"TV" Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman
By Tom Cotter, Foreward by Don "The Snake" Prudhomme
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Motorbooks; March 4, 2011
Retail: $28 US
Tom Cotter is no stranger to a good story, as evidenced by his acclaimed "In the Barn" series of books (we reviewed his The Corvette in the Barn back in our December issue). And "TV" Tommy Ivo is nothing if not a showman. When the two come together, as in "TV" Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman, the result is a wildly entertaining read detailing the career of one of the most colorful characters the drag racing world has ever seen.
Tommy Ivo’s racing career ended some years ago, but his larger-than-life persona made an indelible impression on the sport. As a child star in the 1950s, Ivo was well-schooled in showmanship, but it wasn’t until he applied that natural love of theatrics to his true love – drag racing – that he truly found his niche. The stories contained in Cotter’s book cover Ivo’s entire life, from his young start in Hollywood through the present. Obviously, most of the book focuses on his racing years, but there is no shortage of personal anecdotes and side notes. There is some language scattered throughout, but nothing vulgar, and a picture from this month’s excerpt featuring Don Prudhomme flipping off the camera was held back so as not to offend our younger readers’ sensibilities.
I have to admit, I am generally not fond of biographies. I tend to find them dry and drawn-out, and it’s rare that the stories are interesting enough to make up for the format. However, this book is set up in such a way that I never found myself bored. There is a tremendous wealth of photos illustrating all stages of Ivo’s life, and the text is peppered with sidebars of interesting anecdotes. Ivo’s dedication to practical joking created one of the most interesting features of the book: a series of sidebars chronicling some of his most notable pranks. While he is clearly the life of the party, seeing what he puts his friends through doesn’t exactly have me lining up to join that group! Even the blank pages in the book aren’t plain, featuring lime green and bright blue backgrounds well-suited to Ivo’s colorful personality.
The bulk of the book is found in Chapter Five, titled "Ivo’s Fast 31." This 150+ page chapter features 31 cars that Ivo built and drove throughout his 30-year racing career, as well as some his equally wild trailers. Prominently featured, of course, is his insane 32-cylinder four-motor Showboat. There is a photo in this chapter taken from the driver’s seat of this beast, and I dare anyone not to be a bit intimidated by the ridiculous view from behind the wheel.
Cotter’s "TV" Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman is colorful, interesting, fast-paced, and a little rough-and-tumble – a perfect complement to the man featured on its pages. If you like Tommy Ivo, you will like this book. And if you don’t know him, this is a great place to start.
"TV" Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman
By Tom Cotter
Screw the Movies, I’m Going Racing!
If it was the speed that eventually attracted Tommy Ivo to the drag strip, it was the lack of speed that chased him from the movies. "I’ve done probably a hundred movies and maybe two hundred television shows in my life," said Ivo. "I played the parts of everything from being the proverbial Western Union Telegram delivery man, to being the star lead.
"The movie business was slow, slow, slow, and I did slow, slow, slow for nineteen years."
During those slow years, though, Ivo met and worked with some of the most renowned actors in Hollywood.
"It was all a marvelous experience for a young, adventurous kid," he said. "Once we did a big, big movie called Plymouth Adventure about crossing the Atlantic in the Mayflower. It was an all-star cast and included Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, and Van Johnson.
"The ship was built on stage with hinges and elevator lifts that would make it go up and down, like it was in a storm. And big electric fans would blow wind and water onto the deck."
Ivo explained that the "inside" of the ship would simulate being hit by a tidal wave and would stand up on its end with bunk beds and cannons rolling across the floor. "When I saw all these stunt men I was wide-eyed," he said.
"In that movie, my character died of tuberculosis, scurvy, and pneumonia, and the make-up people put all kinds of sores on my face. I couldn’t wait to get home and walk into my buddies’ houses and show their mothers, ‘Look at these!’ It was great."
