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TV Tommy Ivo – a legend in his own lifetime

Ivo posing with The Barnstormer at the 1964 UK Drag Fests

Tommy Ivo has probably spent more time on the world’s drag strips than any other racer you may care to mention, his on-track achievements having made him indisputably a living legend.  Ivo was the first driver to run in the 8s on gas (petrol), the first to run 170 and 180 on gas, the first to run in the 7s and the 5s on fuel (nitro) and the first to run 190 on fuel. And if that wasn’t enough, he also enjoyed a successful acting career until he threw in the towel in 1962, to concentrate on his passion for drag racing.  There is no doubt Ivo was both innovator and pioneer, but as the man himself says with a touch of self-deprecation, “The only thing about pioneers is they get arrows in their asses.”

DRCReview managed to track down TV Tom and spoke with him about an amazing racing career that spanned three decades, and included participation in the much-lauded 1964 British Drag Fests, where he match-raced Don Garlits – winning three out of five races to beat “big daddy".   It’s thanks to Ivo’s remarkable memory, and knack of recording every part of his career on camera, that we can tell this story.  As a wonderful bonus, it’s illustrated with some never-before-seen photos of British drag racing provided from Tom’s personal archives.

How did you get involved in drag racing?
TI. I used to act in pictures quite a bit.  I was involved with about 100 movies and a couple of hundred TV shows over a 20-year period.  The most famous over here was the Margie series.  No matter how much you work, however, you always end up with time on your hands and, of course, in California it’s the land where hot rodding started just as a natural sort of thing.  I was mechanically inclined, which I attribute to my father being of German descent.  It seems to me the Germans have a knack when it comes to mechanical things, and I just started tinkering with cars in between pictures. 

All during my young life, I’d been taking my bicycle apart, repainting it and putting it back together – it was apart more than it was together – and the car thing just sort of blossomed.  I got into the movie business because I used to sing and tap dance, like all the kids did in those days, and the casting people were checking out the different tap dancing schools in town, as they were looking for someone who looked like Dennis O’Keefe, to play his son in a musical.  Well, they looked into the bottom of the barrel and found me!  It was pretty much the same thing with drag racing, because I hadn’t really intended to go down that route. 

Tom's first car - a '52 Buick

I got my first car at age 16.  Some kid came up to me and suggested we take it to the drag strip and see what it would do.  I had no idea what a drag strip was, but we took it out to Saugus Dragway in Los Angeles, and made two runs at 66.66mph in my ‘52 Buick straight eight.  It was a good-looking car that I heavily customized.  I then bought a new ‘55 Buick Century – it had a V8 - and went down to Pomona, where I took both the class and track record.  I got two trophies in one race, and it felt like I had won two Oscars.  The only problem was, the transmission kept breaking.  At this time I’d been building a Model T roadster and decided to put a nailhead Buick in it.  The car was created with a little help from friends Max Balchowsky, Randy Chaddick and Tony Nancy.  The T roadster  was built for daily transportation and was inspired by Norm Graboski’s infamous car.  I built that car at age 19, in 1955.  It was striped by Von Dutch, and re-striped by him again recently, after it had been restored to original condition. That was the last car he striped before his passed away.  It now resides in the NHRA museum at Pomona and looks just like it did in the 1950s.

Max Balchowsky's dog gets acquainted with Ivo's T

A fibreglass mould was taken off the Model T body, and one shop here in the US sells them.  It’s funny, but when I go to car shows I often see a bunch of my cars on display.  I can tell if it’s my T body, though, as it had lots of little subtleties and design details – such as a sunken dash, for instance.  I tried to be a little different with my cars, a bit creative, and that’s how we came up with the glass-sided trailer for the race cars.

I got the idea while we were racing in England, at the ’64 Drag Fests.  The buses in the US had small porthole-sized windows, whereas the buses in England, which would haul us off for lunch – I had never before experienced the novelty of a drag race being shut down while you went for lunch – had huge glass windows that even wrapped around into the roof a bit.   I thought that would be perfect for moving our race cars around in the US, because when we used to travel down the road, people could see the name on the side of the trailer, and when we stopped for gas, they would come over and say, “Can we look at the car?”  As a result, we’d wear the hinges off the trailer, opening and closing the doors all the time, so I thought if I put glass sides on it, they could look at it to their hearts’ content.  

When I did this in ’65, I thought it was such a great idea that everyone else was going to copy it.  Unfortunately, though, the glass sides created certain problems.  We had to put a large storage area underneath the floor, accessed via trapdoors, for our parts.  It was a bit of a nuisance having to pull up the floor traps to get to them, as opposed to just walking into a trailer and getting them out of a wall-mounted cabinet, so no one ever copied it.

