No. 25: Tommy Ivo
No. 25: Tommy Ivo

 

Ever since professional sports entered the realm of big business, one of the most commonly stressed areas has been showmanship. Events needed to feature intense competition to please the purist, and, at the same time, provide a colorful visual spectacle that would satisfy the tastes of the masses. Tommy Ivo, one of the West Coast's fabled Top Fuel pioneers, filled the bill as one of the premier quarter-mile showmen.

Perhaps one of the major factors behind Ivo's vast collection of eye-dazzling drag racing cars was his career in Hollywood movies and television, which earned him the nickname "TV Tommy" Ivo.

Ivo had spots in close to 100 motion pictures and more than 200 television programs, including Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, My Little Margie, the Donna Reed Show, and the Danny Thomas Show. At about the same time, his serious drag racing efforts kicked into gear.

After building a number of Buick-powered roadsters for personal use in the late 1950s, he decided to campaign a Buick dragster against the over-saturated ranks of Chevrolet and Chrysler machines. In addition, Ivo and Rod Pepmiller began a car club in California's San Fernando Valley, known as the Road Kings. The club included future drag racing greats Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, Kenny Safford, and Tony Nancy.

Ivo's classic twin-Buick and later his Showboat, which featured four Buick engines, was a tribute to Ivo's genius for synchronizing seemingly impossible combinations.

The twin-engine Buick became the first machine to reach 160, 170, and 180 mph. When word spread about his new creation, Ivo was contracted to travel east on tour. Ivo and an 18-year-old Prudhomme began the journey, which made Ivo one of the sport's first touring professionals.

Ivo held nothing back when it came to his showmanship qualities on the open road, putting together a rig that featured a two-car trailer graced with full-length glass windows and a fully illuminated interior.

Adding to the spectacle was his push-car Corvette, which he would mount on top of the trailer, creating one of the most unusual drag racing "billboards" to ever grace a highway.

NHRA's nitro ban was in effect from 1957 to 1963, and Ivo, stoked with a passion for greater speed and in prototypical drag racer fashion, figured that more was definitely better. Ivo vaulted to the top of drag racing popularity when he used four fuel-injected 402-cid Buicks to create his famed tire-smoking, four-engine, four-wheel-drive Showboat.

The car's name, which Ivo was never crazy about, came from a Hot Rod Magazine photo shoot on the set of the short-lived My Little Margie television series. Ivo played Haywood Botts, the title character's love interest.

Ivo and his co-star, Cynthia Pepper, happened to be wearing their costumes for the show, which featured a ragtime-band theme. Ivo was in a striped jacket, bow tie, and straw hat. The photo shoot also was where producers of the show finally realized what Ivo drove, and they tacked an addendum to his contract, which prohibited him from driving the much-publicized car.

Ivo did drive other Top Fuelers under an alias, most notably the Ernie's Camera Shop machine. "I'd be Haywood Botts during the week, then I'd slip on my Superman cape and race during the weekend."

When My Little Margie was canceled after only one year, Ivo chose not to climb into his four-wheeled wonder, but concentrate instead on conventional cars. Ivo joined forces with Dave Zuchel to form Ivo's first Top Fueler.

At his first race in the Top Fueler in Seattle, Ivo beat "Big Daddy" Don Garlits. The car also was credited as the first to record a seven-second run and the first to officially reach 190 mph.

In 1964, Ivo came home with the biggest prize from the historic tour of the United Drag Racing Team in England when he defeated Garlits for overall honors and was crowned the International Drag Racer of the Year in England by NHRA and the British Hot Rod Association.

Ivo campaigned a half dozen front-engine cars, including the ones with which he drove to runner-up honors at the 1964 Winternationals and 1965 Nationals, before switching to the rear-engine format in 1972.

At the end of the year, Ivo was credited with the first five-second run, a 5.97 he recorded in Pennsylvania, which made him the founding member of the Cragar Five-Second Club. Ivo was a regular on the match race scene, butting heads with Garlits and Shirley Muldowney at tracks across the country. In the mid-1970s, he switched to Funny Cars, when the idea of "the king" Garlits against "the queen" Muldowney became even more popular, leaving Ivo as the odd man out.

Running out of the Rod Shop, Ivo campaigned a Dodge Demon and later a Dodge Charger. When his Rod Shop sponsorship ended, he built his own Plymouth Arrow, which he piloted to the final round of the 1978 Winternationals against Prudhomme.

In 1980, campaigned a jet car that had a swoopy chassis built by Ron Attebury, which helped build the category.

For the next season, Ivo built a jet Funny Car that he never did drive. "I had been seriously thinking about retirement," he said, "and even though I had the car booked, I thought it was time to get out of racing, so I got another driver to handle the dates."

To celebrate his 30th anniversary in drag racing in 1982, Ivo refurbished his famed four-engine ride that now had a Buick station-wagon body and went on tour. But the celebration ended at the third stop, in Saskatoon, Sask., when Ivo crushed three vertebrae in a crash.

Ivo drove the car twice more, climbing into the tight cockpit for a final run that year, at the Winston Finals at Orange County Int'l Raceway. After a tire-smoking run, Ivo climbed atop the car, saluted the crowd, then, in what he calls "typical Ivo flair," he burned his driving gloves on the starting line. His last appearance was at the 1996 Goodguys Hot Rod Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park to celebrate his 60th birthday, where fans waited in a line 100 deep to get drag racing's most famous showman's autograph.

"I had three wishes in life," Ivo said. "The first trip to the wishing well was to be in movies; the second was to be a race car driver; the third was to be remembered. I can't ask for more than I've gotten." - John Miller

Comments from the panel
"Added Hollywood star power to the straight-line sport, bringing much-needed media exposure to drag racing. His acting career was his catalyst. One of drag racing's ultimate touring pros, Ivo was one of the first, if not the first drag racer to bring excitement and a professional style of drag racing to the rest of the nation. While he may not be remembered for compiling a bunch of championships or driving titles, Ivo forged his name in the history books with his relentless touring in the 60s and 70s." - John Drummond

"Perhaps best remembered for his multi-engined exhibition machines, Ivo was also a serious racer. Like Jim Liberman and Raymond Beadle, he took drag racing to the people with tireless touring on the match race circuit." -- Rick Voegelin