It was the balancing act of being a Hollywood kid and a regular neighborhood kid that Ivo credits with his ability to identify with both movie stars and race car mechanics. "Luckily my parents didn’t haul me off to Hollywood Professional School, where all the other child actors went to get screwed up," he said. "I just went to a regular school in Burbank. So I really had two lives; my regular childhood kept me grounded and the movies allowed me into a world most people never see."
Oddly enough, the only class Ivo failed in junior high was acting class. "I was supposed to act as the lead in the school play, but I got a movie just before, so obviously I had to take the movie and that left the teacher scrambling," he said.
Another movie adventure the young Ivo enjoyed was Bomba, the Jungle Boy. In the series, Ivo played the friend of Tarzan’s son, Bomba. Bomba, played by Johnny Sheffield, taught Ivo that man shouldn’t kill animals. The plot twist was that Ivo’s dad in the movie was a great white hunter.
"I’d wear my little loincloth and swing through the trees," he said. "The ‘vines’ we swung on were actually one-and-a-half-inch ropes that were attached to the ceiling. It was a small studio, so they had to move the fake trees around to make it look like different scenes. Once they handed me the wrong rope and I swung right into a tree. Ouch! But can you imagine how much fun all that was?"
Ivo’s advantage was that he always looked younger than he was. At 12, he could play an 8-year-old but was better able to understand and follow the directors’ needs. Looking young became a real advantage when he was 25 and playing the part of a 17-year-old on the TV series Margie. Ivo’s mother no longer needed to accompany him to the set, he no longer needed a teacher on site, and he could work more than four hours a day.
"In fact, they would work my ass off working twelve- and fourteen-hour days," he said. "It was nice on my wallet, but hard on the body."
Ivo went on to act in many movies, TV shows, and even Broadway-type theater. As he got older, he appeared on the Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, as well as Margie. But he could see the end ahead.
"I could tell that I would never grow into a leading man," he said. "I was not going to get Charlton Heston–type parts. I was more the stumbling boyfriend, and the movies I was offered were getting more and more corny. How long could I play that kind of role?"
Being a Hollywood star did give Ivo a leg up on the rest of his drag race competitors. Before he hit the road to race, he created a complete public relations and promotional campaign. He mailed a press kit with head shots and car photos, along with written press releases, to track promoters for distribution to local media prior to his arrival. He would also include a short video clip of him with his dragster.
"The promoters would say, ‘What do we do with a film clip? The stations out here don’t ever air drag racing,’" said Ivo. "I’d tell them to send the clip to their local ABC affiliate and tell them that Haywood Botts, my character from Margie, was coming to race his dragster. And the people came out."
Making Customers for Life
Before Margie, Tommy Ivo would work show-to-show. When the TV show or movie he was working on was completed, he was unemployed. This worked out just right in 1960 when he heard from a group of drag strip promoters looking to bring a big-time West Coast racer back East to match race against local heroes. "So I called my movie agent and told him I had a chance to go East and race my dragster all summer," Ivo said. "‘Is that OK?’ He said to go ahead, so it worked out perfectly for me."
The icing on the cake for these promoters was that since Ivo was a Hollywood star, he could help pack their grandstands with both racing fans and television viewers. "Once these people saw the smoke, fire, and excitement, they became customers for life," Ivo said.
Ivo spent most of a year on the road with his friend and helper Don Prudhomme, match racing from coast-to-coast, border-to-border. That year left a strong impression on the 24-year-old Ivo. "I was chomping at the bit to get back out there the next year," he said after his first touring season. "With my movie and television credentials, it gave drag racing tracks a big shot in the arm when we toured that year."
The problem was, by 1961 Ivo had a regular "gig" playing 17-year-old Haywood Botts in the successful Margie TV series. Ivo said the show’s executives and producers probably knew he was involved in drag racing, but they didn’t seem to mind, imagining that racing his Cadillac at a local track was better than racing it in the streets. That all changed, though, with a photo shoot for the December 1961 issue of Hot Rod magazine.
Hot Rod planned to feature Ivo’s four-motor Showboat dragster on the cover, and photo editor Eric Rickman said to Ivo, "Listen, let’s shoot the photo of the car on the Margie set."
