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Dec 23, 2011

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Gary Gabelich, The Early Days

By Bud Rasner

I can lend a little first hand knowledge about Gary Gabelich.

We lived about 1/2 mile away from one another and spent time at each others house and at Lions. We were the same age (born in 1940) and went to Long Beach Poly high school together. We both lived about equidistant from Tom McEwen who was to become known as "Mongoose". At lot of racers in Long Beach were influenced by the great Reath Automotive and we were among them. As I have said before at that time in LB as we were getting our driver's licenses as Lions opened. And the street racers went to the strip to try and learn from the pioneers. Rapp, Brooks, Woodcock, Gabelich, Rasner, Mushegian, McEwen, Ferguson, Evans and others generally knew each other before we knew anything about cars. Lions had a big influence on all of us.

Regarding Gary Gabelich, a real friend and all around good guy. Everyone had a nick name Gary's was 'gravel scratch', it was not a pejorative term rather a play on his different last name and an endearing and friendly handle. He was of Croatian heritage and proud of it. His former wife Rae is on the city council for Long Beach and is the main person that gets staid old Long Beach to allow the yearly Cacklefest in Bixby Knolls which is where most all of us grew up (as if we ever did).

There is a perception that he was a dare devil which is not totally accurate. We all knew him as simply fearless. There was a real presence of Aerospace Industry in the area and a lot of the guys worked for Douglas Aircraft including McEwen and Brooks. Gary worked for North American-Rockwell and he simply would step up and test any and all equipment that they were readying for the early astronauts. He found it fun and he got some hazard pay doing it. He appeared unafraid and got a rush out of it without being boastful. We enjoyed hearing the stories and the intrigue of his many exploits.

Gary later became known as the Rocket Man and held the land speed record of the world at 622 MPH for about 12 years. He actually went a lot faster one way (up to 650 MPH) but in Bonneville, back in the day, they averaged two runs as I understand it. Someone out there will remember (and correct this) just how the timing was handled. North American gave him an ultimatum at his job of Astronaut Testing. Stop racing or they would be unable to keep training him. It was obvious that racing would win that battle. That and the fact that Gary had little formal college education (although he was extremely bright) was probably the reason he was not selected by NASA as Astronaut training material.

On a personal note I have a confession. A few people know this already but Gary and I were in jail together a couple of times. Whoa slow down, Bud, you said he wasn't wild. Well we were about 17 years old and got caught drinking beer and taken 'down town'. Imagine that!, teenagers drinking beer. Probably none of you every did. We weren't on the best terms with the LB PD mainly because of street racing. They generally were going to 'show us'. They did! Gary's mother and my Dad would come down and sign us out while the cops snickered at us.

One of the times that we were gathered up, I was sitting in my car (50 Olds) at night with some other guys down in the area of the Harbor known as Naples, and Gary drove up and walked over to my window and asked if he could have a swallow of my beer (I think in the day we drank some swill called Country Club), I handed the stubby can to him and he put it to his lips. Just then we got 'lit up' by the police and Gary had not even had a swallow. We both tried to reason with the police, I told them that he had just walked up.

Neither of us were impaired (we probably would have been later but not then) but I remember the reply 'it doesn't matter, we saw what we saw" So away we went. The other guys in the car did not have one in their hands and had stuck the others under the seat and the flashlights did not reveal them. I was not asked for a 'consensual search' so my buddy drove my car home with the beer under the seat and Gary and I got a ride down town from the "Black and White" taxi company. We stayed most of that night in the Gray Bar Hotel. We were big time criminals.

Many years later in January of 1984 Gary was killed in a street accident on his motorcycle. I have seen reports that it was in Long Beach but it was in San Pedro where he was born and had many friends.

When I heard the news, I cried.

Bud Rasner


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