Old school drag racing is alive and well in Southern California. Of the vintage gatherings, March Meet and Nitro Revival are arguably the biggest tickets. Geezers, grandkids, and every go-fast fanatic in between come out of the woodwork to watch 2500-horsepower, nitro-chugging machines light up the strips. March Meet is a competitive festival replete with bragging rights, a purse, and a sought-after golden Wally Parks trophy. Nitro Revival, on the other hand, is a more-relaxed homage to the glory days of drag racing.
This year, Nitro Revival celebrated its fifth event. Founded by Steve Gibbs, former VP of Competition for the NHRA, the annual festival was established to “bridge to another era and connects race fans of all ages to some of the most iconic vehicles ever constructed, and allow them to interact with the people who built, drove, and maintained them.”
“Big Hook” Gibbs doesn’t do it alone. Daughter Cindy, coordinator Don Ewald, and a crew of other organizers have helped build this vintage drag event into a marquee gathering.
In 2017, Gibbs held the first Nitro Revival at Barona Drag Strip, not far from San Diego. The first event was a success but had “logistical limits,” as Gibbs puts it. The following year, the Revival traveled about 400 miles north to the prominent Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca in scenic Monterey. The second edition was a hit and racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits even made an appearance. The track, though, was a bit too far away from Southern California, where most of the old timers are located.
For the third show, in 2019, Nitro Revival found a home in the reborn 1/8th-mile Irwindale Drag Strip in San Gabriel Valley, just outside Los Angeles. (Fun fact: The original Irwindale Drag Strip was my home away from home back in the film days when I was shooting for Petersen Publication’s car magazines.)
The 2019 event was an overwhelming success, which made the following year’s cancellation (due to COVID-19) sting even worse. The entire drag world impatiently waited for the grand comeback in 2021 at Irwindale.
Dubbed “Nitro Overload,” the Revival was back in full force. At one point, organizers staged least 50 thundering front engine diggers were arranged in a “line of fire cackle-fest.” Raw burning hydrogen combusted out of the headers, shooting flames skyward.
Within the vintage drag racing world, the anticipation for this year’s Nitro Revival was palpable. It was worth the wait. Drag racers made pass after pass along Irwindale’s strip, for three straight days under the glorious California sunshine. Over in the paddock, static starts brought fans to tears—I couldn’t tell if it was caused by raw emotion or nitro.
Front-engine dragsters and Funny Cars performed exhibition runs, while AFX muscle cars lit smokey burnouts. The “Outlaw Gassers” group pointed their straight axles skyward. A roster of candy-colored drag cars packed the staging lanes, including the metallic blue Stone, Wood and Cook Willys that was once labeled Hot Rod Magazine’s “most famous drag car of all time.”
Rick Osborn’s wheel-standing ’38 Chevy Special truck and Gene Schwartz’s flying ’52 Chevy pulled dueling wheelies and sent the crowd into an uproar. The ’38 truck houses a 480-horsepower LY6 crate engine backed by a Turbo 350 automatic transmission. Walker Evans Racing wheels wrapped in 39-inch BFG red label Krawler tires deliver the power to the pavement.
Beside the ear-rattling cackles of the Top Fuel dragsters, I favor the wild, wooly Fuel Altered machines. Someone once said taming one of those unpredictable machines is like “bull riding on wheels at 200 miles-per-hour.” Ron Hope and his world famous Rat Trap—with his son Brian behind the wheel—were present at this year’s Revival. “The Revival is a great means of documenting the history of the sport and a great opportunity to reunite with friends that we don’t see too often,” said the elder Hope.
Drag racing royalty gathered Saturday afternoon for a once-in-a-lifetime autograph session. The group of hall-of-famers included Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Roland Leong (Hawaiian), “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, 101-year-old Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, Ed Pink, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “TV” Tommy Ivo and Linda Vaughn.
The day ended with the “Nitro Overdose”—this year’s cackle-fest and fireworks display. Fans screamed and whistled with excitement as flames closed out the Nitro-filled day.
Sunday was a repeat performance for all fans that really didn’t have enough. It seemed like nobody left. The National Anthem, Nitro exhibitions, wheel standers, static starts, and hours of “bench racing” carried the event well into the afternoon. “One o’clock Thunder” featured a gorgeous pair. Tom Hoover’s Fish Bowl—widely considered the most beautiful Top Fuel dragster ever built—with Bob ‘Floyd’ Muravez at the wheel fired alongside the Creitz & Donavan AA/FD with Richard Tharp in the seat. True to its name, shockwaves reverberated throughout the stands.
I caught up with Lori Petersen who was driving a dragster powered by a blown 392 Hemi running on 100% methanol. The setup notched an elapsed time of 7.75 seconds at 178.5 miles-per-hour. “This machine, built by my dad and me, is a family operation and we love the friendships,” said Petersen. “For me, sitting in the seat takes me back to when I was 20 years old. It’s like stepping back in time.”
I sat down with Gibbs in the tent as the Revival was winding down. He was relaxed and wore a slight smile on his expressive face. I asked him what it felt like for the fifth edition of “his baby” to be in the books. With an expression of joy and pride he calmly stated, “It’s rewarding to do something that seems to satisfy a lot of people. The March Meet is a whole different animal, which I enjoy immensely but this event has a social element and is not a race. The goal is to gather the old timers to reflect about the early days of hot rodding, renew friendships and inform youngsters about the roots of drag racing. We’re already working on the sixth edition. All I can say is … be there!”
Awesome write up on a very cool event. Great shots Howard!
Thanks for all the gorgeous photos. They bring back some wonderful memories to this old geezer.
Man I wish I was there. Great pictures that brought back memories of Martin 131 Dragway one Saturday night in 1965. I raced my 1965 Ducati Scrambler and won Top Eliminator in the “Murdercycle” class. (That’s what they called us, they weren’t too fond of motorcycles) I was 17 years old and won a few bucks, a free pass and a case of Quarkerstate motor oil. I went up against a Harley drag bike that ran out of gas on the starting line. I was on top of the world. A few times I borrowed my sister’s 1965 Dodge Dart G/T, 273 cu.in. 4 speed, and tell her that we were going to the drags but never told her I raced it. Ooops!!
Great photos! Fantastic cars from the ‘golden age’ of drag racing. Brings back great memories of seeing my first full nitro show as a 16 year old (complete with night racing and fire burnouts) at the old Orange County track during the 70’s. Quite a thrill for a prairie kid from Canada. The monthly subscription of ‘Drag Racing USA’ became a staple shortly thereafter. Great racing from small mom and pop teams before all of the big money changed the sport