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The two Tommy Larkins

14 Mar 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
"Big Tommy" Larkin
"Little Tommy" Larkin

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Southern California was home to scores of nitro and gas dragsters, but what are the odds that two guys with the same name would not only be competing in the same area and era, but also in the same class?

That’s the story of the two drag racers who shared the name Tommy Larkin, both from Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and a tale worth telling today. I certainly had been aware of the duo’s shared name but became acutely aware when one of them passed away in late 2011 and it came time to write his obituary. There was, as could be expected, a bit of confusion in the drag racing community. Was this “Big Tommy,” the former Top Gas national record holder who later raced in Top Fuel, or was this “Little Tommy,” who raced primarily in Top Gas?

It was, in fact, “Little Tommy” who had passed, and there was confusion on websites and message boards, with people accidentally posting photos of “Big Tommy’s” car with their condolences, which was met with a fair bit of consternation and disappointment in the “Big Tommy” camp.

The confusion continued to rear its head recently when Trevor Larkin, “Little Tommy’s” son, came to a bit of prominence as the stunt driver for Richard Blake’s Tom McEwen character in the Snake & Mongoose movie and was recognized in some magazine articles as just "son of the late Tommy Larkin," leading to more confusion and concern among longtime friends of "Big Tommy" (the better known of the two), who thought he may have passed.

Not long ago, “Big Tommy” reached out to me about the confusion that still seems to exist and asked for my help in setting the record straight. “Little Tommy” isn’t around to share his side of the story, but my longtime friend and fellow writing buddy, Dave Wallace Jr., was neighbors and school chums with him, and I have become casual friends with Trevor the last few years, and both were able to fill in some of the blanks on his side.

(Above) "Big Tommy's" Top Gas/Fuel car and (below) his dedicated fueler. At bottom is Larkin's first rear-engine car. (Steve Reyes photos)

Not only were their names the same, but, ironically, both also lived on Blythe Street (“Big Tommy” in North Hollywood, “Little Tommy” in Van Nuys, separated by Van Nuys Boulevard), and “Big Tommy’s” mail carrier was Dave Wallace Sr., who worked at San Fernando Raceway and had two sons (Dave Jr. and Sky) who would follow him into the business.

Recalled Wallace Jr., “ ‘Little Tom’ started riding out to Fernando with my dad, brother, and me after 8:30 Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church as a kid of, maybe, 12-13 (one grade behind me). His dad had died young, and his mom said he loved cars and wondered whether he might join us sometime. He showed up that first Sunday with a bag lunch -- and just about every Sunday thereafter.”

“Big Tommy” remembers Wallace Sr. bringing “Little Tommy” to his house to meet the driving hero who shared his name. They were born 10 years apart, so at that age (12 to 22), it was a big gap, and it was “Big Tommy” who gave “Little Tommy” his nickname (and, thus, his own nickname).

“He was a good kid who needed a father figure,” recalled Larkin. “We were close. He was like a son to me.”

“ ‘Little Tom' became his gofer and biggest fan,” recalled Wallace. “I'd go so far as to say that ‘Big Tom’ was ‘Little Tom's’ idol.”

There was a lot to idolize in “Big Tom.”

After cutting his teeth in stockers and gassers at San Fernando, he became one of the area’s best Top Gas racers who won a lot of local Top Gas meets (and even some Top Fuel meets with a little nitro in the tank) and set the NHRA Top Gas national record on four occasions between April 1966 and May 1967, including with the first sub-eight-second mark, a 7.98 at Fremont Raceway that he quickly lowered to 7.72 at Carlsbad Raceway. He also says he ran Top Gas’ first 200-mph speed, a claim usually made by John Peters’ Freight Train team.

Jimmy Scott, who went on to become a successful and national-event-winning driver in NHRA Pro Comp action with partner Al Weiss in the 1970s, was the announcer then at San Fernando and remembers “Big Tommy’s” efforts well.

