Remembering Tommy "T.C." Lemons
It didn’t take much arm-twisting after I broke the sad news of the death of Tommy “T.C.” Lemons, Don Garlits’ most storied crew chief, first on Twitter and then on NHRA.com, to get the stories and plaudits pouring in for an individual who truly was one of a kind.
Garlits, obviously, was my first call and provided the confirmation of the sad news of the loss of his dear friend. We spoke at length, and he provided some great stuff, and I’m sure I only scratched the surface of the stories he could tell about the guy he also called “Top Cat.” I knew that as one of Garlits’ great rivals during the Lemons era, Shirley Muldowney, who first alerted me that Lemons had passed, also would have a story to tell.
I also remembered that Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who coauthored Don Garlits R.E.D., the story of the design, construction, testing, and debut of Garlits’ revolutionary rear-engine Swamp Rat 14, had interviewed Lemons at length and that their two books on the subject were filled with hilarious quotes from the man. NHRA historian Greg Sharp, who had written the biography of Lemons when he was an honoree at the 2010 Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, also knew Lemons well and agreed to share his thoughts. Again, it wasn’t hard to get people talking about Lemons.
T.C. Lemons and Don Garlits, circa 1969
Still together, years later (Fred Johnson photo)
Garlits, who sadly had to be the one to find Lemons – he had gone looking for the normally punctual Lemons at the cabin on the grounds of the museum where Lemons had lived the last five years when it was time to head out for Stuart, Fla., to take part in a TV show the next day – clearly was very sad but brightened as he talked about their last few years together.
“I was closer to Tom than I was to my brother,” said Garlits. “I really enjoyed having him here because we’d go to town and talk about old times on the ride. It was just so enjoyable. He was always ready to go at the drop of a hat.”
Lemons and fellow “Okie” Connie Swingle, who also would become a regular part of Garlits’ Swamp Rat Pack through the years, originally worked with Garlits in 1968, when they came to Tampa, Fla., from Bixby, Okla., with the intention of helping Garlits build cars and trade labor for a chassis.
I asked “Big” what made him and Lemons click so well during a time when Garlits clearly was the most dominant fuel dragster driver on the planet.
“We were peas right out of the same pod,” he said. “We were both just a little right of Attila the Hun. We were so in tune about everything. There was hardly anything that he believed in that I also didn’t believe in. It was an unbelievable thing. He was never afraid to tell me what he thought. A lot of my crew guys were intimidated by me and were afraid to tell me what they thought. 'T.C.' wasn’t afraid to tell me.
“Back in those early days, it wasn’t really a lot of engine work as a crew chief. The engine made whatever power you made, but it was how you engaged the clutch that made all of the difference in the world. All of those big races that I lost in the old days was basically because of not enough clutch, and those were usually the races when 'T.C.' was there to say, ‘Old man, we need to put some clutch in this thing.’ "
In a subsequent email to friends, Garlits called Lemons “one of the sport’s greats as this man was there and did it all. The work that he performed on the development of the rear-engine dragster cannot be overstated.”
Lemons (black jacket) inspected SR 14 at Sunshine Dragstrip in December 1970. (Wade Nunnelly photo)
Earlier, Garlits shared with me a humorous Lemons tale – everyone seems to have at least one – regarding the testing of the rear-engine car, which, as history tells us, fought them throughout testing until they got the steering ratio right.
“This was always the story he loved to tell. The very first day we took it over to Tampa Dragway – not to make any runs, just to start it and see how everything looked – we unloaded it, and we stood there – me, Tommy, and Swingle -- and I gave this little speech. I said, ‘Boys, you are looking at the safest Top Fuel dragster that has ever been built … and Swingle, for this first test, you need to drive it.’ Tommy probably told that story hundreds of times.
“He came into my life in 1968, and despite a few hiatuses, for all practical purposes, he never left.”
