By the winter of 1965, the landscape of drag racing was changing. Tommy Ivo had established himself as one of the sport’s primary architects. However, he could feel the sand shifting beneath his feet as the activity was rapidly evolving from a garage mentality to a full-blown professional sport.
Ivo had long been the teacher, but now the students were challenging him for the status of head of the Top Fuel class. To stay at the pinnacle, he needed to push the limits, and not just in horsepower. Decisions, often difficult ones, were becoming more and more frequent. The game had changed from simple tire pressure and nitro mixture to factors no one dreamed would come into play. Added to the situation was the growth of the NHRA as well as smaller, sometimes more aggressive competitors. These factors allowed drag racing to rapidly become the fastest growing participation sport. For TV Tommy, this was both a blessing and a curse.
THE TRIALS OF ERROR
When Ivo and Don Prudhomme hooked up for the first side-by-side, seven-second pass, it was clear that the ability to change, adopt and (most importantly) innovate would need to become a constant companion. For the upper echelon, it was time to lead into new levels of discovery. Aerodynamics was an idea that looked like it held promise.
During NHRA’s England Tour a year earlier, Ivo met Steve Swaja, a talented young man who was crewing for Top Fuel driver/builder Tony Nancy. During the Atlantic crossing, Swaja, a student at the Pasadena School of Design, sketched sleek-looking dragster bodies using aerodynamic principles seen on land speed-style cars of the day. “The bodies were stunning. They were narrow in the front and wide in the rear—like a reverse teardrop—with graceful, flowing lines. We had no idea if any of these principles would do anything, but they looked so good I had to give one a try,” Ivo said. He thought that even if it didn’t go any faster, the look would surely result in more packed grandstands. Using one of the sketches, the Videoliner with a swoopy aluminum body, was built. On the first test run Ivo discovered the wind currents made the car handle like he was wrestling a raging bull. The second run was no better. But Ivo and team kept trying to fine-tune the concept in hopes of discovering the secret.
Meanwhile other builders were also experimenting with aerodynamic, streamline designs. One night at Lion’s the answers were tragically revealed. “I was heading down the fire-up lane toward the staging area. Another driver in a streamliner was in mid-run when he lost control and slammed at full speed into a telephone pole. The car was heavily damaged and the driver killed. I got out of my streamliner right then and there.” Ivo concluded. That event, along with a near fatal crash by Tony Nancy in his experimental slipstream dragster, put a quick end to the idea.
The quest to harness the wind was not completely lost to the ill-fated, full-bodied streamliners. It took Ivo and team only a few weeks to recycle some of the ideas to build the next generation of a TV Tom beauty. The Red Wing was a more conventional dragster that could double as a piece of art. The stars, however, would not align for the car as it met with a comedy of errors. Ivo recalled its rocky beginning. “Before my first run, my over-excited push car driver slammed into the rear of it, sending me and the car up onto the hood of my Cadillac.” The heavily damaged aluminum deck was hastily repaired, but couldn’t hold up to the strains of touring. A fiberglass replacement unit was made in mid-summer and used for the remainder of the season
SHOW AND GO
During the mid-’60s, drag racing had a clear-cut pecking order: there was Top Fuel and then everything else. Prudhomme, TV Tom’s former sidekick, had established himself as one of frontrunners of the sport along with Don Garlits and Tom McEwen. “It was a colorful time in the sport. There was a Snake, a Mongoose, Big Daddy and TV Tom,” said Roland Leong, known for his Hawaiian dragsters and his tuning abilities. “All of them could be the fastest at any time. But, it was Ivo who knew how to put on a show,” he added.
For 1966, Ivo constructed a new and improved dragster using the fiberglass tail of the Red Wing. In true TV Tom style, he one-upped everyone when he arranged for ABC’s Wide World of Sports to follow the building process. It brought unprecedented exposure, not only to Ivo, but the entire sport as well. Adding to the impression, Ivo painted the car green. “We called it ‘chartreuse’ because it was bad luck to paint a race car green,” remarked Ivo. While the new 150-inch wheelbase dragster was drop-dead gorgeous, Ivo added another showman’s touch, a glass trailer. “It was a simple yet effective idea. Make the rig like a rolling storefront. Man, did that cause some highway excitement,” he added.
