If you were a talent scout looking for that certain little rascal, one who could sing and
Tommy Ivo was born in 1936, some 1,023 miles from Hollywood in sunny Denver where it can reach as high as 90 degrees—one month out of the year. Burr! Weather was the deciding factor for a move to the movie capital of the world. “My mother, Sara, had arthritis so bad she was practically in a wheelchair. She thought if we came to California we’d get into the good weather. We came out in 1943, just her and I, in the winter. My dad, Hans, who was a meat cutter, stayed home along with my brother, Don. We were pretty poor.
“Kids tap danced when I was a tyke instead of playing the guitar like today. I learned to tap dance so I could go up on the big stage to sing and dance. That’s what started my whole career. I was 7 when World War II was going on. The tap dancing class I was in was running all over town entertaining the soldiers. Everyone said to my mom, “He’s so cute you gotta take him to New York or Hollywood.
“They had a talent show at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown L.A. where my mom would take me on Tuesday nights and I’d kill them and win the thing every time. The studios were looking for a kid who looked like actor Dennis O’Keefe [to play his] son in the movies. The movie was a musical so we all had to tap dance in the audition. They lined us up in a big room; I was missing my two front teeth. The director said, ‘I’ll have the one without teeth.’ That’s how I got into the movies. I must have had a little ability along the way because over the next 20 years I did about a hundred movies and a couple of hundred television shows.”
Tommy purchased this ’53 Buick brand new with his movie money but the kids were always giv
Tommy was in some memorable films, like I Remember Mama in 1948, starring Irene Dunne, where he played Cousin Arne, and the 1955 classic Blackboard Jungle, starring Glen Ford, where Tommy played a frightened student.
Tommy went to John Burroughs High School in Burbank where he took Industrial Arts. “I was breath and britches in school, I weighed 115 pounds. When I’d go to gym class, I’d stand in line when they were picking teams. There I was, ‘Please don’t let me be last, anything but last.’
“I wasn’t home that much because I would go and make a picture, and when I did, I had a private teacher. I went with a girl across the street and two houses up all the way through junior high and high school. We were going to get married when we got out of school. When her parents found out I was Protestant and she was Catholic they threw me out. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. That’s when I started working on cars, because all of a sudden I was without a girlfriend.
“When I was in the movie business I had to have a guardian, which was my mom, as well as a school teacher. I could only work for four hours a day. I started in the movies when I was 7. When I turned 18 I no longer needed a guardian. My mom was lost for something to do and that’s when I started drag racing between pictures and she became my parts chaser.
Tommy purchased this ’53 Buick brand new with his movie money but the kids were always giv
“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
Tommy’s T under construction in front of his house in 1956 before he chromed everything bu
“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.”
Tommy’s T was all show and lots of go. That’s San Fernando Drag Strip’s Tom Harmon and his
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.
Who wouldn’t give their (you fill in the blanks) to have that lean, mean hot rod parked in
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.
If you were a cruiser who resided in the Burbank/Glendale area in the ’50s you lived at Bo
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. 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.”
Yes, it’s the same T but all dolled up. Tommy was an actor who played many different chara
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 that night at Lions Drag Strip with his Buick-powered T and
“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 lightning rod whether it was at school or on the dragstrip. He
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.”
What Were the Odds?
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.
“That was one of the first times I had ever done a wheel stand. Kent Fuller, who built the
Tommy made the decision to purchase the car back, restore it himself at home, and simply change the graphics. It was an impressive-looking race car with its stunning new Tom Hanna aluminum skin. Tommy felt that instead of returning it to its original look he would campaign it as is. “This was to be my final North American tour, to run the car at all of the dragstrips I match-raced on, then I planned to go into national event racing.”
Tommy took the car on his third stop of the tour to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, which is cold country. The dragstrip surface had been damaged by the winter frost when the heavy dragster hit a lifted portion and came down hard. In the process Tommy crushed three vertebrae in his back. He was told by his doctors never to drive a race car again or risk the consequences. After three decades, “TV Tommy” Ivo was forced to retire from drag racing.
The only silver spoon Tommy has had in his mouth was when the script writer put it there. Tommy has worked (played) very hard all his life doing what most of us can only dream about: “The house I live in right now I bought for my parents for $12,000 when I was 12 years old. It grew from 1,000 square feet to a 4,000-square-foot home over the years. I worked out of my garage and that’s where I built my four-motor car in 1961. Then when the cars got too long to shut the garage door we built the shop in the back. That’s where my master bedroom sits right now. I’ve never moved.”
Bob Shorrell (of Shorrell Engineering in Inglewood) built all of Tommy’s aluminum bodies f
Tommy learned from his mother to invest for the future and he did. With his pension from the Screen Actors Guild and real-estate holdings, Tommy is, deservedly, very comfortable.
Tommy Ivo hasn’t driven a dragster in 30 years, but he would agree that the race cars of today have become virtually mass produced. When the hot rod innovators were brushed aside, the originality and unexpected stopped. TV Tommy was his own man when he got a taste of the corporate world for a short time and wanted no part of it. Yes he was a showman, but he was recognized by the racers he competed against as a pacesetter who never stopped going beyond accepted boundaries.
When the superstars of drag racing are mentioned today, most of us could only name a handful. When Tommy ran there were dozens who even the folks who drove Nash Ramblers knew, be it that kid actor from California or that other one from Florida. Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end.
Bakersfield 1959, a night and weekend to remember. You can see there was an intense strate
Can you imagine what 1,856 ci of Buick engines sounded like? Judging by C.J. ”Pappy” Hart’
“The worst thing about the four-engine car was when you put out the chute it would start b
You might say Tommy had tunnel vision when he drove the four-engine Buick. To the fans in
One of the most horrific crashes in drag racing occurred during the Winternationals at Pom
We could have met at a coffee shop but I was invited to Tommy Ivo’s home, which has his so
Not too long after Bakersfield, Isky’s ads and the press would elevate the two relative un