Bakersfield

No one could, in their wildest imagination, have predicted what wonderful madness would follow the 1st Fuel and Gas Championship (March Meet) in Bakersfield in 1959. The hype to get Don Garlits to come to California (a deal brokered by Ed Iskenderian with $4,500 from the Bakersfield Smokers to make the trip out) saw 25,000 fans overpower the small farming area of Famoso.

Art Chrisman, with his blown and injected Chrysler Hemi, beat Garlits’ eight Stromberg jugs feeding his naturally aspirated Hemi. Chrisman took Top Fuel Eliminator. Tommy won Top Gas Eliminator with his Hilborn-injected, normally aspirated ’57 Buick dragster. Tommy’s win was overshadowed by all the hoopla directed to the Fuel Cars. Nitro and methanol-constructed fuels had been banned, initiated by Mickey Thompson who managed Lions Drag Strip, not Wally Parks (who was NHRA) as was suggested, and then all the major dragstrips followed through with the ban before NHRA finally placed a national ban on Nitro.

The fans who lined the track shoulder to shoulder (grandstands were not one of the amenities yet) didn’t trek to Famoso to see the Gas classes; they could do that all the time in L.A.

Tommy didn’t run a Fuel Car yet because if he wanted to compete on a regular basis locally he either ran Gas or parked it. Nevertheless, Tommy’s win was noticed by a lot of fans and he became known as a serious racer after Bakersfield.

Tommy reasoned in 1959 that it wouldn’t be long before the Gas-class dragsters like his Isky cam–equipped Buick could eventually equal or surpass the Fuel-powered records. That never happened but it made great copy. At Fremont Drag Strip, Tommy took Top Gas Eliminator honors again at 171 mph against the supercharged motor boys breaking his own record of 170. Tommy was also the first to go 180 in the quarter.

Our “Cam Father”, Ed Iskenderian, got a lot of mileage out of the two dedicated drag racing kids, Tommy and Garlits, featuring them in his full-page ads in Hot Rod, touting “Iskenderian-equipped cars dominate both U.S. Fuel-Gas meets” (Bakersfield and Fremont). Because of the ads, the easterners began hearing about Tommy and vice-versa.

Drag racing became big time after Bakersfield. When Don Garlits rolled into town he was simply Don Garlits and Tommy was Tommy Ivo, but soon after it was “Big Daddy” and “TV Tommy”. Their fame became such that simply saying Ivo or Garlits was enough. Tommy’s celebrity status spread across the country almost the instant he left the bleach box after Bakersfield; he made that kind of visual impression. The fact was burnouts were as much a part of the show as the race itself. Tommy was the first to use bleach.

But miles per hour didn’t win drag races, it was e.t.’s; how long it took to get to the end of the quarter-mile. The Buick was 60 pounds lighter than the big Chrysler Hemi, plus Tommy’s beautiful wife Inez’s hairdryer could blow Tommy off his feet. Weight mattered.

Haywood Botts

Haywood Botts. That was the character Tommy played in the 1961 TV series Margie. “When I went out on tour they were running summer reruns. I sent the production company a little 16mm clip of me running my dragster. I wanted them to use it on the Nightly News show.” “We won’t put that in the news program,” Tommy was told, “because drag racing had a very bad reputation with kids driving through stoplights trying to kill everybody in town.”

“You tell them Haywood Botts, which was the character I played as Margie’s bumbling boyfriend who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, is coming to town to run his race car, and they put the clip on the TV show.” After that, there were as many people who came to the drags to watch the drags as there were to see the actor race. Then they’d see all the fire and smoke and found out they could run their own car on that racetrack and the promoters had fans for life. “That gave me a step up because after that I became ‘TV Tommy’ Ivo.”