Al Pombo, who kissed bumpers and babies in a hard-charging auto racing career in the Central Valley that often angered competitors while captivating fans, young and old, died Friday at Veterans Hospital in Fresno. He was 85.
"He was just talented, very good -- he was the best," another former Valley racer, Dan Green, said Saturday of Mr. Pombo, who launched his career at Merced Speedway in the jalopy class in 1948, went on to compete in dirt cars, hardtops, sprint cars and super modifieds and won more than 500 main events, seven NASCAR supermodified titles and numerous championships at short tracks throughout California before he retired in 1971.
He actually came out of retirement for one final race, driving Al Brazil's circle No. 3 sprint car at Clovis Speedway in 1976.
"They broke the mold when they made him," Kings Speedway promoter Dave Swindell once said of Mr. Pombo, the state's top hardtop racer in the 1960s.
Kenny Takeuchi, a former announcer at Kearney Bowl and other tracks across the state, once said: "He was dedicated to the sport. Whether it's God-given or not, he had real driving talent and competition never fazed him. He was also good on dirt or pavement, and that's rare to find today."
Mr. Pombo was particularly dedicated to the Valley.
"He had the ability to go back East," Green said, "but he never did really care about going on to Indy and the big time. He was a local guy and very few people beat him."
Mr. Pombo fancied the tight, quarter-mile oval at the old Kearney Bowl, where his duels with Marshall Sargent riveted the Valley racing audience in the 1950s and '60s and helped pump racing blood back into the hearts of those still mourning the 1955 Indianapolis 500 loss of Fresno icon Billy Vukovich Sr.
It was at Kearney Bowl -- once Fresno Airport Speedway, and then Italian Park Speedway -- where Vukovich forged his career from 1936-47 behind the wheel of the little red "Old Ironsides" before crowds approaching 20,000 that routinely arrived for Sunday night midgets.
And it was primarily there and at Clovis Speedway that Mr. Pombo developed a Valley fan following arguably only exceeded by Vukovich in the region's history of auto racing.
Mr. Pombo's popularity hardly faded deep into his retirement as it was common to see him in recent years smooching babies and being swarmed by kids and adults at autograph sessions at Valley tracks.
He couldn't be torn away from his passion -- even though he used a wheelchair in his final months.
He made his last appearance, signing his hats, T-shirts and pictures per usual, Oct. 22-23 at the Trophy Cup at Tulare's Thunderbowl Raceway.
Mr. Pombo was taken there by longtime friend Paul Reiter, his designated driver for years.
And, to the end, Reiter witnessed many who bowed to the icon.
"People from way back would tell their kids to shake this man's hands, the legend of all time," said Reiter, a former soda vendor at Kearney Bowl. "People would tell him, 'You're the greatest driver ... you gave us so many nights of thrills ... I met my wife at the track and watched your whole career.'
"He made so many memories. It was unbelievable."
Most memorable were the duels with Sargent that found metal to metal and occasional fist to fist.
So intense was their rivalry, bleacher brawling was common among fans fighting in defense of one or the other racers.
And so prominent in Valley racing annals, a tribute is still paid in the form of the annual Pombo-Sargent Classic at Kings Speedway.
"We were always the best friends in the world," once said Pombo, also namesake of the Al Pombo Classic that continues at Madera Speedway. "But when the green flag dropped, we'd come out fighting. Sometimes, we'd mix it up a bit, but we'd always end up in the bar partying."
Mr. Pombo relished sharing the stories with family so young they didn't even see him race.
"He'd always tell us he was best friends with opponents outside the track, but on the track they were his worst enemies," said a granddaughter, Teresa Pombo, 25, of Easton.
Daughter of Al Pombo's son, Tony, she said her grandfather hadn't walked since falling and breaking his hip in late June.
Since, he had remained at Fresno's Veterans Hospital. And it was there that Reiter would pick him up, drive him to tracks in Tulare, Chowchilla, Madera and Hanford, and return him the same night, as late as 2 a.m.
"He had been doing bad and stopped eating," Teresa Pombo said Saturday night. "Then he started going to the races with Paul again, he would eat a hot dog, sandwich and popcorn, and began trying in physical therapy. He started feeling good again. It was kind of a miracle."
Mr. Pombo, born in the Azores but raised in Merced, is survived by daughter Patricia Ruch from a first marriage and daughter Alisa McDonald from a second.
Survivors also include Tony Pombo and Patricia Micheli, children from a previous marriage of Al Pombo's late wife, Pat. But they took on the Pombo name and he considered them to be his own.
"He loved kids, he loved people, he loved everybody," Reiter said. "You couldn't ask for a better guy. He was my hero."
Funeral services are pending.