It was a long way to come for a short sprint, but the US Drag Racing Team made a heck of an impact when it landed in Britain in 1964. Fuel dragster hero ‘TV Tommy’ Ivo remembers it well…
By Nigel Grimshaw
September 9, 1964: the port of New York City. ‘TV Tommy’ Ivo’s cherubic face gazes skywards as the dockside crane hauls and swings through its well-practiced routine. Under the circumstances the absence of Ivo’s usual life-loving grin is not wholly surprising, because dangling from the end of the dockside crane is TV’s beloved, and incredibly beautiful, Fuel dragster: clearly elongated and back-end heavy dragsters aren’t at their best when swinging 100 feet from the ground… not even in the Big Apple.
In 1964 TV Tommy was approaching his peak as a major-league drag racer. To this point his career at the helm of many of America’s most popular and competitive quarter-mile pounders had been hugely successful, but racing accounts for only half the Ivo story. Incredibly, Tommy also managed to dovetail a star-studded Hollywood acting career with his racing. Playing alongside the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in over 100 films, Ivo also trod the boards with the marvellous Boris Karloff although, alas, minus the Frankenstein make-up.
On that long-ago September day Ivo’s car was the last to be loaded aboard the impressive USS United States. Among the others already safely on deck and in the hold were: Dave Stickler and his Factory Experimental 7-litre Dodge sedan which ran the quarter mile in 10.79 seconds; Tony Nancy and his AA/Gas dragster ‘The Wedge’ (less than six weeks prior to the team’s New York departure Nancy had clocked a 186mph terminal speed, upside-down following an unexpected encounter with a mid-track undulation); Dante Duce, captain of the
US Drag Racing Team and driver of no fewer than three cars on this inaugural transatlantic trip; K?S?Pittman and his A/Gas supercharged Chrysler-powered Willys coupé; Ronnie Sox with his Factory Experimental Mercury Comet; George Montgomery with his 6-litre Chevrolet-powered 1933 Willys and, last but not least, Ivo’s nemesis Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits, the first man to hit 200mph in an AA/Fuel Dragster.
“Because I had built such a big trailer for my race car the ship’s crew decided to put it up on deck, rather than in the hold,” grimaces Ivo as he turns his mind back to his dockside trauma. “But the really worrying moment came when the Captain approached me and pointed out that the Queen Mary had recently suffered $2 million in storm damage. He said that if we ran into a similar situation he would throw my dragster over the side rather than have it crashing about the deck. And so began our grand adventure…”
For a bunch of US drag racers with nitro and superchargers rumbling and roaring through their veins, life on board the USS United States turned out to be a blast. Back in 1964 New York to Europe was a five-day passage and the team was booked into the second-class accommodation for the entire voyage. However, this didn’t stop a group of young debutantes from catching the team’s attention. “I think they were heading for school in England,” says Ivo, his trademark grin threatening to split his visage in two, “and there we were, these dirty ’ole drag racers, just ready for anything!
“I remember that one time we decided to explore First Class. So all of us guys climbed around the barriers and made our way there. We found a purser and asked him where all the happenings were? He said, ‘Well I’m really not supposed to tell you this but back in Second Class is where all the fun is at.’ That kind of sums up the entire trip.”
While life on the ocean waves had its moments it also came with its own set of challenges, particularly for Fuel racers Ivo and Garlits. At $25 a quart nitro was extremely expensive stuff, and highly volatile. As you may well imagine $25 per quart was a lot of money back in 1964, especially when you consider ‘TV Tommy’ and ‘Big Daddy’ earned just $1000 per event in the States. Naturally the lords and masters of the USS United States cared little about this, but they did care about having drums of highly volatile nitro on board their beautiful ship. Clearly, arriving in England minus the wherewithal to run their cars was not an option for the Fuel racers, so Ivo quickly decanted the team’s supply of nitro into a methanol drum and ushered it on board.
Mercifully, that much-feared ocean storm failed to materialise, as did any cataclysm with the fuel, and the USS United States steamed safely into Le Havre with Ivo’s dragster still lashed to her deck. From there, the team and equipment transferred to the UK, and for the drivers and mechanics the delights of London’s Sandringham Hotel.
“Wally Parks was the man who got me over to the UK,” says Ivo. Parks founded the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951, its mission to organise speed trials on dry lakebeds such as El Mirage. Getting kids away from illegal street racing was the driving force and quarter-mile drag racing greatly helped the process. “Wally had already been to England with Dante Duce and the Mooneyes car,” says Ivo. “Consequently he knew the Brits were real interested in drag racing. When Wally invited me along of course I jumped at the chance.”
The 1st British International Drag Festival ran over three weekends between September 19 and October 4 of 1964. The venues were Blackbushe, RAF Chelveston, RAF Woodvale, RAF Church Fenton, RAF Kemble and finally back to Blackbushe. Meeting the Americans head-on were British pioneers such as Alan Allard with his blown Cortina-powered Dragon dragster, Tony Densham and Alan Herridge, but it was the Americans that the 20,000-plus crowds flocked to see.
Sponsorship was provided by The People newspaper, Goodyear, Valvoline, Ford and Pepsi-Cola among others. The meetings consisted of a series of match races between the Americans and full elimination competition for the Brits.