In ’67 Ivo went from chartreuse to psychedelic. It was the age of incense and peppermints and there was no one more ready to be more far out than Ivo. As he put it, “I told custom painter George Cerny about drawing amoeba shapes on my school notebooks a decade ago. So he did up the body in white pearl with candy apple red blobs. Man, that car was a real crowd-pleaser.” In ’68, Ivo moved the process forward by building a second rail and a trailer capable of hauling both.
By this time the NHRA and AHRA were competing for the top drivers and tracks. Both sanctioning bodies also increased the number of national events and developed a points system. In the face of mounting pressure to run quicker, engines were being pushed to the limit. Sponsorship was still a dicey situation and never enough to fund the building and campaigning for a full season, not even for drivers as successful as Ivo.
THE POINT OF TOURING
The final season of the ’60s proved to be a tale of two extremes. First, the two Top Fuelers from ’68 were repainted and carried over for ’69. The cars were in a rainbow scheme. Once again Ivo was a top contender at every national event. But, it was running on the touring circuit that paid the bills. “It had become a question of ego or economics.” Ivo explained. “I knew I could make more money touring than earning points. But it cost me when it came to being part of the history books,” he added.
It was during this time that Ivo pulled off one of the most iconic off-track tricks in racing history. He convinced Dodge to supply him with a cab-over truck on flatbed rails. He commissioned Swaja to design a glass-sided truck to haul both dragsters plus all necessary parts, equipment and nitro. The kicker was it also would carry a tow car on top. “I bought a Corvette to use as the push car. When the Dodge people saw that, they were very upset. They wanted me to use a Dart. I told them the only American car low enough to clear the interstate bridges while on top of the rig was a Corvette. The truth was there was no way I was going to use an old man’s car as a pusher. The Corvette was more my style,” recalled Ivo. The rig had a celebrity status of its own, being made into model kits and featured in magazines.
The desire for a double life of racing was tempered by a decade of being the most popular driver in the sport. Fans from coast-to-coast looked forward to TV Tommy Ivo coming to a track near them. His warm personality, Hollywood good looks, and beautiful dragsters, trailers and tow cars had made him a big attraction. It was here where the two-car system paid major dividends. The full-bodied dragster was used for the majority of his touring appearances and at custom car shows. The second car minus rear bodywork was lighter and quicker, thus it was his choice at national events or during match races with the heavy-hitters of the day.
Time on the road takes its toll, especially after a decade. It was important to stay loose and try to have fun. Otherwise the rigors of the living out of a suitcase nine months a year would drive a person to the edge. While Ivo was as famous as a drag racer could be in the ’60s, he was also infamous for his practical (and often elaborate) jokes.
One night, while at a national event, he and a crew member were leaving the hotel parking lot. “At the time, nearly every team had a Chevy truck. There were dozens of them in the parking lot, so I decided everyone needed a new hood,” he recalled. Ivo and team removed all the Chevy hoods and swapped them around. The next morning, red hoods were on white trucks, white were on blue and black on red. “It was a slight to see. I think it took three months for everyone to get the original hoods back in place,” he said with a chuckle.
“Ivo was the biggest prankster there was back then. I remember the hood gag. The only ones that got off that one were Prudhomme and I because he was running a Ford and I had a Dodge,” said Tom McEwen. TV Tommy was not immune to retaliation and often found himself blockaded in his hotel room by a vending machine or with a lump of Limburger cheese hidden in his room’s air vent. McEwen summed in up this way, “It was all in good fun and was part of the camaraderie of the sport.”