"Things were pretty loosey-goosey half a century ago, so we didn’t ask for any special permission," Ivo said.
Ivo towed his impressive dragster onto the TV set and unloaded it. He posed next to his dragster in his Haywood Botts outfit—straw hat, striped jacket—with his Margie co-star, Cynthia Pepper, next to him. It is one of the most memorable Hot Rod covers ever.
"Is that the car you race?" asked some studio executives who had wandered out.
"Yeah," Ivo responded, continuing with the shoot.
"And at that moment, I could hear office doors slam all the way on the other end of the set," Ivo said. "Afraid for the health and safety of one of their stars, I was presented with an addendum to my contract that forbade me from racing. Period. And money talks, so I had to sign it. I was making eight hundred dollars a week. I knew what side my bread was buttered on."
He was also making money in drag racing, about $500 a week, but that was before expenses, including motels, Prudhomme’s wages, fuel, and meals. He was certainly making more money from his acting job.
If he hadn’t signed the new contract, the producers would have written his character—and him—out of the show, Ivo said.
So Ivo developed Plan B, initially hiring Prudhomme, then Ron Pellegrini and later Tom McCourry, to drive Showboat on a tour around the United States. It would still be Tommy Ivo’s car, he just wouldn’t drive it.
The arrangement worked well for the year, but then, because of a television time slot and sponsor change, Margie was cancelled in late summer of 1962. The cast, writers, directors, and producers were all depressed when they heard the news.
And Ivo? He went into his dressing room, shut the door, and shouted, "‘Hooray!’ I’m sure everyone else heard me jumping around and doing cartwheels in there, because now I could go drag racing full-time!
"I had played the part of an orphan, had gone diving for treasure, and fought it out with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The movies were still bitchin’, and I liked doing them, but I had done it for nineteen years. Drag racing was my new love."
Instead of hitting the road in the Showboat, which had suddenly become outdated when the NHRA started allowing competitors to run on nitromethane, Ivo put the wheels in motion to build his next touring car, Barnstormer.
Ivo took one more role, a very small part as a telegram delivery man on the TV show Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, but after he delivered his few lines, he put the money into his pocket and never looked back.
Road Kings Car Club
If Tommy Ivo had grown up in the Bronx, perhaps he would have gotten involved in baseball. But growing up in Southern California made it much easier to fall into the area’s intense car culture. Burbank was home to what was probably America’s first drag racing club, the Road Kings, founded in November 1952 by 18-year-old Jim Miles and a couple of his friends.
Meetings were every Sunday night and dues were 25 cents per week. Seventeen people attended the first meeting. "I had just graduated high school and raced my nineteen forty-nine Ford," said Miles, the only charter member still active in the club. "Ivo joined when he was driving his brand-new nineteen fifty-five Buick. He had just graduated high school in nineteen fifty-four.
"When the club was organized, we mostly raced at Saugus, but then in nineteen fifty-five, when San Fernando opened, we mostly ran there, then at Colton and Santa Ana too."
Miles went on to race several cars, mostly Fords, but ultimately raced a Fuel Altered Fiat coupe until 1977.
Eventually Ivo became the star of the club because he built the best-looking cars, such as his T-bucket and the twin-engine car, and was winning races.
Another child actor and hot rodder, Skip Torgerson, also became a Road Kings member. "I met Tommy in nineteen fifty-five or fifty-six," said Torgerson. "I was also a young actor and met Tommy on the set of a movie called A Boy with a Knife. We also acted together in Blackboard Jungle. Ivo mentioned to me that he was building a roadster, and I said, ‘So am I!’ Not too long afterwards he finished his roadster and came driving it into Bob’s Big Boy drive-in. He invited me to join the Road Kings car club and we’ve been friends ever since."
Torgerson was able to get his friend Don Prudhomme invited to join as well, but his initiation was brutal. Prudhomme had to crawl into Bob’s Big Boy wearing nothing but a diaper and ask the waitress for milk for the baby bottle that was tied around his neck. Not surprisingly, Ivo was in charge of initiations.
