If circumstances had played out differently, Harry Hibler, of Shadow Hills, California (born in 1935), wouldn’t have been managing San Fernando Drag Strip to turn a blind eye when the Fueler guys showed up during the nitro ban, or at the helm as publisher of Hot Rod magazine, because he’d have been busting some organized crime crook for the Bureau.

Harry was an exceptional student in high school, plus he was willing to get his hands dirty, with dirt, picking beans in the fields of Springfield, Oregon, after school. The FBI was so impressed with his choice of work and top grades that they offered to send him to DC to college and eventually to their academy when he was in the eleventh grade. Harry’s father (his mother died when he was 11) would have none of it, refusing to sign the necessary papers, reasoning Washington was no place for his boy.

Mr. Hibler’s decision did not sit well with Harry at the time, but looking back he would have spent a greater part of his life driving around in “plain brown wrapper” four-doors and wearing a suit, instead of a hot rod and jeans.

As soon as Harry graduated from Springfield High School (at 16 by the way), with the bean picking money he’d saved, he promptly boarded a Greyhound in 1951 and headed for the land of drive-ins, dragstrips, and dry lakes.

After his arrival, Harry needed to find work. He took what he could get: “My first job in California was working for a termite exterminator,” Harry begins. “I was skinny enough to climb under houses. I didn’t mind it because I had a job. I rented a room in Granada Hills.

“A friend got me into the carpentry trade and we bought a Midget with a V8-60 Ford Flathead. We ran the old Ascot; I was the driver. I did it for a couple of years and didn’t get killed, which was a good thing, but then I got interested in drag racing.

“The first car was a built-up ’41 Ford business coupe with a Flathead V-8 but I broke a few motors … none of them lasted very long. I wasn’t a real good engine builder in those days. It was a typical deal; I drove it all week long to work and raced it on the weekends at Paradise Mesa, Pomona, Santa Ana, and Saugus dragstrips. I was quite deep into drag racing by then.

“I sold the ’41 and got a ’52 Olds convertible. I had the record at Pomona at 103 mph in the quarter in 1953. It was heavy because it was a custom besides, but it was bored and stroked with a pretty big cam, magnesium rocker arms, all that stuff.”

San Fernando Drag Strip

Harry had three career paths going for him during his working years, almost on top of one another: “I became a general building contractor in 1955. I also went to work as a tech inspector at San Fernando Drag Strip (aka the Pond) on weekends.

“Fritz Burns and Bill Hannon owned the strip. They bought a spot of land that was next to the San Fernando Airport and purpose-built the dragstrip. They helped develop Panorama City, doing it more as a community service to keep kids off the streets than to make money.

“I didn’t care if the guys ran nitro … as long as they told me they were going to run nitro. My big thing was whether the car was safe. We weren’t an NHRA-sanctioned ’strip. We didn’t charge the Alterds, the Modifieds, or the dragsters; we never charged them a dime to be there. To me they were putting on the show. They were the guys making it all happen. I wanted to make sure everybody had a great time.”

If a new racer showed up at the track, Harry would take the time to advise the driver as to what to expect before the pressure of competing clouded his judgment. If a seasoned racer was short of cash or needed a few dollars to get home, Harry would slip him some traveling money.

“The day that it cost the ‘Surfers’ Top Fuel team of Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and driver Mike Sorokin more than $37.50 per run, average, that was the day they quit coming to San Fernando. The money that I paid was what they had to make to break even. Today that would be $16,000-$17,000 minimum to make each run.”

Top Fuel Racer Himself

While managing San Fernando, Harry had become a Top Fuel drag racer when safety equipment was lagging behind what a nitro-burning Hemi Chrysler combo was capable of cranking out. Certainly Harry saw firsthand just how dangerous it was running the Pond weekends, but he loved driving Fuel Dragsters, even though the one he drove was a grenade at times.

In fact, early on, Harry had picked up the “Hand Grenade” Harry nickname: “I was in my twenties working in construction when they started calling me that because I had a short fuse. If someone didn’t do what I asked them to do or didn’t get the car right, my temper was short enough that I got into their face. Later they really hung the name Hand Grenade on me after I drove the Fueler for John Smyser for so long. We blew motors almost every round.”

Harry drove for Smyser for seven years. Seven is a lucky number because Harry survived those seven years breathing in hot oil and the aroma of melted metal. “John knew I was managing the dragstrip during weekends so we would compete at the night drags. That is one of the reasons I stayed with Smyser all those years (until the track closed in 1969). There was so much opposition from the neighbors on the noise that the track was forced to close. (Sound familiar?) At that same time I closed my construction.”

Harry’s reputation running the Pond was known throughout drag racing as number one. He could have knocked on Wally Parks’ door at NHRA because he would have certainly gone to work for the association. But he didn’t. Another opportunity was about to enter Harry’s life.

Petersen Publishing

Harry had worked at Petersen Publishing Vice President Dick Day’s home as a contractor. Dick’s wife, Joanie, insisted that Harry, because he knew all the racers and all of the manufacturers during the course of managing the dragstrip, could sell advertising for Petersen. “I had no clue what selling ads meant,” Harry laughs, “but I ended up doing it and loving every minute of it.” (San Fernando closed two months after Harry joined Petersen.)

First Harry worked at Car Craft selling advertising, working his way up the ranks to become its publisher, then moved onto Hot Rod. “I became publisher of Hot Rod when Robert Petersen was running the magazines. The publishers were like the head of a small corporation. The bottom line was you had to make a profit for your division or you were in trouble.

“Dick Day taught me to be honest with my advertisers and readers. Always spend your time with your manufacturers and make sure they know what your readers wanted to see. Help them develop their products so the readers knew what the manufacturers were building. The other thing he taught me was Hot Rod magazine was in a position to start trends.” At this point Harry had no interest in turning pro. Drag racing was already headed there, his new job at Petersen was turning into a career, the hot oil treatment hadn’t harmed his complexion, plus Harry was still in one piece. It was time to hang up his fire suit and trade it for a jacket and tie and move up the publishing ladder.