Tommy Ivo Page 2

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Ivo knew how to please fans. He hauled his creations in see-through trailers. The idea evolved into the massive rigs now used in all forms of racing.
Ivo left no drag-racing frontier unexplored. After setting records with gas rails and fuel dragsters, he was among the first to campaign a jet-powered car.

“While I hung out at Bob’s, this guy by the name of Norm Grabowsky would pull up in an awesome T. Everyone just loved this car, so I said ‘Why not build something like that?’ The desert was full of old car bodies that were free for the taking. I found a ‘25 Ford Model T in good shape; I just needed to cut down the Yucca tree that had grown up though the middle of it.”

It took Ivo nearly a year to complete his T-Bucket. Like most of his projects, he did it his own way. At the time, Ford Flatheads and Chevy V-8s were the popular choices for hot rodders. Ivo, having been successful with the 322ci Buick Nailhead V-8, sought out noted Buick engine builder Max Balchowsky to learn how maximize the engine’s potential. Aided by friends, including Tony Nancy, Ivo worked hard on his T. On a summer evening in 1957, it was ready to cruise Bob’s. Ivo and his T were instant megastars.

Ivo next took the bucket to the drag strip at Pomona. There, to his surprise, he turned a remarkable 104mph on his first run. The following weekend, he met up with Grabowski and his T at Saugus. The result was all Ivo, and he and his car won for more than a year at SoCal tracks, including Santa Ana and Lions.

Ivo then built a second T for racing, and he reserved his first one for shows and cruising. During this time, he was a member of the Road Kings car club, and a wide-eyed kid from San Fernando Valley hoped to join. That kid was Don Prudhomme: “Tommy had this awesome ’23 T roadster; it was unbelievable in its day. I just flipped over that car. With its maroon paint, Buick engine and big white top, it was something else,” he remembers.

Ivo increasingly put more effort into racing than acting. When safety concerns about its speed started to weigh on track managers, Ivo retired the drag T. He decided to build a dedicated dragster with a Buick Nailhead engine. Prudhomme painted the car bright orange in his family’s body shop. “When it was finished, the car looked like a show car,” he recalls. Ivo remembers, “It ran 9.16 at 150mph at Santa Ana—very fast for 1958.”

At that time, the NHRA banned all non-gas-fuel cars. In a quest for more speed, Ivo came up with the idea of making a twin-engine car. “Until that time, tires limited the speeds we could run. With the improvements the M&H Co. made to drag slicks, we could use more horsepower. There were two-engine dragsters that had engines in line. I figured that a pair of side-by-side engines would be better for weight transfer,” explains Ivo. With one engine running forwards and the other backwards though special flywheels, the twin ran better than Ivo could have imagined. During his first run, he netted a 9.0 and 170mph. Within a few days, he was the first racer to break into the eights on gas.

One of the most important “firsts” in drag-racing history was Ivo’s 1960 summer tour. With the twin-engine car on an open trailer and hitched to his Cadillac, he headed east with Prudhomme. “We made $500 a stop. The motor was bulletproof and didn’t break once that summer. I did have a few close calls, though, and nearly drove the car off a cliff,” Ivo recalls with a chuckle. The car’s many appearances in Hot Rod magazine fueled the excitement about it, and fans flocked to drag strips.

When the tour was over, Ivo and Tony Nancy replaced one of the Buick fuel-injected engines with a blown engine from Nancy’s rail. The car ran 190—the first to reach that speed on gas. Given the crowd appeal of the twin, Ivo deduced that a four-engine dragster would be twice as exciting to watch. Here, he achieved not one but several firsts. His first “first” was to convince Ken Fuller to build a chassis for his crazy project. Having done that, he had to engineer two V-16 engines to hook up. The result was the first four-engine dragster and the first four-wheel-drive dragster. Weight transferred because of its power lifted the front wheels, and they broke loose with a spectacular display of smoke. When NHRA officials first saw Ivo’s beastly machine, they were disconcerted; they didn’t know that the rail was too heavy to reach competitive speeds and turn times. It was, however, a major crowd-pleaser. Its weight and potential sent up the NHRA’s safety flares. Many tracks’ guardrails weren’t sturdy enough to stop an 4,000-pound car at the speeds that NHRA officials feared it might run. It was therefore the first car banned by the NHRA. It was drag racing’s biggest draw, however, so Ivo was allowed to run it under the banner of “exposition” only. “Although I never really raced it, the four-engine became my signature car,” says Ivo.

In 1961, just before Ivo completed his four-engine dragster, he was cast in the role of “Haywood Botts” on a new television series—”Margie”—starring Cynthia Pepper. “Hot Rod wanted to shoot the car for a cover. Since much of my time was taken up with filming the show and the studio was close to my home, the editor suggested that we shoot the car on the set. I got the OK. Well, that day, the script called for a gambling-boat setting. I was dressed in a striped suit and a straw hat. That’s where the name ‘Showboat’ came from. The car was loaded onto a trailer and brought to the set. When I fired it up, we heard studio heads a mile away opening and then slamming their doors. They knew I raced a little but thought it was with my street car. When they saw this four-engine monster, they put the whammy on me driving right then and there,” says Ivo. Yet another first: the first driver to be banned by a studio from drag racing.

The studio ban led to yet another first, and it was a big one. Having been barred by the studio from racing, he needed someone to make his scheduled appearances with the car. Buddy Don Prudhomme stepped in—his first job as a paid driver. He earned a whopping $25 a run. “Boy, that was the opening of a Pandora’s Box I could never get closed,” Ivo says with a grin. As we know, Don is now known as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and he’s perhaps the most
famous and successful driver in drag racing history.

Although Ivo enjoyed the bright lights of show business, he longed to race again. His eyes sparkle as he recalls an announcement at the studio. “The cast and crew were told that ‘Margie’ had been cancelled. Everyone was sad and disappointed—everyone but me. I jumped up and down and said ‘Hooray’ as if I’d been paroled from prison.”

NHRA had lifted its fuel ban, so Ivo no longer needed his Buick-engine cars. Instead, he joined a new generation of racers who ran nitro-burning Chrysler Hemi engines and huge GM blowers. He soon frustrated the other big-time drivers, among them Prudhomme—by being the first to break the seven-second barrier.

During the decades that followed, Ivo was the first to break the five-second mark and one of the first to run a jet-powered car. His cars—36 in all—forever changed drag racing. During the ’60s and ’70s, Revell and AMT released some of his cars as 1:24-scale model kits. Kits of the glass-panel hauler Ivo created and toured with during the early ’70s are now rare. He started a revolution that eventually led to the use of elaborate touring rigs on all major-league racing circuits.

Although Ivo brought many innovations and cars to drag racing, his most important contribution is that he brought professionalism and showmanship to the sport. “Ivo showed me what it takes to be a pro. He’s a one-of-a-kind and a true pioneer—not only of drag racing but of all auto racing,” says Prudhomme.

Today, three of Tommy Ivo’s cars are on display at the NHRA Museum in Pomona, California. His T, twin-engine and “Showboat” four-engine cars are displayed to show drag racing’s past and to honor a man who delighted millions of fans and inspired countless drivers to join the sport.

Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:22 AM
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