“Garlits and I were at the top of the food chain,” chortles Ivo, glancing at the various models of his race cars that sit in cabinets lining the perimeter of his study. “We had the fastest cars and we weren’t on a tourist trip with cameras hanging off us. We were there with our race cars under our arms.” The steely determination of a seasoned and competitive racer works its way into Ivo’s even tone. “You know some people were even saying it was just a show. Well, don’t kid yourself. Whenever Garlits and I came up alongside each other it was for blood… trust me.”
Of course running at RAF bases wasn’t at all like racing on the purpose-built drag strips of America. The UK ‘tracks’ were much wider, longer and far less smooth, but this didn’t deter Ivo one iota.
“I wanted to make the first run and I thought I’d have to fight Garlits for it because the UK had never seen a full get-it-on pass,” he asserts.
All the meetings on the Drag Fest schedule worked in a similar way: the day would start with each Fuel car making a single pass, then at close of play Garlits and Ivo would pull up alongside each other for the head-to-head grand finale. Between runs the rest of the incredible field kept the huge crowds suitably entertained.
“I remember they wouldn’t let people into the pits,” says Ivo. “I didn’t like this because it would have been more fun to have the crowd much closer to us, throughout. But at the end of each event, after the last run, they would let all the people out onto the track. As myself and Garlits were pushed back up the track the crowd would part like something from the Mille Miglia.” It’s clear from TV Tommy’s points of reference and his wide-eyed, almost childlike enthusiasm that his sojourn to the UK was much more than just a break from the norm.
“At the time I went over to the UK I had just changed to what we called ‘zoomie headers’. These exhausts would point up as opposed to the weed-sprayers we used to use, which went down and out, and made twice as much noise. I thought Blackbushe was the perfect time to put the weed-sprayers back on and rattle the Limeys…
“What we would do is push-start the cars and pull into the staging area where I would leave the engine idling. Then I would give it a good handful of throttle and let the lightning loose. All I would see would be rear ends and elbows running in all directions.”
Ivo’s irrepressible love of life and prankster heart has furnished him with an engaging spirit, but in the UK it also got him into one particularly tight spot: “When we were at Blackbushe this guy came riding into the staging area on a racing motorcycle and sidecar combination. Well, this fellow, he had a marvellous handlebar moustache and he shouted, ‘hey, any of you Yanks want a ride?’ I have always been afraid that I would die young and wouldn’t get to do it all, so when this guy showed up he had a customer… I got on the sidecar, took hold of the hand grip and we set off. Before I knew it there I was doing 112mph, only inches off the ground and with no harness of any kind.
“Well, the first problem came as the track slightly dipped. Being so low to the ground it looked like the end of the runway and that panicked me. I thought the rider was going to take a corner and I didn’t know which way to lean. So I started beating on his leg to get him to shut the thing down. But he just kept on going. Finally he came to a halt and I asked him why he hadn’t stopped when I had been beating on his leg. He just rolled up his trouser and there it was… a wooden leg.”
Despite there being less pressure to win than there would have been at a national event in the States, there was still a cash prize at stake and the kudos to be gained from running well at the 1st British International Drag Festival. Ivo and Garlits were both ferocious competitors throughout their careers and this changed not one jot when they crossed the Atlantic. That said, Ivo being Ivo he couldn’t resist putting a set of ‘L’ plates on Garlits’ race car, but then ‘Big Daddy’ got his revenge, as TV Tommy is only too ready to admit.
“Just before we went to England, Garlits had figured out how to run 200mph. One evening, after racing that day, we were headed back to London on the bus and he started telling me how to do it. I was sitting there just lapping it up with a spoon. When I got back to the States I made the changes Garlits had told me about and, sure enough, I went and ran 200mph in Richmond, Virginia. What I didn’t know was that he had told Hot Rod magazine how it was done too. So there I was thinking only Garlits and I knew how to run 200, when he was just reeling me in because he had actually told the whole world.”
For such a little-known sport in England to attract the huge crowds it did is testament to Wally Parks and the rest of the team, as well as its supporters in the UK, who included Stirling Moss. And perhaps if TV Tommy has one regret about his time spent in England, it’s that he didn’t invite Stirling to run his dragster down the measured quarter mile. “Sir Stirling came to see us one day at the track,” beams Ivo. “I remember him being a little reserved, but he was very interested in the cars and the racing. And I really should have let him run the car, even if it had been just a little squirt… He would have been able to handle it, I’m sure.”
The 1st British International Drag Festival was an unmitigated success, to such a degree that many an observer hails it as the most important event in the history of the sport in the UK. The Americans entertained and raced hard, the fans flocked to see them in their tens of thousands, and the Brits themselves put up a great display.
In truth, many of the home-grown competitors were sprinters and hillclimbers rather than out-and-out drag race aficionados, but this is missing the point. The 1964 festival inspired many, many people to properly engage with the sport. The opening of Santa Pod Raceway in Northamptonshire in ’66 only served to underline the importance of what happened two years previously.
The fact that Santa Pod remains open to this day is a testament to Wally Parks, Tommy Ivo and everyone else involved in the British drag racing festival.