Steve Gibbs--NHRA Director of Competition-- Gentleman

by Don Prieto - 1998

 

Axiom one:
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 motor racing.

Axiom two:
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.

Axiom three:
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 them.

"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.

NHRA CALLS

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 1973.

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 great relish.

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 him.

 

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