“I didn’t really know what the drags were all about when I took my stock Buick to Santa Ana Drag Strip and Pomona, won in my class, and set a record at the same time. They gave me two trophies. Then I saw this roadster [the Kookie car] that Norm Grabowski had at Bob’s Drive In and went up to him and asked, ‘Do you mind if I build one like yours?’ ‘Sure kid,’ he said, ‘I get asked that all the time.’ Of course Norm didn’t think I would follow through. So I built a T-bucket just to go to Bob’s on Friday nights. I bought a Buick motor and put it in the roadster. When I got it done, I took it to Santa Ana to see what it would do. The thing ran like a streak. It was never defeated in its class and held the record at every track that I ran at. I built that car to go to Bob’s but then I built a bigger motor for it with Hilborn fuel injectors, and when I drove it to Bob’s the oil would get so polluted with gas (Hilborn injectors were never meant to idle on the street) dumping from the injectors that I had to change the oil when I came back home. That’s when I turned the T-bucket into a race car. I gave up on show cars and cruisers. I sold the roadster for $2,000.” (Tommy offered the current owner $180,000 for it and was turned down.)
When Tommy got his roadster that he raced on the street and at the dragstrips, that changed everything: “I could go out and beat the Varsity guys at night on the street and the racers at the dragstrip on weekends.” Tommy went from Clark Kent to Superman when he became a drag racer.
Before Electric Fans
“I was in a movie called Dragstrip Girl in 1957 and they also used my roadster in it. They idled it and idled it and kept overheating it so much that I talked the studio into buying me a new motor. I went down to Max (“Old Yeller”) Balchowsky’s shop and said I was going to build a Buick—Max was famous for his Buick engines. I did all my own engine work. Max took me under his wing. He showed me how to port heads. One day he said, ‘While you’re doing your heads, I’ve got three sets of heads of my own—would you mind doing those too?’ That was my payback for Max showing me how to do them. That was a terrible job because you’d taste cast iron for a week after from all the shavings.
Tommy cashed in on being the wealthy movie star drag racer but he built every bit of his race cars at home, farming out very little. “I would bring a bare chassis home then the work began to build the car. I’d buy an aluminum motor from Keith Black. I never ran Pink motors, just Keith Black’s aluminum engine blocks. Pink used Milodon aluminum engine blocks, on and off, he never made an aluminum block. But you just couldn’t bolt all the components in Black’s blocks and go out and run it. It needed a lot of grinding for a stroked crank or any other special things I did to the motor. I’d still have to do a lot of custom work to it. When I first started running my Fuel Car I only broke one motor all season long … I just didn’t run them that hard in those days. The tires weren’t good enough to grab the ground. At that time, there was no money in drag racing. I didn’t hire anybody to do anything; I built all my own motors. I wouldn’t let just anyone build an engine in a car I was about to drive, which was a ticking bomb under the best of circumstances.”