Garlits also pointed out that Lemons was very instrumental in the start-up of the drag racing museum. “Many of the older restorations are 'T.C.’s work, and he spent years helping build the exhibits that we all enjoy today,” he said.
In addition to being his right-hand man when it came to tuning the race car, Lemons also certainly was Garlits' partner in mischief, helping set up many of "Big Daddy's" spectacular fire burnouts.
The first time I "met" Lemons was through the amazing Steve Reyes photo at right, showing Lemons making like an arsonist on the lam as Garlits lit up the Swamp Rat in this hellacious fire burnout at the IHRA Winternationals in Lakeland, Fla. Reyes' keen eyes and drag racing sense prepped him for the big moment.
"I just watched the container he was carrying; if it was dark orange inside [gasoline], then it was fire-burnout time," Reyes told me. "On that photo, I stepped around 'T.C.' and got my shot. 'T.C.' told me I was too big to run into, and I would hurt him. It was one of 'T.C.’s favorite pix. I will miss him; he was a great guy."
As hard on her as a lot of her male counterparts were, Muldowney never got that from Lemons.
“He always treated me like a lady,” she said, “and was full of opinions that made me laugh to my knees. I remember back in 1973 or '74, we went to lunch together while hanging out at Keith Black Racing in South Gate [Calif.]; he had me on the floor laughing.”
Especially funny, remembers Muldowney, was the 6-inch black rubber rat that sat on the dash of Garlits’ tow vehicle with the right foot cut off, a wink by Lemons to Garlits’ 1970 accident at Lions that cost him half of his right foot. “It was hilarious,” she said, “and of course, it was a 'T.C.'
“After that, he would make a point of seeking me out at events to console and confide in me when Don was on one of his ‘Shirley warpaths.’ Those were the years. 'T.C.' will definitely have his place in my upcoming book (when I can find a publisher). It's people like him that I met over the years who have made me determined to write the complete story.”
As I noted earlier, Bryant and Hutcheson are two guys who did get the chance to tell the whole story on that fabulous rear-engine machine. Hutcheson recalled his first meeting with Lemons for the interviews that helped make the book the most thorough accounting of that magical time that has ever been written.
Todd Hutcheson and Lemons, at the museum, 2009
Wrote Hutcheson, “Tommy told us many stories, some we made into cartoons in our book, as you see here; however, some stories were ‘off the record, ya see.’ 'T.C.' loved the ones in the book. Many phone calls over the next few years confirmed to me how proud he was that his story was told. He wanted this so much.
“I arrived at the hotel near the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing [and] wandered over to the museum grounds to see the famous names on the bricks of the Walk of Fame. Just a short walk from the museum and the Hall of Fame monument were two houses; the bigger one was the Garlits family compound, and a smaller house next to it. A pickup truck drove in, and 'T.C.' stepped out and entered the smaller house. That was the first time I saw Tom 'T.C.' Lemons in 40 years. The first time I saw him, or noticed him, was at Lions Drag Strip March 8, 1970. He stood behind the Swamp Rat 13 just before it took off into the greatest turning point in drag racing history. I was at the fence line in the Garlits lane staging area when it happened. The next morning, Mickey and I walked to the museum souvenir shop. There, sitting in a chair, was 'T.C.' He got up and introduced himself and shook my hand. We have been friends ever since.
“For the next four hours, 'T.C.' walked through the Museum of Drag Racing telling his stories. My digital recorder captured every word, joke, and story. 'T.C.' stopped at the urn with Connie Swingle’s ashes. He said he missed ‘that son-of-a-bitch Swingle’ and wished he was there. He got choked up, turned his face away, and went on with the tour. His tour was so good that we wanted him to do it again and again. Little did we know he talked right through his lunch until Don Garlits called us in for the first interview.
“Tom Lemons walked the firing line every weekend and fought many battles and many people, even with his best friend, Don Garlits. But now he is the most beloved figure by all that knew him and fought with him. He was lovable and tough, funny and sad, a walking historian of the drag racing life.