THE TIMES OF CHANGE
The next two years were filled with massive transition. In one genius move major sponsorships were brought into the sport via the growing popularity of Funny Cars. Suddenly, Top Fuel was no longer the top draw. McEwen and Prudhomme opened the floodgates with their Hot Wheels deal. Coupled with Garlits’ tragic clutch explosion and subsequent invention of the rear-engine dragster, it seemed the entire sport was being turned upside-down. TV Tommy, always on the leading edge of innovation, was suddenly seen as a man in the past. He had two conventional front-engine dragsters, no plan to get into a Funny Car, and was only able to land small sponsorship deals with Fram Oil Filters and AMT. Drag racing, as he knew it, was over. Funny Cars were the touring draw and he knew he would have to adapt or die. He would not only adapt, be once again lead the charge.
Change for Ivo came in 1972 when he arrived with a new rear-engine dragster. Style and attention to detail were just as important as performance. “Rear-engine design became a standard cookie-cutter look. I wanted to stand out, not only by being faster, but to have a distinctive style,” said Ivo. To achieve this, Ivo ran body panels connecting the front and rear of the car. The wing supports were also unique at the time. When it came to performance, Ivo quickly set the bar. On his first official run in the car, he recorded a 5.97 – the first time anyone had ever traveled the quarter-mile in less than six seconds. In just a few weeks, Mike Snively and Don Moody joined the five-second club. In contrast, 16 years passed before Eddie Hill broke the four-second barrier.
In his never-ending quest for discovery, Ivo added front wheel covers in 1973. He would have an entirely new car built in 1974 that resulted in the ride of his life. At the NHRA Winternationals, Ivo debuted his new dragster. It had all the flair of previous models, but offered a rear wing that was lower and pushed further back on the chassis. It look great but was unproven. On his fourth pass, all would be revealed. As he reached the 1,200-foot mark, the engine exploded in a ball of flames. The heat instantly destroyed the lower rear wing. At the same time the rods blew out of the block sending oil onto the rear slicks. Now Ivo was on fire, with no down-force and traveling 240-mph sideways. In a blink of an eye, the dragster flipped and rolled. “I’d been in many a bad situation before, but this one was different. I knew I wasn’t going to walk away from this one. I just surrendered to the terror and closed my eyes. I was dead,” he recalled. Slamming the guardrail, the engine separated from the chassis. That sent Ivo, strapped in the cockpit, into flight. “At that moment, I was calm and opened my eyes to see the timing tower upside down. I felt death was at hand, so I just decided to enjoy the ride,” he added. Then, as quickly as it started it was over. Ivo, wrapped in a mangled heap of aluminum and steel, regained his hearing and presence. He was alive, or so it seemed. As he freed himself from the wreckage, he ripped open his leg on a jagged piece of aluminum. That was the extent of his injuries. He’d survived one of the most spectacular crashes in NHRA history and in the process was the first to travel 240 miles per hour through the traps backwards, upside down and on fire. A true Ivo moment if there ever was one.
GAINING SPONSORSHIP – LOSING FREEDOM
Since the advent of big money sponsorships, Ivo had resisted the temptation. He preferred to remain pure to the roots of the sport. In 1975, the lure of funding became too great. “I signed on with The Rod Shop. I liked the instant cash but soon found the restrictions suffocating,” Ivo lamented. Unlike those who secured non-automotive sponsors, such as Wonder Bread and Bubble Up, at least the Rod Shop was a company that was about the sport. However, this relationship thrust him deeper into contractual obligations. “Sponsors want you to run all the big events, which meant sacrificing a great deal of paid appearances. In the end it was more like trading dollars,” he recalled.
By the end of 1975, though Top Fuel was still considered the premier class, Funny Car had long surpassed it in popularity. “Everyone had switched over to Funny Cars. I was ready for a new set of thrills and decided to make the move as well,” he said. This meant that he was behind the engine again and reunited in battle with his old Southern California rivals Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. Rod Shops remained his primary sponsor. It was decided to build a Dodge Dart-bodied car. Unfortunately Darts weren’t being molded, so a Plymouth Duster body was used and disguised as a Dart that rode on a Jamie Sarte chassis.
