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During a photo shoot for Hot Rod magazine on the set of his TV show, Tommy Ivo stands behind one of his ground-breaking dragsters. The young whippersnapper at the wheel is Don Prudhomme.

In the world of sports, records are made to be broken, and they regularly are. “Firsts,” however, happen only once, and there are many in auto racing. Who “owns” those firsts determines their significance in history. In drag racing, Tom Ivo is a very significant—even the most significant—individual in the sport’s history.

Tom Ivo came to drag racing via an unusual path. He was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1936, and his mother’s chronic arthritis caused the Ivo family to move to Southern California before Tom’s seventh birthday. His father quickly found work in Burbank. “As young as three years old, I could carry a tune and dance. I performed in Denver, so Los Angeles was the land of plenty for my Mom,” Ivo recalls. “Mom took me to every talent show she could find.” Mrs. Ivo discovered that Republic Studios was casting the film “Earl Carroll Vanities”—a musical that needed a child who could sing and dance opposite its star, Dennis O’Keefe. “I was always small for my age and could look younger, and I had just lost my front teeth. I was exactly what Republic was looking for. I got the part without going through the talent-agent rigmarole. That was the start of a 19-year show-business career.”

Ivo finished this ’25 Ford T-Bucket in 1957, and it inspired car builders during the decades that followed.

From 1945 through 1961, Ivo was cast in over 100 movie roles, and the 1950s brought–television—a medium in which Ivo thrived. As a teenager, he landed at least 200 TV roles and that, combined with movies, earned him a very good living. “I was making great money and had a lot of time between roles. When I was 16, I had a girlfriend who lived across the street from my home in Burbank. After I got my driver’s license, she gave me a bunch of car brochures. I took a liking to the Buicks,” Ivo recalls. During the early ’50s, hot rods as daily drivers were still in development. The real hot ticket was to own a “Custom”—better known as a “tail-dragger.” “I was attending Burroughs High School, and the big thing was to take a coupe and drop it low and paint it up and such,” says Ivo.

It took time, but by the summer of ’52, Ivo had a beautiful Buick Super 8 that he had nosed, decked and shaved. “It was custom-painted and had big, whitewall tires and spoke wheels. It was just beautiful. It was a sled, but it was a good-looking sled.” He entered the car in car shows and carried home more than his share of awards. This was an important chapter in Ivo’s automotive development. He had learned that what looked good got attention.

A friend exposed Ivo to “speed trails”—drag racing. “I took the car to Saugus and ran it. I got my timing slip, and it read 66.66mph. I looked at that as said to myself ‘Whoa, is this a sign, or what?’ and I never raced the car again.” A short time later, the Super 8’s engine caught fire, and Ivo sold it and bought a new ’55 Buick Century. As a regular at Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake (yes, the original Bob’s drive-in), Ivo soon hooked up with other car nuts. “Boy, I tell you, that ’55 was a pretty fast car at the time. I gave in to the urge to see how fast it was at a meet in Pomona. I ended up winning A/Stock and broke the class record in the process. I got two trophies that day and was hooked on drag racing for life.”

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Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:22 AM

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