“When Mickey and I were done with the interviews, 'T.C.' put his hand on Mickey’s shoulder and said, ‘Thank you for writing this little story. I am glad someone is telling the story; I mean, it’s a neat little deal.’ After our interviews, 'T.C.' took me through the Museum of Classic Cars. He was totally informed as to each car and its history. He stopped and asked about me and my family. He said, ‘Todd, I just wanted to know who my new friend was; thanks.’
“One story that we thought should be out front was about Tom McEwen. 'T.C.' told us when he first had cancer, Tom McEwen called him every week and said, ‘So how ya doing buddy? What you doing? Tell me all about it.’ 'T.C.' said, ‘Ya see, Tom is my friend, he called me every week and cheered me up. Nobody else did that.’ A cartoon in our book told of the friendship between Tom and Tom. ‘There hasn't been any one person nicer to me in drag racing than Tom McEwen,’ he said. ‘When I was a little bit younger out there, 40 years ago, working hard and trying to do good, everyone was climbing over me to get to the old man. The sportswriters, big shots, big-name drivers would leave tracks on me to get to Garlits. But Tom would always stop to talk to me. I never forgot that. And when I got this cancer, he would call me every week asking me, 'How ya doing, what's going on, tell me all about it.' He's my friend."
One of his favorite stories was also about McEwen. He knew McEwen could take a joke. 'T.C.’s story went like this, “After Garlits' first big victory with the new rear-engine dragster at the 1971Winternationals, McEwen was the first to order the new rear-engine frame from Garlits Chassis. It was delivered with an odd spring and knob behind the seat. 'T.C.' had marked on it 'More or Less,' with a knob to tighten it. 'T.C.' was in the shop working when the phone rings; it’s McEwen. 'T.C.' answers, ‘Dragster shop.’ McEwen asks sharply, ‘What the hell does it do?’ 'T.C.' answers innocently, ‘Oh, it does nothing; just messing with ya.' "
(Bob Wenzelburger photo)
Hutcheson also noted that the the admiration that Garlits had for Lemons was definitely a two-way street.
“When 'T.C.' and I were alone and relaxing back in 2009 at the museum race shop, he said this to me, ‘Ya know, Todd, I'd be in bad shape if it wasn't for ‘the Old Man.’ He takes care of everything. I don't have to worry about nothing. He can be a tough son-of-a-bitch, but he's soft with me. Wasn't always that way, but he is my friend, and I don't have many friends like him.’
“Tom Lemons loved ‘the Old Man’ and the museum and always took time with the visitors answering all questions and giving tours. Tommy was well taken care of by Garlits. He lived in a very nice home, Don and Pat would take him to the hospital all the time. He even got a retirement check from Garlits. Don made sure that Tom had all that he wanted and needed. Don Garlits should get all the credit for making T.C.’s last years happy and comfortable ones. What more would a true friend do?”
Bryant also remembered their time with Lemons.
“In my four or five visits at the museum, 'T.C.' was the ultimate tour guide. As we sat or wandered around, the stories flowed. An effortless raconteur, 'T.C.' always praised other drag race people and never boasted about his own contributions. During meetings that included Garlits, there was a fascinating contrast of characters. The animated Garlits and the low-key 'T.C.' would volley back and forth about events and incidents with obvious deep mutual respect. You had to pay close attention to get 'T.C.’s one-liners sprinkled in with the facts and dates. Here’s a great example of his wit. It was customary for 'T.C.' to watch closely as Garlits would make a run and then discuss at the top end what he saw. These observations were crucial to Garlits and 'T.C.' in preparing the car for the next round. On one such occasion, the two of them were having a typical tiff as Garlits staged and made a run. When 'T.C.' arrived at the top end, the first thing Garlits asked was, ‘Well, how did that run look?’ 'T.C.' immediately answered, ‘I’m not sure. Which lane were you in?’
