(Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)
For Denbo, it all started back in 1961
Steve Denbo was 14 years old in 1961 when he snuck onto neighboring property in Auburn to find out what was making so much noise.
The manager of the new Pacific Raceways caught him. Not wanting to offend a neighbor, the manager put Denbo to work at the starting line.
Two years later, he started racing in a 1956 Chevrolet.
In 1969, he took a job in Portland. He has lived in Clark County since — sharing in a community where the passion for both drag racing and cars are strong.
For 33 years, Denbo has been a member of the Slo Poks, a popular Clark County car club.
He doesn’t race anymore, but isn’t letting thyroid cancer slow him down. Steve still owns a 1934 Ford and a 1956 Chevy that he loves to tinker with — and to drive around town.
— Paul Danzer
The storyteller was caught by surprise, moved to tears.
When he took a phone call in early December and learned that he would be inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame for the Pacific Northwest, Steve Denbo hugged his wife, Rose, and cried.
For more than five decades — since the day in 1961 that he snuck into Pacific Raceway — cars, and especially drag racing have been Denbo's lifeblood.
From setting records as a driver to staging events, from inspecting cars to entertaining audiences, the 65-year-old Vancouver resident has made a lasting impression.
"He raised the quality levels of cars around here," said Tory Lea, a racing partner and friend who inducted Denbo during Jan. 12 ceremonies in SeaTac.
Until Denbo stepped away a year ago after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, he served for more than three decades as one of the few individuals in the Pacific Northwest who inspected and certified cars for NHRA racing.
Denbo has seen drag racing's popularity ebb and grow. And he has witnessed a stunning increase in speed.
"It was challenging to keep up with the technology and all of the improvements," Denbo said.
Cliff Wright met Denbo when Wright moved to Vancouver from California a decade ago and needed to get his car certified in the Northwest.
"The one thing that everybody knows Steve for is his overall concern for driver safety," Wright said.
Denbo's commitment to safety didn't always sit well with drivers. When Denbo was part of the crew at a race that weighed cars and made sure they were safe and legal, Denbo didn't hesitate to send home racers who were cutting corners.
"He stuck to the rules," said Paul Comeau, one of the many local racers Denbo watched grow up. Comeau said he had his share of disagreements with Denbo when Comeau was "young and stupid."
"When his decision didn't go your way, you kind of got irritated. But when you looked back on it, it was probably the right thing to do," Comeau said. "You thanked him in the end."
Denbo was one of six people inducted this year into the NHRA Hall of Fame during the Northwest Division ceremony. Frank Nelson, Jr., the director of the NHRA's Northwest Division, said Denbo was an obvious choice for the hall of fame, both for the number of ways he was involved in racing, and for his decades of dedication.
"Steve has always been the guy who has been there through and through," Nelson said "He's a great guy."
At the induction banquet, Denbo received a NHRA Hall of Fame jacket and a trophy.
The Hall of Fame trophy is now the favorite of the many in the memento-filled Denbo home, trumping even the track championships and the three American Hot Rod Association speed records Denbo collected between 1980 and 1986, when he and Lea teamed up and ran two cars.
Tight finances following a divorce led Denbo to sell the 1963 Chevy Nova that he drove during 1983 to three modified production speed records. But his experience behind the wheel gave Denbo added credibility in his various other drag racing jobs, which between 1985 and 1995 included managing the dragstrip at Portland International Raceway.
Denbo has been Race Master at events throughout the West, staging races from Prince George, British Columbia, to California.
"I've probably done everything in NHRA drag racing there is to do," he said.
No matter what he was doing at a race, friends say that Denbo made the experience better for those around him.
"Steve is one of these guys who would go out of his way to help you. If it was something you can fix that day, he'd let you fix it (and race)," Wright said. "Every racer knows he's fair and he'd go out of his way to do anything to make sure you'd get to race."
While serious about driver safety, Denbo was — in the words of Lea — "a travelling comedy show" on the racing circuit.
That is a side of Denbo that the fans appreciated. For two decades, Denbo was the public address announcer for major events at Woodburn Dragstrip.
"I always tried to make things interesting for the spectators," Denbo said. He did that by talking about the history of the cars and the people involved with each race.
"That's the kind of knowledge you only get if you really, really love something," Wright noted.
The voice is more of a whisper now, a victim of a surgery to remove cancer.
Denbo hopes surgery scheduled for this week will restore his voice. But Denbo's love for cars and for the people who race comes through loud and clear as he recounts events as if they happened yesterday.
"The biggest thing is I love cars and I love to be around cars," Denbo said, explaining his five decades of commitment to drag racing. "And another big thing was all the wonderful people in it."