Upon graduating from his Oregon high school at age 16, Harry Hibler boarded a bus bound for the promised land of hot rodding and drag racing. Landing in southern California in 1951, the youngster soon hopped up a 1941 Ford for street racing. (Some of those contests involved “pink slips”—i.e., each contestant’s state title—and a grueling distance of 200 miles, from the San Fernando Valley to Bakersfield and back!) However, it was a visit to C.J. Hart’s newly-opened Santa Ana Drags that opened up a world that changed—and possibly saved—this wild child’s life.
Hibler’s easygoing-yet-determined personality earned initiation into a prestigious L.A. car club. His skill at the wheel of the Ghost Riders’ ’34 Ford altered coupe led to ever-quicker rides in club members’ cars and friends’ rails. That experience culminated in a part-time career driving other people’s underfunded, often-explosive Top Fuel Dragsters. Everyone knew that if Harry was at the track, so were his helmet and firesuit.
Never one to turn down a scary ride, Hibler’s typical Saturday night might find him steering some unfamiliar fueler, jet car, fuel altered, or turbine-powered dragster. In 1970 at Bakersfield, “Hand Grenade” Harry shocked the kings of the sport by driving to the final round of Bakersfield’s March Meet (where his luck ran out against Tony Nancy, a close friend).
Sundays were strictly reserved for his first love, San Fernando Drag Strip (later Raceway). Harry joined the skeleton crew as a tech inspector not long after the suburban-L.A. strip opened in 1955 and never left. In 1960, he became the track’s third manager while still in his mid-20s. Simultaneously, between weekends, he was the general contractor to the stars of SoCal’s vast speed business, building or remodeling the headquarters of Ed Pink Racing Engines, Tony Nancy Upholstery, Drag News and more.
When San Fernando’s owners suddenly shut down the strip in 1969, freeing Hibler for extended travel, he accepted a longstanding sales offer from Petersen Publishing Co. The rookie ad guy’s instant success at Car Craft earned promotions to the Hot Rod sales staff and, ultimately, into the publisher’s chair of the industry’s largest magazine. In 2011, the NHRA Motorsports Museum honored his multifaceted career with a lifetime achievement award.
This is one rodder and racer who’s truly done it all—and then some. That “Hand Grenade” Harry lived to tell the tales is perhaps the most-remarkable thing about a remarkable life in hot rodding.
By: Dave Wallace