Yes, it’s the same T but all...
Yes, it’s the same T but all dolled up. Tommy was an actor who played many different characters. His T went from the bully on the block at the dragstrip going home with a pickup bed full of trophies, to a car show trophy award winner.
Tommy was 26 when he played 17-year-old Botts but he could only pass for a teenager for so long before the gig was up. Drag racing was a natural for him with his showbiz background, not just the 31 drag cars he created but what they were carried in. “Then I’d dream up the glass-sided trailers and all those cockamamie things I would think of. I was so flashy and showy it left me with quite a reputation.”
Amazingly, only nine years after Santa Ana Drag Strip opened, there were over 200 dragstrips operating in the United States, plus new ones appearing all the time. Tommy saw the potential of hitting the road and theoretically never racing at the same strip twice. “When I first started match racing they would hire two big-name cars and drivers to race a best two out of three match race over and above the regular races. In later years they hired in as many as eight cars. Then much later 16 cars, then 32, then 64.
Tommy put them on the trailer...
Tommy put them on the trailer that night at Lions Drag Strip with his Buick-powered T and went home with a Top Eliminator trophy maybe once too often.
“I made $500 a week. Gas was 23 cents a gallon and Motel 6s were $6. That $500 went a long way. Back East several of the tracks had gotten together and called up out here after seeing all the pictures of my cars on the covers of Hot Rod.”
Match racing wasn’t for the casual racer. “I raced a lot of Wednesdays, a lot of Fridays, I’d race every Saturday night, every Sunday for sure, and at one time I ran eight days in a row. I’d sleep in until 1 o’clock on Saturday then when it came time to drive to the next track after racing on Saturday, I was wide awake. All of the other guys were taking bennies to keep themselves awake. We didn’t have shops in the rigs along with us like they have now. I’d stop at various dealerships that I knew, like a Ferrari agency in D.C. We’d work at 5 o’clock in their garage when the mechanics went home and would greet them in the morning.”
Let’s face it; Tommy was a...
Let’s face it; Tommy was a lightning rod whether it was at school or on the dragstrip. He racked up a ton of trophies with his T-bucket that the powers-to-be kept adding more rules, including running full fenders. Tommy went from racing the beauty to the beast building this abomination in one week in his garage in 1957. It was 500 pounds lighter than his roadster pickup and much quicker but this was Tommy’s last hot rod before he went onto the dragsters. The powers (Mickey Thompson managed Lions) showed Tommy the door saying we don’t run jalopies here. “Mickey came up to me years later and said he knew exactly what I was doing then.” Notice the meat cleaver in the trunklid.
Lest you think Tommy had an agent behind the scenes planning his race dates, “I did my own booking,” Tommy says. To make a living drag racing (not a fortune) was grueling indeed. The fans at their local dragstrip would see the big names roll into town, then be off to the next, but few realized how many next towns lie ahead for match racers like Tommy during the course of the season.
Tommy has a photographic mind, which made learning his lines easy. That ability allowed him to judge and memorize the 100-plus dragstrips he raced on in a season plus remember how the car performed at a given track when it came to engine tuning. “We didn’t have computers to keep track of what was going on in those days.”
Seat time today consists of 22 NHRA national events. In Tommy’s day, “I usually ran about a 100 or so races a season, plus a few out West when I came home in the winter when I was in rebuild mode,” Tommy says.
That back-breaking schedule went on for 30 years, and it took a broken back to end Tommy’s racing career. “I was working on my house when I went to get some bricks.” On his way home Tommy took a different way back to the house than he normally did. “I sold my four-motor car in 1962 but I saw my old trailer behind a speed shop in Glendale.” The car had been purchased by Tom McCourry and he ran it just as it was when he purchased it from Tommy for several years.
Funny Cars had taken over the sport as far as fan appeal to cause McCourry to change the total look of the dragster to resemble a Buick Roadmaster station wagon, calling it the WagonMaster in 1982. That was what was resting in Tommy’s old trailer out of view.