Here's Tom and his wife, Rosemary,...
Here's Tom and his wife, Rosemary, who he met by chance when he should have been at a YMCA dance while in the Army. Seeing her walk by while waiting on a curb he danced with her right there in the street. "Best move I ever made," he says.
For sure, every year during the month of May, Tom was gone at least four weekends, plus travel time to Indianapolis. Hot Rod was still a fledgling mag in 1950 when Tom was given the assignment to cover the Indy 500, so hopping on a Douglas DC-3 to fly to the Brickyard was out of the question. It was crank up the trusty '41 Ford and head it to the sound of the screaming Offys: "I went back all by myself in the rain that first year. I'd never been there before so when I got there I had to get credentials." Tom was asked what newspaper he was with. He answered: "Hot Rod." "What the hell is Hot Rod?" they replied? He was given a bronze pass. "Hell, I couldn't even get to the latrine with it.
"Hot Rod was a mechanical magazine, so we didn't care about covering qualifying, we were hot rodders. We did stories about the cars that were being built in our backyard in California that were there. We were interested in the engines and chassis."
It was old home month for Tom as so many of the drivers were friends of his, being regulars at Gilmore Stadium and Carroll Speedway in California: Walt Faulkner, Sam Hanks, Jack McGrath, Johnnie Parsons, Jim Rathmann, and Troy Ruttman. Many gained valuable racing experience by driving Model T track roadsters on both the dry lakes and dirt tracks of Southern California before graduating to the Championship Cars.
Jack McGrath (from the track roadster and dry lakes ranks) was about to enter the track for practice and spotted Tom. "Jack handed me his silver pass and said, 'Get out there, it will get you anywhere on the track.' For 16 years, I'd go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the whole month of May. It was all work; I never sat down the whole time. Rosemary never complained."
Got ... Malted?
Tom rented a room in a stately old three-story home ("from an older couple named Manifold," laughs Tom) several blocks from the Speedway for $12 a week. "They only had one bathroom and it was on the top floor. One morning I got up and ran like hell to the WC and who got there before me? Billy Vukovich, who was staying there too."
Indy wouldn't be Indy without that traditional winner's gulp of cold milk (dating back to 1936 when winner Louis Meyer drank cold buttermilk when his mom told him it would refresh him) ... but a malted? In 1953, Vukovich won what became known as the "Hottest 500" with track temperatures hovering at 130 degrees. (Carl Scarborough died of heat exhaustion after retiring from the race.) Several hours after the race ended, Tom and Don Francisco (the late-tech editor of Hot Rod) hot-footed it out of the speedway and found some shade under the trees of nearby homes, stretching out on the grass to cool off.
"There was an old-fashioned drug store nearby, with a soda fountain, so we went in there and who's having malt? Vukovich who had just won Indy!" Tom looked at 'Vukie' and said, "What the hell are you doing here, you should be back at the speedway playing hero? 'For the last hundred miles,' Vukovich says, 'all I could think about was this malted. As far as hero, I'll do that Wednesday night when they give me the check.'"
Most of the magazine publications that began, or were around, in 1948, are long gone and there is a reason: The pioneering staff Mr. Petersen assembled was the best of the best in Ray Brock, Don Francisco, Tom Medley, Wally Parks, and Eric Rickman. Tom's "what made it run" curiosity transcended his job description when he crawled under that car, which one of the best mechanical minds in hot rodding, Vic Edelbrock was working on. In turn, Stroker passed on that knowledge, through humor, to his multitude of fans. Bud Bryan recalled that the great thing about R&C Publisher Medley was that Tom would share an idea with you, a concept about a story or a feature, but he would never tell you what to do or how to do it.