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Hot Rods


by Tony Sakkis

Unlike Don Prudhomme or Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo didn't need the money from drag racing to keep racing. Racing was all icing on what had become quite a cake. The child actor had money enough to do what he pleased. And what pleased him was drag racing.

"I did about a hundred movies and did about a hundred television shows. I did it for twenty-three years. In fact, I did movies before television was even around. I was three years old when I started and went until I was twenty-six. And at that time, racing was getting so demanding that it was either I had to race or I had to do pictures, and pictures were old hat and racing was new and exciting."

So he became a full-time racer. But if his approach to the sport was slightly irreverent, his respect for the technology of drag racing was far from that. Ivo was probably the first driver who put an effort into the appearance of his car. When dragsters were frame rails covered in sheet metal, Ivo raced what would then be called sculptures.

Ivo's first dragster, a twin-engine car -- a technical masterpiece -- was really a show piece. And because of the way it looked, editors kept on putting it on the front covers of magazines. And "just by mistake," Ivo says, "I got famous."

Indeed, the dragster was constantly plastered all over the media during the '60s, and the attention was so great that manufacturers from back east hired him to do publicity for them. The movie business gave him a great deal of free time and he had the ability to just go back and work a fairly full schedule without giving up his career in California. When he got back he realized that he could make it a business. His training in show business was to help him greatly.

"I had always been a bit of a perfectionist and I always had to have the nicest of the nice. So I would always take and build the full aluminum bodies when everyone else had the wraparound aluminum body on their dragster. But I think that probably had a lot to do with my acting background or the showmanship or whatever you want to call it because in the movie business, like anything else, you give the people what they want so they come back to see you again. And everybody was really fascinated with the fact that the car had two motors in it."

And then four .. and then a jet car. Ivo was not without his great ideas. But he was also a great driver. He was the first to run in the eights on gas; the first to run 160, then 170 and then 180 on gasoline; the first to run in the sevens on fuel, and then in the magical fives as a Top Fueler -- the credit of which was denied him since he turned the ET on a strip which wasn't an NHRA track.

Ivo quit racing not so much as a result of an accident as of an accident waiting to happen. "I cooled my heels because the last time (I raced) I broke my back. I bruised my spinal cord," Ivo said. "And they all said. 'Oh, its a bruise, its a bruise, don't worry you'll be fine'. But I looked at the sky and said, 'Listen, get me out of this and I promise I won't race again'."

Ivo walked away from the sport in a way most drivers fear: Absolutely and completely, without even venturing back for a peek. He said that if he couldn't race, he was not interested in watching. In fact, the first drag race he attended was nearly 10 years later and which coincided with the 1992 Gatornationals when he was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

"I was TV Tom and I was one of the guys," Ivo said retrospectively, sometime after induction. "What a hell of a way to live your live doing your hobby as your occupation, don't you think?"