The car debuted at a Fremont Funny Car meet. The day before the event, while preparing to test the car for the first time, an ignition malfunction forced Ivo and crew to abandon any shakedowns. It was not the first time Ivo would go into battle in an untested ride. But never had the field been so formidable. “It was trial by fire. Unlike my Top Fuel dragsters, this Funny Car had to be manhandled down the track.” Ivo said. Each round Ivo learned more about the handling of his new ride. One by one, the competition fell until only he and the Mongoose remained. “We talked between each round. It was clear that Ivo was getting the hang of how to get the most out of his car. I knew then another big time contender had entered the class,” said McEwen. The Mongoose bested Ivo in the finals. But for the next three years the Funny Car field had to contend with a rejuvenated, smiling TV Tom.
As in years past, Ivo the showman took over the class and became a fan favorite. During non-national events, Ivo was known for his long, near quarter-mile smoky burnouts. He would then return to the line in reverse at speeds far beyond anyone else in the game. “One of the other drivers once said I owned the record for traveling the quarter-mile in reverse,” Ivo joked. Indeed, he ran backwards so fast some wondered how the transmission gears held together.
The jump to Funny Cars rejuvenated the once-weary Ivo. The only downside to the accompanying sponsorship was being told where and when to be. “It was odd switching from being the captain of my own ship to having a commander. I knew it wouldn’t last,” Ivo recalled. In 1978, Ivo would once again be the author of his own fate. This freedom wasn’t a deterrent, as he reached the Winternationals finals before falling to Prudhomme. But the sport was now so money driven that an unsponsored car—even in the hands of Ivo—was a losing proposition. “I had to back off from running the car as hard as needed. That cost me a lot of championship opportunities,” he said.
That year Ivo was involved in another near fatal crash. In the shutdown area at the New England Dragway, Tim Kushi slammed his Yankee Sizzler into the back of Ivo’s Arrow. The two cars and drivers ended up in the nearby brush and trees. Both cars were salvaged but at great expense. Although Ivo regrouped, the mental, physical and financial toll of the sport forced him to face a new reality. His long love affair with drag racing and its fans was coming to a conclusion. And, it deserved to end with all the flash and in style it had started with.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
In the early-’70s, racing pioneer Art Arfons gave TV Tom a ride in his two-seat, jet-powered Cyclops. Ivo was thrilled by the ride and always kept the idea of driving a jet car in his thoughts. “All the fun of touring was gone. The way the sport had developed, there was no longer match racing and little time for anything other than work. I wanted to do something fun again; perhaps a new exhibition car was the ticket. But, instead of four Buick engines, something a little more modern, like a Jet engine,” Ivo explained.
Jet cars wern’t new, just unrefined. In true Ivo style, he changed all that. “Jet-powered cars were not much more than a basic frame with an engine attached. I designed a body that looked like a Can-Am racer,” he said. At the time, jet engines could be had for less than a hundred dollars. Ivo traveled to Arizona and plunked down a couple of Franklins for a pair of 8,000-hp engines. With old friend Ron Attebury crafting the chassis, Ivo was like a kid again. “I loved coming to the line and hitting the afterburners. That would throw out a huge fireball. The crowd loved it.”
Like he’d done so many times before, Ivo set up a coast-to-coast tour. With his reputation and fan following, it was an easy sell. “The car accelerated like a Super Stocker off the line. But, as the air mass increased into the engine, it accelerated to 300-mph in a heartbeat. It was the most exciting car I ever drove,” he said.
The Jet Car excitement took on a new meaning in Thompson, Ohio. On a post-rain storm Saturday, Ivo did a 250-plus-mph pass. Unlike most tracks where the shutdown area featured an incline, this track’s shutdown area was down hill. “When I hit the shut down area, the jet engine was still making enough significant power to send the entire car airborne. It lifted over eight feet into the air. The crosswind sent me to the side before crashing into a muddy shoulder,” said Ivo. The landing didn’t cause injury to car or driver, however the thick mud from the rain caused the car to dig in. This resulted in instant resistance and slammed the car from 200 to zero in about 6 feet. “It was the same type of negative force that killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001,” he added. The force sent Ivo’s head forward, crushing three neck vertebrae. He was in great pain but drove the car the next day at Englishtown, New Jersey. Ivo was fiercely loyal to the track owners that promoted him throughout the years as well as his fan base. Despite injury and pain he fulfilled his remaining commitments. He sold the Jet Car at the end of the year and took 1981 off to heal from his injuries. During his recovery, a jet-powered Funny Car was built and tested but Ivo felt it wasn’t capable of touring and abandoned the idea.
