GIBBS NITRO REVIVAL ENSURES DRAG RACING'S HISTORY IS ALIVE AND WELL
Steve Gibbs knew he had to do something, and three years later he’s still doing it.
Gibbs’ something is the Nitro Revival, a special event honoring the legend of drag racing’s yesterday and those who made it famous. Last weekend, Gibbs completed his third annual promotion of the popular event at Irwindale Raceway.
“It’s a nitro revival three-ring circus,” Gibbs, the former NHRA Race Director, said of the event.
There’s not a better ringmaster than Gibbs, as he proved when he pulled off an incredible Cackle event of over 50 period-correct race cars, some nostalgia-themed rail dragsters and some that were the real deal.
While the Nitro Revival was born out of necessity, as Gibbs puts it, the Cackle practice was born out of fun.
“There were a couple of cars that had been replicated, been restored, that were still around from the old days and they’d drag them out there just to show them off,” Gibbs recalled. “Bill Pitts had that Carbon Magic car, and it didn’t even have a clutch in it. He made it where the engine would run. We did a couple of twilight memorials and read the names of guys who have passed at the end of the day. And one day the guys said, “Why don’t we just fire the engine up as a salute after we read off the list of names?”
“It sounded good. Kind of a sentimental thing and then somewhere Greg Sharp and I said, “Why don’t we push start?”
The only challenge for Gibbs and Sharp was that the process of push-starting fuel cars had been phased out for nearly three decades. With eight restored cars at the 2000 California Hot Rod Reunion, the push-start was reintroduced for this new-old trend of cackling the old fuelers.
We haven’t push-started any of these cars in a long time,” Gibbs said. "In 2000, we rounded up eight cars. Bill put a clutch in his car, and we had Art Chrisman’s car and a few others that had been put together. We push-started eight cars, and it had been 30 years since we push-started cars. They quit doing that back in the early 70s. I forgot what that used to be like. That was such a unique part of the sport, push-starting those cars. It took off.”
Just like the Pied Piper of Nitro, Gibbs cranked out a tune that many of yesteryear’s stars could dance to.
“Guys who had gone to the couch, drag racing had passed them by,” Gibbs said. “All of a sudden [they were thinking], ‘Man, I’m going to get my old car, I’d like to do that.”
“I’ve kind of kept track of the cars that have been restored, replicated and since those first eight cars we pushed off, I’ve had almost 250 different cars that have been push-started at some event. Mostly reunions but some other NHRA events and miscellaneous things around the country.
“That’s a pretty phenomenal number when you get down to it. All the guys that have gone through that trouble to bring this stuff back out and get them back out there. It’s got them off the couch; it’s got them active again – buying parts, being part of the sport. So I feel good about that.”
Getting the limelight in the media did very little for Gibbs, who admittedly has been there and done that more times than he could count. Publicizing a part of drag racing which had been filed away for decades, however, was something significant to the man the racers dubbed “Hook.”
“It’s a sense of ‘we did something good,'” Gibbs said with a beam of pride. “I think it’s the history we needed to remind race fans of. Some of them are original cars, some of them are recreations that gives us a chance to go back in time. It gives the younger folks a chance to see what we once had. In a way, it’s a museum in itself at these cackle events where you can see these cars and a lot of the times the same guys.
“Perfect example: Ivo's always been such a big part of this sport. Never won a National event but everybody knows TV Tommy Ivo and what he contributed to the sport. To see him out there again in one of his original cars or a replica of one of his original cars, it’s pretty cool. So I think there’s a sense of pride, accomplishment, and satisfaction that we’ve done something good.
“Some of these guys have been able to play the game again," Gibbs said. "I think Ivo’s probably a prime example of that. The sport had passed him by and know he’s got the chance to be out there seeing fans and signing the autographs, sitting in the car. There’s dozen of other guys that are doing the same thing. We love it.”
The Cackle event became too big for its own good. At the 2016 California Hot Rod Reunion, the field of nearly 50 Cackle cars was reduced to 25 at the last minute causing a massive rift between its participants and the sanctioning body, mainly in the name of risk management. The NHRA went a long way toward repairing the divide, but a good deal of the damage was too much to repair.
Gibbs has weathered the storm, but this year in the months and weeks leading into the third annual running of his event, faced a different kind of adversity. Earlier in the year, his mother passed away, and just weeks before Irwindale, he lost his wife Gloria, his backbone and pillar of support, following a courageous battle with cancer.
Gloria was at Steve’s side throughout his years at the NHRA and was with him to bring Nitro Revival to fruition.
“This was our life, and we were together a long time, I’m pushing 80-years-old, so it’s been a mixed blessing,” Gibbs said. “It’s been a good diversion to keep my mind occupied, and she was fighting pancreatic cancer for 16 months which is a pretty long time for that kind of cancer. It obviously took a huge amount of time and effort to take care of her.
“She was really supportive of everything we ever did, so that was always great and even when she was sick. She went to Laguna Seca (2018 Nitro Revival), and she enjoyed it. The vast majority of our friends all come from drag racing over this last 50 years I’ve been involved. So my circle of friends was her circle of friends, and it kept her involved, too.
“She had most of the time up until the last month a pretty good quality time amidst all the treatments and everything. It’s a huge blow, and it’s tough. I lost my mom a couple of months earlier. It’s been a pretty trying time for this family. But we’re getting through it, and I think having the Nitro Revival project has been good to have something to fall back on when you do get down.
“I have to say overall that’ I’m glad for a lot of reasons that we’re still involved in that, but it’s been tough. It’s not going to be the same. The support from the racing community has been just tremendous. It’s been a hard time and a life-changing time, and I’m obviously going to have to adjust to a different life right now. I’ve been fortunate enough to have three great kids, and Cindy has been a rock when it comes to the Nitro Revival thing. She’s into it, and the other kids have been great, so we’ve had a huge amount of family support.”
It hasn’t been difficult for Gibbs to see the impact Nitro Revival has had on this community. In his way, he’s preparing for the long term existence of Nitro Revival.
“I hope it carries on. If anyone were to carry it on it would probably be Cindy,” Gibbs admitted. “There’s a lot of people out there who seem to be following what we do. Age is taking its toll. A lot of people who are a key part of all of this, we’re in the age group where we’re fading from the scenes. I hope it continues with the guys that are still of an age to do this. You look at this whole nostalgia thing, and what the NHRA is doing, if you look at the people they’re featuring like in Gainesville, the 50th annual deal, they featured McCulloch, Shirley, Amato, Prudhomme, Garlits. They’re all 70-year-old people. They’re [NHRA] is cashing in on the legacy of the sport, and that legacy is fading away.
“I’m not sure that 20 years from now you’re going to have that same lingering legacy. It seems to me that guys are getting into the sport now because they’ve got the money not because they have a passion for it. I just think it’s going to be different. There just may come a time where the nostalgia thing isn’t going to work. I hope that’s not true but I kind of feel that it’s going to be less of a factor than it has been for this last few years because it’s losing the folks that have made it possible.”
But until then, Gibbs plans to stay true to the course of keeping the ship afloat.