NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Concord, N.C., 1960 style

11 Sep 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

"T.V. Tommy" Ivo has always been a great self-promoter – witness his television career, four-engine Showboat, glass-sided trailer ... heck, the guy even unabashedly signs his correspondence "your hero and mine, TV Tom" – and with this weekend's NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in Concord/Charlotte, I wasn't surprised to hear from him about his racing trips to the Carolinas in 1960.

Ivo actually carpet bombed a number of NHRA employees and others in the news-dissemination business last week with an e-mail and photos that he first sent to me back in early July to gauge my interest (which, as you could imagine, was high), so you'll probably see some of these photos on the ESPN show this weekend from Charlotte, but, because y'all were savvy enough to come here first, you'll know the (say it with me) story behind the story.

Of course, as anyone who has ever dealt with Ivo knows, you have to work with him on "Ivo time," which means no calls before 3 p.m. (or "first thing in the morning," as he calls it), which makes writing an article a bigger challenge. Once I got him on the horn (kinda weird to say "Good morning" to someone at 4 p.m.), he was a delightful interview, full of stories and enthusiasm belying his 72 years of age. Honestly, he sounded 18 again.

The 1960 tour was Ivo's first, and the story is even more interesting because he made the trek eastward from his Southern California base with his famed Kent Fuller-built twin-engine Buick dragster with his best buddy, an inexperienced 18-year-old car painter named Don Prudhomme.

Prudhomme, who had been painting cars with his dad, Newman (aka "Tex") at a San Fernando Valley body shop, Ray Brooks Auto Body, had joined the famed Road Kings car club to which Ivo already belonged, and before long, they were, in Ivo's words, "stony-eyed bosom buddies."

Ivo had some experience traveling from his already-burgeoning show-biz career (he appeared in dozens of films as a child and teenager; filmography), but Prudhomme was eager to hit the road despite it being his first trip anywhere without his parents.

"I was Ivo's gofer," Prudhomme told Tom Madigan in his book Fuel & Guts. "Cleaning the car, wiping tires, polishing chrome, and fixing broken parts. In reality, I was going to drag racing college, learning my trade. Ivo was a hard runner, and racing was serious business. We got paid to race, and he didn't want to miss any paychecks. Ivo was a great guy to learn from, and he taught me a lot."

Tommy Ivo and Don Prudhomme, ready to hit the road, March 1960.

"This was the Concord supertrack, 1960 style.  One quarter-mile of flat track, and then an eighth-mile shutoff  going uphill. The telephone pole guardrails had chains linked between them that were badly sagging but mostly gone. Note the return road that went over hill to the right side of the track.  It was little more than a dirt path."

"This is the main entrance into the track. It ran around the tech-inspection area, which was a double carport attached on to an old farmhouse that was the main office."

The two left Southern California in the last week of March on what Ivo, then 24 ("going on 17," he admits), calls their "grand adventure" and came home the first week of September. After a number of stops and adventures – including running the twin down the straightaway of a dirt track -- they arrived in Concord the first part of August, but Concord Drag-O-Way was a far cry from zMax Dragway.

"After pulling through the overhang of a barn where they gave the cars a tech inspection, you pitted in the weed-patched dirt," recalled Ivo. "Only the narrow track itself was paved with about a 30-foot approach apron that you would drag bottom on and which they kept sweeping dirt off.

"The track was on flat ground to the finish line where it went abruptly up the side of a steep hill to a very short shutoff. The grandstands alongside the track were two-tier wood-bench-type setups, and you could walk right out into the staging lanes to watch me get in the car. Where's the race control, guys?

"If you didn't get it stopped by the time you hit the small plateau at the top, it was 'Geronimo!' off the edge of a cliff! They had put up short telephone poles with steel cables running between them as a catch net, 1960s style; they were big on telephone poles at that track. The guardrails were big chains linked between poles that were there in some places and not in others.

"The light poles were spaced far enough apart and dim enough. That made it look like an old-time flicker movie when driving up the track at night, as it was getting light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, but it was touted to be the best-lit track in the South.

"Their promotion budget was awesome as well. How do you like that hand-drawn pencil poster they made up and made copies of to put around town? And a buck to get in! To see a movie star!"

Ivo found out the hard way about the shutdown area, and though he didn't quite have to yell "Geronimo," he got close.

"I had made two short shutoff runs, but, of course, you had to make one hero run for them," he said. "The chute hesitated a bit coming out, and when I leveled out on the plateau, I was almost stopped and didn't want to tear up the front of the car on the catch net, so I veered to the right and hit a long mound of dirt that they had run across the edge of the cliff. It jumped the front end over it, slid down to the rear wheels, and just hung there by them.

"When I came to a halt, I wiggled around in the seat a couple of times to see if it was going any further and then released the seat belts and bailed out."

Prudhomme rolled up with the team's push car – a Cadillac, naturally – and while Prudhomme ran around trying to figure out how to get the car back on level ground, the first thing that Ivo did -- naturally -- was to grab his camera and run up the side of the adjacent side hill to take pictures. 

"With a lot of help we got off the hill, but it was one of the highlights of the trip and about as good of an example of yesterday's and today's drag racing as I can think of.," he said. "Absolutely black and white difference between this track and that four-lane, dual-track, all-concrete, behemoth that's there now. Then and now -- before and after -- the evolution of drag racing! From the pictures they showed on TV, it's got to be the one of the spiffiest, if not the spiffiest track I've ever seen."

My interview with Ivo only further piqued my curiousity about the tour, especially when the master prankster began regaling me with the tales of how he terrorized Prudhomme throughout their adventure. "He paid his dues going on tour with me," Ivo said with relish.

The good news for everyone here is that we'll be delving deeper into that story in the coming weeks; you'll get a firsthand look at life on the road in the 1960s, barnstorming across the country as Ivo and Prudhomme began to mold themselves into the drag racing heroes they would become.

Ivo has a great memory and some great photos to go with it; it's going to be fun, but I thought you'd enjoy this teaser, just ripe in timing for this weekend's event in Charlotte.

Important editor's note: Ivo later realized he had made some mistakes in his geography and filing. See the bottom of this column for clarification.