What TV Tom really longed for was the fun days of touring. By a twist of fate, he was able to live the cliché, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With 30 years of racing under his belt, he wanted to make one last farewell tour. He’d grown weary of cutthroat competition and had no interest in fielding a Top Fuel or Funny Car. By chance, he drove by the old speed shop in Glendale. In back was a familiar long lost friend. It was the old enclosed trailer that once housed the four-engine dragster. After some inquires, he discovered the car was still inside. It’d been there for more than a decade after one of its old Nailhead engines had blown apart. It didn’t take but a moment for TV Tom to have the answer to his farewell tour dilemma. Within a few hours he was able to purchase the car and trailer. In his Burbank garage, the same one where he built the four-engine car all those years ago, he brought the past back to life.
The previous owner had fitted the rig with a body resembling a Buick station wagon. Ivo liked the idea of the WagonMaster and called every old track owner to replicate the tour of years past. Over the final months of 1981, the four-engine car was restored beyond its earlier glory. With the signature Ivo glass-sided trailer, he was on the road one final time.
It was early spring and Ivo was crisscrossing the map. He recalls a time in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when his good time tour turned sour. A harsh winter can do awful things to a racing surface. To a packed house, Ivo gave the crowd what they came to see, a full chat, four-wheel drive burnout from line to line. In the barrage of smoke and noise, Ivo didn’t see the remains of a frost heave leftover from the sub-zero winter. The car bottomed out, providing a severe thud to the still healing Ivo. Near blackout pain followed. In showman’s style, Ivo pulled it together, exited the car and waved to the adoring fans.
The next morning Ivo flew home to get checked out. The news wasn’t good. While his spinal cord wasn’t damaged, three vertebrae below the shoulders had been crushed. “I was put into a body brace and told to make a choice, drive a race car or walk. I chose to walk,” he said. And so, the man who had innovated the sport, survived multiple high-speed crashes, traveled across the country and overseas to promote the sport he loved, was faced with forced retirement.
Again, Ivo was concerned more with his fans than himself. He hired Rick Johnson to drive the four-engine car for the remainder of the tour dates. He accompanied Johnson and the car, but it wasn’t the same. He was thankful when it was over.
In the years that followed, Tommy Ivo received numerous honors. The Hot Rod Magazine Lifetime Achievement, NHRA Lifetime Achievement, named to the Car Craft Magazine All-Time All-Star Drag Racing Team, and he was enshrined in the American Motorsports Hall of Fame. “To me, being inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame was better than winning and Academy Award,” proclaimed Ivo.
Today, with the resurgence of nostalgic drag racing, Tommy Ivo is as big a draw as ever. His T-bucket, two engine, four engine and Barnstormer dragsters live on at events from coast to coast and at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California. And as for the man himself, he’s still smiling and forever in love with the sport he helped build and the millions of fans he thrilled.
Ivo made the switch to Funny Car in ’76. The Rod Shop remained his major sponsor. Wanting to remain loyal to Dodge, since Dart bodies were nonexistent, a Plymouth Duster in disguise was used. His signature fiery burnouts continued.
New England Dragway in Epping, NH, Ivo was hit at 240 mph after defeating The Yankee Sizzler. Ivo rebuilt the car and completed the season, but the crash and more than 20 years of racing had taken its toll. His final competitive seas was 1978.
For two years Ivo returned to exhibition runs with the most advanced jet-powered dragster. In Ohio, a crosswind pushed the car into a muddy area and suddenly went from 200-0 in less than 10 feet. He was severely injured by the negative G-force.
Photos Courtesy Tommy Ivo Collection