By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy SEMA Archives
At the 1970 Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships, the Top Fuel final came down to a duel between two close friends: Tony Nancy and Harry Hibler. Nancy, known for his outstanding upholstery work and for building a number of immaculate hot rods (several of which were featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine), had just entered the Top Fuel ranks that year. Hibler, who for years ran the San Fernando dragstrip, had started racing Top Fuelers a couple years before and was juggling his racing schedule around his day job, selling advertising at Petersen Publishing Company.
Today, Hibler remembers the meet vividly. In fact, this photo has been hanging on his wall pretty much since it was taken on that spring day more than 40 years ago.
“The Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships was considered the race to win, the racer’s race,” he said. “Just to qualify was unbelievable. But I think the main reason it stands out so much is because it’s the only time Tony and I ever raced each other. We were such good friends, almost like brothers.”
Hibler was having trouble with his Hemi-powered dragster that weekend. “I actually ran the entire meet with almost no brakes, relying just on the chute,” he said, and the NHRA has a photo of him going through the lights with the parachute working so hard that it had pulled all four tires off the ground.
By the time he went up against Nancy for the final round, there wasn’t enough braking power to hold the car at the line. Hibler red-lighted.
“People asked me if I let him win because we were friends, but I wanted to beat him badly,” Hibler recalled. “It had nothing to do with friendship. We were racers.” And yet you can plainly see the bond between them as Nancy, at left, savors his victory while Hibler is still climbing out of his car.
Note that Hibler’s rail was a front-engine dragster; Nancy’s was, too. In fact, this would be the last year a front-engine dragster won Top Fuel at the March Meet. The following year, Don Garlits sliced through the field with his rear-engine Swamp Rat.
“I don’t think the racers today are having the fun or camaraderie that we used to have,” Hibler said. “Back then, we raced because we loved it. We didn’t do it to get rich or make money. It was done for pure fun. And as upset as I was for losing, if I had to lose to anyone in that final round, I was glad it was Tony.”