Sharp also had a ton of great Lemons memories to share. “He was absolutely the funniest person I’ve ever known. P.C. was unknown to 'T.C.' but as I remembered them, I want to share them with you anyway,” said Sharp.
One great story revolved around the T-shirt that repeated one of Lemons’ classic lines. “I didn’t want to tell my momma that I spent 20 years in drag racing, so I told her I was in prison.”
“[The first time I heard it] I, of course, roared with laughter. Joe Martiznez, who then worked in NHRA’s Corporate Art Department, said he knew someone who could make very short-run T-shirts, and we should make some. I think we made a half-dozen or so with his quote and presented 'T.C.' with a few outside the reunion reception in Bakersfield. He almost teared up, thanked us all profusely, and said, ‘Don’t let "the Old Man” see these; he’ll be sellin’ ‘em!’ And, of course, the following March, they were on sale in the Garlits Museum gift shop and for a long time to come were one of their best sellers.”
More classic Lemons one-liners …
“Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo match raced for years together sometimes four or five times a week accompanied only by John ‘Tarzan’ Austin for Ivo and 'T.C.' for Garlits. I was talking to Ivo outside the reception at Bakersfield. Across the walkway, 'T.C.' was holding court with several other people. After a while, he came over and started a conversation with me. At least two minutes went by, when he turned toward Ivo, stuck out his hand, and said, ‘And you are?’
“He bumped into a fan wearing a camouflage jacket in the crowd at Gainesville. He immediately turned back to the fan and said, ‘Oh sorry, I couldn’t see you.’
“Walking into the honorees reception at Bowling Green in 2008, he spotted me and said, ‘Well, you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel; you’re honoring Walther [indicating his close friend 1972 NHRA Top Fuel world champion Jim Walther]. Next year, you’ll be honoring spectators.” When I noted that he was wearing a Jim Walther T-shirt, he replied, ‘I was forced.’
“About 10 years ago, Garlits re-created his brother Ed’s 1958 Swamp Rat Too-A small-block Chevrolet dragster and brought it to Bowling Green to run in the Cacklefest. 'T.C.' remarked that he didn’t know why ‘Big’ brought it because you wouldn’t be able to hear it, and besides, ‘I used to use Chevrolets to start my Chryslers.’
“At last year’s Hall of Fame ceremony in Gainesville, he said, ‘I have to outlive Garlits.’ When asked why, he said, ‘Because I’m going to get rich selling vials of his ashes at the gift shop. And I’ll never run out ‘cause there’s a barbecue down on the corner.’
“He once called me and said, ‘Greg, you’re my favorite Na-Her-A official. I need a favor.’ ‘What’s that, Tommy?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know yet,’ he replied.
Lemons and Maas
“A couple of years ago, he and Butch Maas were both undergoing cancer treatment and had colostomy bags. At Bowling Green, he opened our conversation with, ‘I have a complaint’ When I said, ‘What’s new?’ he replied, ‘You have port-a-cans for men and port-a-cans for women but none for valves.’ So before Bakersfield, I had Rose Dickinson [museum marketing and advertising manager] make me some laminated signs that read, ‘This facility is valve accessible for 'T.C.' Lemons and Butch Maas.’ When I gave him one, you would have thought it was a thousand-dollar bill. He immediately took it and hung it up in Tom Hanna’s plush trailer.”
And finally from Sharp …
“In our last phone conversation before the holidays, he said, ‘I presume Donna (my girlfriend, Donna Crowther) still loves me.’ When I told him, ‘Of course she does,’ he replied, ‘Most women do.’ "
Vintage T.C. Lemons.
Thanks, everyone, for sharing. We’ve lost another original.
Services and a viewing for Lemons will be held Tuesday, Jan. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services, 5946 SE Robinson Road, Belleview, FL 34421; 352-245-2424. Lemons will be cremated and his ashes placed in an urn in the Museum of Drag Racing.