Johnny Gibson was a leading AMA Grand National racer of the 1950s. Gibson’s biggest victory came in the 1956 Daytona 200 riding a factory-backed Harley-Davidson. Gibson was also one of the stars of the popular Friday night Ascot Park races in Gardena, California, along with the likes of Sammy Tanner, Al Gunter and host of other top riders of the era. Gibson played a key role in the revival of Speedway racing in Southern California during the 1970s and '80s. He built a track in Irwindale and helped foster a generation of riders that would bring the U.S. back to world prominence in Speedway World Championship racing.
Gibson was born in Los Angeles on July 6, 1930. He grew up on an alfalfa ranch in the Imperial Valley before moving to Pasadena when he 11. Gibson’s father, John Sr., was a leading Southern California motorcycle racer of the Class A era in the 1910 and '20s. At one point, Gibson Sr. rode for the famous Cyclone factory. Gibson’s uncle was the West Coast importer for Ariel and Triumph motorcycles before World War II, so a young Gibson grew up around motorcycling.
As a teenager, Gibson began racing Speedway.
"There were about seven tracks in California in the 1940s," Gibson recalled. "I guess the most popular track was Lincoln Park, but we’d race all week long and always get good spectator turnout. We even raced on a baseball diamond in Santa Monica."
By the 1950s, Speedway’s popularity began to wane. Gibson blamed it on television.
"People used to go out of the evenings for entertainment," he said. "But when TV got popular, it really killed Speedway."
With the sport on the decline in America, Gibson and a team of seven other American riders headed to Europe to race Speedway. It was a real eye-opener for the young Americans.
"We’d race in front of crowds of 40,000 to 50,000. It was amazing how popular Speedway was over there."
When he returned to America, Gibson began racing dirt-track events with sponsorship from Triumph importer Johnson Motors. Gibson scored four top-10 finishes at the nationals in 1954. His best race came at the AMA Grand National road race at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California. His crew discovered a problem with his bike just before the start and Gibson finally got going after the rest of the field was well underway. He charged hard and moved all the way to third by the checkered flag. It marked his first podium finish at an AMA National.
Gibson liked riding for Johnson Motors, but the Triumphs did not have the power to compete with the Harley-Davidsons on the big tracks. When a call came from Harley-Davidson at the end of 1954 to ask if he would ride for them in '55, it was any easy choice for Gibson.
He traveled the national circuit, often with his buddy Jimmy Phillips, and his association with Harley-Davidson began paying off immediately. At the 1955 Daytona 200, Gibson finished third. In all, Gibson scored nine top-10 finishes in the Nationals that season, including being runner-up at the Dodge City, Kansas, road race and the Langhorne, Pennsylvania Mile. He led the Dodge City race until his bike’s motor seized on the last lap. Gibson finished fourth in the final AMA Grand National Series standings in 1955. It proved to be his highest year-end ranking.
Gibson reached the zenith of his career in 1956 by winning the Daytona 200. The pace was so fast in that year’s race on the beach course that over three-quarters of the field dropped out due to attrition. One by one, the leaders of the race fell by the wayside with mechanical problems. Late in the race, Paul Goldsmith took the lead, but with just two laps to go his bike experienced electrical problems and he was forced to drop out. Gibson had been running a fast, but steady race and inherited the lead. His crew never gave him that information.
"They thought if I found out I was leading that I would get nervous and make a mistake," Gibson explained. "I took the checkered flag and when I pulled into the pits I didn’t know I’d won. All of a sudden, I see everyone really excited and jumping up and down. That’s when they told me. I couldn’t believe it. I’d just won the Daytona 200. It was a great day."
Gibson remembers winning $2,500 for the Daytona victory. He said in his best year of racing he made about $32,000, at a time when the average yearly salary for Americans was around $4,000. Like most of the racers of the era, he supplemented his income by racing the Kansas fair circuit between Midwestern AMA Nationals.
Gibson raced through 1962, when he suffered serious injuries in a race at Ascot Park. He fully recovered, but the demands of family life and the fact that he was 32 years old helped Gibson decide that it was time for him to retire. In all, Gibson scored a total of 26 top-10 finishes in AMA national competition, including eight podium finishes and of course his Daytona victory.
Even though he left professional racing, Gibson stayed involved in motorcycling. He owned a Yamaha and Triumph dealership in the 1960s. His son became a top regional motocross racer.
In the early 1970s, Gibson helped revive his first love, Speedway racing. He built a track in Irwindale, California, and a new generation of Speedway stars, such as Bruce Penhall, emerged during the 1970s and '80s and brought America back to prominence in World Championship competition.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, Gibson was retired and living with his wife, Betty, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. The couple had two children, Michael and Sandra. He remained active in promoting Speedway racing.