TV star Tommy Ivo brought drag racing to the masses

The cover of the December 1961 edition of The cover of the December 1961 edition of Hot Rod Magazine featured "TV Tommy's" outrageous four-wheel-drive dragster that was powered by four Buick V8 engines. By this time, Tommy Ivo had left acting (after a show cancellation) to pursue drag racing on a full-time basis. Photo Credit: Wheelbase Media

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Every professional sport has had its share of characters. All the major stick-and-ball activities are peppered with colorful types who have given fans something - or someone - to root for or jeer at.

Auto racing, too, has had its fair share of class clowns and quick-quip performers who the press have counted on for humorous or eyebrow-raising sound bites. One of the most memorable is the irrepressible John Force, the all-time king of, appropriately enough, drag racing's Funny Car class.

But long before Force's follies, Tommy Ivo, movie actor and hard-core drag racer, also managed to inject some fun and pizazz into the sport.

Ivo was a natural to play the part. This skinny, blond-haired California kid looked like a typical young gearhead, the sort who slaves most nights and weekends on his pride-and-joy hot-rod project. Drag-racing fans could relate to him because Ivo looked and acted just like one of them.

Far more importantly, though, was the fact that Ivo was already famous before he became involved in tearing up quarter-mile tracks. He had already acted in more than 100 movies and had 200 TV roles in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Mickey Mouse Club and The Donna Reed and Danny Thomas shows. Playing to an audience, whether in front of a camera or thousands of cheering fans, was something that came naturally to him.

Ivo's involvement in a high-risk endeavor such as drag racing was frowned upon by the film studios, and in an attempt to keep his hobby a secret, he often drove using a different name.

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With the money he made from acting, Ivo built a number of dragsters, including cars featuring two, and then four Buick engines. This was between 1957 and 1963 when the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) had banned the use of nitromethane, a dangerous and volatile power-adding fuel. Without nitro, Ivo's solution for creating more horsepower was to add extra gasoline-powered engines. His two-engined dragster was the first quarter-mile racer to surpass the 160-, 170- and 180-mph barriers. But his ultimate was the Showboat, a car that featured four 402-cubic-inch Buick V8s and four-wheel-drive. Barreling down the drag strip with smoke pouring from all four tires, it created a huge sensation whenever Ivo raced it.

Fortunately for drag racing, the TV series Ivo was starring in was cancelled in 1961 after two seasons. Ivo, then 25, left acting for good to pursue fame and fortune behind the wheel.

With a partner, Ivo opened a race shop where they constructed tubular frames for "slingshot" dragsters: long-wheelbase machines with motorcycle-style wheels in front and massive motors positioned directly in front of the driver. Once the NHRA's ban on nitro fuel was lifted in 1963 and the Top Fuel category established to support its use, Ivo began driving single-engine Chrysler-powered slingshots. That year, he became the first driver to go below the eight-second mark in the quarter mile.

Although Ivo competed in many of the NHRA's big events, he also devoted much of his time - and generated most of his income - driving in match races. These were non-championship events where a track promoter would pay a fee to the driver for his appearance. Before the age of mega-buck corporate sponsorship, match racing paid the bills, and movie-and-racing-star Tommy Ivo, (by then billed as TV Tommy Ivo) made the most of his celebrity status.

By the late 1960s, Ivo was pulling down some serious money by match racing around the country, competing against other established drivers such as Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.

Always the promoter, TV Tommy's race-car transporter had large glass windows installed along each side and an illuminated interior so his fans could see in while he was travelling from event to event. Not only that, but his unusual Corvette push-car would be parked on the roof of the rig, with just enough room to clear highway overpasses.

In 1972, Ivo joined Don Garlits by making the switch to a rear-engine Top Fuel dragster. That year, he also became the first to run the quarter mile is less than six seconds. By then, the new Funny Car class - dragsters with exaggerated bodies that vaguely resembled passenger cars - had been developed. In 1976, Ivo was competing in the Funny Car class where he competed (but seldom won) against his longtime rival Prudhomme. Four years later, he was exhibiting a flame-shooting jet engine-powered machine that was not only quick, but a great show-stopper.

In 1982, at the age of 46 and after 30 years in drag racing, Ivo made the decision to retire. For his final hurrah, Ivo toured with his old four-engine Showboat which sported a Buick station wagon body. Despite a serious crash in Canada where he broke three vertebrae, Ivo's final performance carried on, winding up at the Orange County (Calif.) International Raceway.

There, after his final run, TV Tommy Ivo saluted the crowd, then set his driving gloves on fire at the starting line.

Hollywood couldn't have staged a more dramatic career ending for a man who spent the better part of life as an entertainer, whether on the silver screen, or at the race track.

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