are often suspect in the making of big decisions. Very often
with just cause.
People in power are seldom thanked for making the right decisions
and are never recognized for using their power properly.
Steve Gibbs is the Director of
Competition for the National Hot Rod Association, a position
of considerable power. He is the antithesis of the above statements.
A giant of a man, at over 6'4", with a resounding voice,
Gibbs goes about running major drag races, directing the Safety
Safari on the track, barking instructions into his walkie talkie
while making sure that the track surface is kept in the best
condition possible. (It should be noted that the phenomenal leaps
in performance in recent years has largely been a function of
the superb conditioning of the racing surfaces at all of the
National Events across the country.) Most of the improvements
in traction as well as the devices and substances used to soak
up and remove oil spills are the result of his dedication to
the task .
You see dedication is what has
driven Gibbs all of these years. Dedication to the sport he loves
so much. As fate would have it, newly married Steve and his wife
shopped in a market where the two guys who ran the butcher shop
just happened to be the Tice Brothers, Will and Jack. As a side-line,
the brothers Tice invested their hard earned cash in a drag strip
known far and wide as San Gabriel Drags and it was in 1961 at
Ol' San Gabe that Gibbs got his first job at the races. He was
given a black and white striped shirt like a football referee,
and was given the task of painting the class designation and
numbers on the side windows of the race entries. He was an official.
Like everything else that Steve
has set his mind to, he did an extra special job of numbering...precisely
applied numbers and letters with a long lasting fast drying blend
of shoe polish and other ingredients. So special, in fact, that
most racers left the numbers on all week as some kind of badge
of honor or status at the schools and drive-ins in the San Gabriel,
San Fernando and Walnut valleys of Southern California...the
hot bed of drag racing.
Having spent his days at Mt.
San Antonio Junior College studying art and journalism, it was
a natural transition for him to move into the position of reporter
for the drag strip in addition to his other duties. He worked
his way up to assistant manager and speaks fondly of the time
when Jack Tice put him in the car and together they made several
trips up and down the state of California visiting speed shops
and racers garages all day and half of the night. Shops like
Gotelli, Masters and Richter , Champion Speed Shop, Palamides,
Vic Hubbard etc. all in Northern California, where they met face
to face with the big time drag racing world. Tice, and tag-along
Gibbs were doing this to encourage these guys to make the big
drive to So. Cal for the big money to be won at Ol' San Gabe.
While other L.A. drag strips ran gasoline only, Tice placed emphasis
on an Open Top Fuel Show and he paid money...tow money as well
as purses. He had taken Gibbs under his wing and taught him the
ropes...all on a part time basis.
Gabe was THE place to race fuelers
and Gibbs got to know 'em all. He remembers fondly the informality
of the Green Shack, a watering hole across the road from the
drag strip where racers gathered to have a beer and tell lies
about why they hadn't won the money that night. It was heady
times for a young drag race enthusiast like Steve. Gathered in
this run down bar were the who's who... Lefty Mudersbach, Glen
Ward, Dick Goss, Don Yates, Tommy Ivo, Bob Haines, Sammy Hale,
Pete Ogden, Steinager and Eschenbaugh, Peters and Frank, Don
Madden, Howard Johansen, "Boof" Palmquist, Bob Sidebotham,
Jeep Hampshire, Kent Fuller, Rod Stuckey, Chris Karamesines,
Garlits, Don Maynard, Lyle Fisher, Fat Jack Bynum, Vance Hunt,
to mention only a few. A big grin comes over the bearded craggy
face of Gibbs when he runs down the list of guys he met during
those early days.
"I've got to say that those
were special times back then. It was a lot of fun...a lot of
camaraderie. It wasn't so much about money. Now, it is so competitive
that the guys hardly have time to say hello. Drag racing is different
than it was back then, says Steve. It's not better or worse just
different and still a lot of fun".
True to Gibbs style, he took
on more and more responsibility at the San Gabriel race track.
He became the track Drag News reporter, did ad layouts for print,
did copy for radio...lots of little jobs that helped make that
track a success.
Despite all the hard work, when
the lease ended, the track folded. Steve looked around to see
if there was something he could do to keep his hand in drag racing
. He wrote stories for the late lamented Drag Sport Illustrated
of one Phil Bellomy and he even interviewed to go to work full
time at Drag News but the terms were not to his liking. He ended
up at a Ford Dealership in Garden Grove with Mel Reck and it
was here that he and Reck both got a call from his friend and
former associate at Gabriel, Jack Minnick.
Minnick had good news. A new
racetrack was being planned and they needed Steve and Mel to
help out. Irwindale was about to built, was right in his own
back yard, as was San Gabe, and he was pleased to take the part
time slot of assistant to track manager Jim Blake. In a series
of fast moving events under Blakes tutelage, Steve moved up to
full time and soon became the track manager...his people skills
more evident than ever.
It was also during his stint
as track manager that Steve developed a great and lasting relationship
with competitive track managers, legendary C.J. Pappy Hart of
Lions and Orange County International Raceway's Mike Jones. Together,
they furthered the cause of drag racing in the Los Angeles area
by cooperating with one another, thereby assuring that each track
got a fair share of the racing activity.