Several glass-sided trailers were built over the years

We had a generator on board, and when I was feeling playful, I would turn on the lights in the trailer as we drove down the New Jersey turnpike road, or whatever, and it would light up like a jewelled showcase.  Then I’d hear the guys talking on their CB radios as they passed by, saying, “Hey, did you see that Tommy Ivo car going down the road?”.  I think I must have played too many little devils in the movies, as some of the character traits kinda rubbed off.  I used to tease the guys to death.

What was the car you brought over to England?
TI. It was nicknamed “The Barnstormer”, because we were the first team to tour the country in a season-long summer tour.  I used to have a nickname of “Instant Ivo”, because of my reaction times, then it was “Poison Ivo”, and then they came up with “TV Tom”, because of the tie-up with the movie business. 

The Barnstormer - imagine this in the UK now, let alone '64!

The specification of the car we brought to the UK was novel because it had a very nice hand-formed aluminium body on it.  Not too many guys put the nosepiece on their dragsters, but this body was different in the way that it flowed up the sides of the rear section enclosing the parachute pack.  It had a 124-inch wheelbase, with a 392 Hemi fitted, and that car was the first to break the 7-sec barrier in the US – at San Gabriel, in 1963.  We recorded a 7.99-sec e/t and backed it up with 8.02.  We were also the first to run 190mph in the US with this car.   

Do you remember much about the Drag Fests?
TI. That is still probably about the most vivid image in my mind – it was just magic. 

Why was it so good?
TI. It was like taking a present-day race car back to the beginning of time and running at a dragstrip.  Apart from the Mickey Thompson car, which arrived in 1963, I guess no one had ever seen any US fuel cars in England - we received a great reception.

I thought I was gonna have to fight Garlits to make the first run - we were both out for blood! He and I had the fuel cars. Tony Nancy was there with his gas dragster, Sox & Martin had what would be the equivalent of a present-day Pro Stock car, KS Pitman and George Montgomery had brought over their coupes – Stirling Moss drove one of them – and Dante Deuce and Grumpy Jenkins were there as well.  I often kick myself in the rear end for not thinking of offering Mr. Moss a ride in my car.  I’m sure he would have found that to be very accelerating, to say the least. 

Ivo explains the start sequence to Stirling Moss

In any case, Garlits and I were at the top of the food chain with our fuel cars.  We had the thunder, so to speak.  I remember they had just introduced zoomie headers in the US.  Previously, we’d been using “weed sprayers”, which vented out to the side of the car.  The weed sprayers were twice as long and made twice as much noise, so I took my zoomies off and put my weed sprayers back on, so I could rattle the ground a bit more for those limeys.

Ivo gets ready to "let it happen"

I got to make the first run at Blackbushe – I remember the track was so wide and so long. There were a couple of hundred people near the start line and we push-started the car towards the line.  I let it idle until we got to the start line, and then I let it happen!  All I could see was asses and elbows going in all directions – everybody wanted out.  Of course, come the next day, everyone was ready with ear defenders. 

Garlits gets a holeshot on Ivo

Ivo winning the last match race in England

They had six races planned for us in the UK, but one track was so bad it wasn’t possible to race.  The guy who drew the left-hand lane there was just bouncing up and down it was so rough, so we simply drove.  We didn’t race each other.  That left five more races. 

Ivo & Garlits at Woodvale in 1964

We raced at two other events (Woodvale in the north and Chelveston in the Midlands).  Don and I were both amazed at the number of people who turned up.  I heard estimates at the time of around 30,000 people, but they were eight-deep at the fences.  After we made our last run of the day, the cars were pushed back down the track and everyone came out to see them close up.  They all came running over and there were cheers and shouts of “Jolly good show!” – I ate it up with a spoon!

Ivo returns to the paddock after completing a run

During the meeting at Woodvale, a motorbike and sidecar competitor with a large handlebar moustache (World Record Holder, Maurice Brierley, on his supercharged Vincent) came up to us and said, “Hey, any of you Yanks want a ride?”.  I said “sure”, as I was always game for everything, so I laid down flat with my legs hanging out in the air behind and he set off like a bat out of hell.  We were doing 112mph over the quarter, which is not a bad speed on a little board like that.  We went through the lights and I saw the finish line disappear, but he kept it in high gear and was still going flat – he was definitely giving me a good ride!

Ivo about to lose his smile!


As we went down the track, I could see it curled a little and then stopped.  I was saying to myself, “He’s gonna go round the corner, I don’t know which way to lean, and we’ll both be killed.”  I thought, “okay, you’ve scared me,” and started beating him on his leg in the hope he’d turn it off.  He ignored me and kept going, so I hit him again.  At the last minute, he braked hard, we skewed a little sideways and stopped.  It was then I found out he had a wooden leg and couldn’t feel a thing! 

to be continued....

Story:  Andy Kirk & Tommy Ivo
Photos: Tommy Ivo 

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