“He was always a serious player,” remembered Scott. “He did real well at San Fernando and down at Long Beach [Lions Drag Strip] as I remember. He was right there every week fighting it out with guys like Peters and Nye Frank and the Freight Train, George Boltoff, and Adams & Rasmussen.”

Larkin made the jump to Top Fuel “a little too soon” in 1968, going from the top of the heap in the gas classes to a weekly struggle with the established nitro teams of the era, initially with his former Top Gas chassis but later with Top Fuel pipe. One of his biggest triumphs came in Las Vegas, at the Stardust National Open, where he defeated, among others, legendary Don Garlits. After getting badly burned in an oil fire in Dallas at the 1969 NHRA World Finals, Larkin, like everyone else, later made the switch to a rear-engine car with a trick piece that was Don Long’s first rear-engine dragster. At the same time, Larkin also was running Air-Lock, a supercharger business that was the first to introduce Teflon strips to the blower rotors.

A divorce and a dispute with the IRS ultimately led him to get out of the driving business, but he continued to lend his expertise to others, including his young fan, “Little Tommy,” with whom he briefly partnered in 1973.

(Above) "Little Tommy" partnered briefly with Al Weiss on this gas burner and with "Big Tommy" and Mike Carson on this blown alcohol dragster (below).

Trevor Larkin at the wheel of his and his father's cackle car at the 2012 March Meet.

By this time, “Little Tommy” had been trying to make a name for himself (unfortunately for him, much less successfully than his mentor) driving a number of cars. At one point, he got a tryout as the No. 2 car on the Weiss & Scott team (Larkin’s chassis and Weiss’ blown gas engine), but that only lasted a few races. Larkin also had run his chassis before that with one of Scott’s injected engines as well for a short time before they, too, parted company.

In 1973, the two Larkins reunited briefly with Salt Lake City-based racer Mike Carson on his Integrator dragster. “Little Tommy” licensed at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the Larkin, Carson & Larson dragster, and the trio ran several races before it split up over a financial disagreement.

Although “Little Tommy” stopped driving in 1980 when Trevor was born, he remained active in the sport, working for NHRA souvenir vendor Sport Service (now MainGate), which led him to launch his own sportswear company, L&R Apparel, with Spider Razon.

When “Little Tommy” was diagnosed with cancer, he and his son decided to build a father-son project car, a re-creation of one of his injected Top Gas cars, that they could display and take to Cacklefests. They decided to bring back the car, originally powered by a Chrysler, with Chevy power on nitro as one of the few Chevy-engine cars doing the Cacklefest tours.

“Right now, it’s just a cackle car; I’m thinking of running it as a nitro car to maybe run some exhibition match race deals like they do with the Winged Express fuel altered,” said Trevor. “I’m just interested in keeping my dad’s name out there.”

After his father died, Trevor made a memorable push start at the 2012 March Meet, which led to bigger things. At that race, he met the producers of the Snake & Mongoose movie, who were scouting locations and cars for the film. Trevor, who has a background in Hollywood as a set dresser, most recently on the popular show Sons of Anarchy, hit it off right away with them, which led to his role as the stunt driver as well as set dresser and consultant.

You can understand where the confusion with the two Tommy Larkins might have begun and how it was perpetuated, but I hope this sets the record a little straighter. Wallace says he can certainly understand how the Larkin/Larkin confusion feels; when Dave Sr. passed away in 2011, some in our business who knew Dave Jr. only as Dave Wallace thought we had lost him. I can certainly empathize with identity confusion and the way it can make your head spin -- ND Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss is constantly being "recognized" as me (even though I'm clearly way better looking), and to this day, people still get me and fellow drag journalist Phil Elliott confused (even though I'm also clearly better looking than him, too).

The case of the two Tommy Larkins may seem trivial to some -- it’s not like this was a case of having two Don Prudhommes -- but in the hearts and memories of both families, the legacy of each still is important.