Steve credits his maturing as
a track operator to his long time friend Jim Blake with whom
he maintains contact 'till this day, thirty five years later,
and to Pappy Hart whom he later brought into the NHRA family.
A brief deviation in Steve's
career path found him in the employ of one Ron Miller at the
Fremont Raceway in Northern California. And it all came to an
end when Miller booked a bunch of funny cars in for a 2-day race
and then left in a huff after a dispute with his backers and
owners. Leaving Steve with a bunch of racers wanting appearance
money and facing the threat of rain to add to his woes, Steve
called all of the racers into the office and laid it out for
"Here's the way it is guys,
says a concerned Gibbs. There is only so much money, and I'm
going to count it out and give each team an equal share."
There was much grumbling and private conversation among the racers
but they reluctantly agreed to Gibbs plan. It then rained out
race day. No additional money.
Monday dawned bright and sunny with Gibbs down in the dumps,
his family in Fremont, no job, racers upset over not getting
paid, when the phone rang. It was Jungle Jim Lieberman and he
wanted Steve to come to the hotel for a meeting. Figuring he
was going to have to listen to a bunch of racers whine about
not getting paid, he first refused, but when Jungle insisted
that was not what was going to happen, he went.
To his suprise, the racers were
very cordial and supportive of Steve and Jungle gave him an envelope
with three thousand cash in it.
"Here, Steve. said Jungle.
We know that you are in trouble with no job and all. So, we took
up a collection and we want you to have it to tide you and the
family over the rough spots."
Steve was touched. So much so
that when he recently related this tale to me some thirty years
hence, his voiced cracked and he also wanted the world to know
that no matter what, Jungle Jim and that gang of roving funny
car guys will never be forgotten and he will always be in there
debt for what they did for him in his time of need.
Steve had worked for the NHRA
and Jack Hart as a member of the emergency crew, albeit on a
volunteer basis, so it was of no particular surprise to Steve
when Wally Parks called to ask if he would like to work for NHRA
as the ad director of the publication National Dragster. Given
his experience with Drag News and Drag Sport Illustrated, the
new position was a natural and he did it well.
"I shoulda stayed there,."
admits Steve given the current success of that paper and kind
of advertising revenue that it generates versus the responsibility
of running a major drag race. I suspect he's right but where
would we be without him.
As NHRA grew from a two major
race organization to four and then seven in 1970, the responsibility
for running the association rested primarily with Jack Hart and
the seven Division Directors and he (Hart) desperately needed
competent help. He drew on Steve because of his track management
experience and made him his number two man. This move by the
NHRA was met with approval throughout the drag racing fraternity
because it was widely held that Hart could be difficult when
it came to race track decisions. As usual Steve gave it his all
and when Hart developed health problems, it wasn't long before
he was named Competition Director, the job he has held since
Not one to rest, Gibbs recognized
that a big problem for the racer at large National events, was
having to wait in line, sometimes all day, to get to make a run.
Following the lead of rival sanctioning body, IHRA, Gibbs refined
the current system where by each category has a designated time
to qualify and that schedule is strictly adhered to and is varied
only if there is an oildown or a crash. It is without a doubt
the best system to date and it guarantees everyone the same amount
of attempts to qualify. Those of us who remember the old "get
in line early and hope" method welcomed this change with
Being the Competition Director
was not without its trials and tribulations. The Division Directors,
known internally at NHRA as DDs and outside as the Seven Dwarfs,
had their own little power base and were reluctant to give Gibbs
very much slack. But it didn't take long for him to win them
over with his style and grace and he proceeded to build a safety
crew second to none in any racing organization. Steve credits
the dedication of those who make up the safety crew explaining
that they are more than just the guys who when called upon to
save lives at the end of the drag strip do so with great temerity,
but to the man they take on the lesser tasks of putting down
oil dry, and working the business end of a broom all while attired
in a hot full fire suit, with equal enthusiasm.
When Steve took over from an
ailing Jack Hart, he had a couple of boxes in which was transported
the timing equipment that was used at each race. "It was
pretty primitive in those days" recalls Gibbs. "Now,
we have eight trucks and trailers full of equipment and doctors
present at every event...we have come a long way."
Steve's personal dedication to
the sport of drag racing and his constant search for new and
better ways to improve the race track surface consistency, (concrete
launchpads come readily to mind), seek out the best crew to maintain
that level of consistency and manage an entire race has not gone
unnoticed. Steve was singled out for the Ollie Award at the Car
Craft All-star Team banquet. This award is given to only to select
individuals who contribute to the betterment of the sport and
who display special dedication to drag racing.
Steve credits his success to
his wife of 31 years Gloria Gibbs. "I've known her since
fifth grade", marvels Gibbs as he recalls the times he and
Gloria spent their weekends at the drags and their evenings at
the original In-And-Out burger stand as a member of the Sand
Flea Brothers as his club was known.
Gloria confides that one of the
many things that Steve has done there are few who know that he
designed the prototype for what became the Motorplex drag racing
facility on the dining room table.
" I have no idea how others got hold of the original plans,
reckons Gloria, but it was Steve who designed that layout and
he's never gotten the credit he deserves."
He has now Gloria and let me
add that the single most admired character trait of the Competition
Director is that no matter the crisis or the controversy, he
remains a gentleman at all times. We need more human beings like