"I hung around Ivo’s house and helped him work on his cars," said Torgerson. "But mostly Ivo did everything himself and everyone stood around watching. After we all left, he’d stay up all night and work, then sleep all day. He keeps those same crazy hours today."
Ivo neighbor and friend Ed Janke joined the Road Kings in 1957. "Since I was ten years old, I’ve been drag racing crazy," said Janke, who eventually drove dragsters himself. "My mom or dad would drop me off either at the Santa Ana or Saugus tracks on the weekend.
"I started to go to the track with Ivo and I remember one time we had raced at Fremont up near San Francisco. We left the track and had come over the mountains and were coming back toward L.A. We stopped at a gas station to clean up and Ivo said, ‘I left my hundred-and-fifty-mile-per-hour watch in the men’s room at the track. We need to go back.’ Tommy had won this watch for being the first guy to go a hundred and fifty miles per hour at San Gabriel. So we drove all the way back to the track, but the watch wasn’t there.
"Recently I told Tommy to keep his eyes open on eBay; that it will probably show up there eventually."
Janke has two lasting impressions of Ivo’s early drag racing days. "I once drove his two-engine car, and I have no idea how his skinny little legs had the strength to push that clutch down. And he ran that blown fuel dragster all those years out of the back of a Cadillac. We’d all say, ‘How does he do that?’"
Miles said that his club went dormant in 1964 when racers were too busy to attend the mandatory Sunday-night meetings (other Road King members who either built or drove drag cars nationally were Prudhomme, Tom McCourry, Rod Peppmuller, Kenny Safford, and Bob Muravez). Then in 1987, the club was reactivated, mostly as a hot rod club. Today there are one hundred members.
"But back in the early nineteen sixties, when we only had twenty-seven members, two of them—Ivo and Prudhomme—became touring professionals," said Miles. "We were proud of that."
Lots of practical joking took place on television and movie sets. "Like on the Margie set," Ivo said, "we would rehearse a scene where Margie would come to a door, open it, and shout ‘Haywood, where are you?’
"Well, between the rehearsal and the actual shoot, we’d sneak over to the door and nail it shut. So with the camera rolling, she would go to grab the door and try to open it. Thinking it was just sticking, she’d really give it a yank. Meanwhile, we’re rolling around in laughter off stage. That’s how we dealt with the boredom. We were always pulling jokes on each other."
Don Prudhomme was often on the wrong side of Ivo’s jokes. "He was not mean, but after a while, the jokes would just wear on me," said Prudhomme. "He was like a kid in a man’s body.
"One time he was over at my house and helping me work on the dragster. I had a set of headers hanging on the wall and we were getting ready to mount them, but I walked into the house for a few minutes. While I was away, Ivo painted the backside of the headers with wet paint, so when I grabbed them, I got paint all over my fingers."
Veteran drag racer Tom McEwen remembers one night at a motel near the Fremont Dragway in Northern California. The hotel sat behind a gas station that had waste oil stored in 55-gallon drums. "Prudhomme and [Tom] McCourry got a five-gallon bucket of this oil and a couple of old feather pillows," said McEwen. "It’s about three a.m. and they kicked Ivo’s hotel door open. When he sat up in bed, they threw the bucket of oil on him then coated him with feathers. The guy who owned the hotel was going to put them in jail. They had to pay for the damages."
How many car crazy youths were turned on to Tommy Ivo and his outrageous drag racing cars when the December 1961 issue of Hot Rod landed in their mailbox? Unfortunately, the photo shoot brought the seriousness of Ivo’s racing endeavors to the attention of TV executives. The car was given the name Showboat in this cover story.
The second movie Ivo made was called Song of Arizona, featuring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Here Ivo swears Evans to secrecy. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Also starring in Song of Arizona was Gabby Hayes. Ivo was made up to resemble Hayes’ character. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
In 1955 Ivo acted with comedian Jerry Lewis in You’re Never Too Young. Ivo remembers Lewis as the goofiest human being he ever met. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Young Tommy Ivo, in the driver’s seat of a riding lawn mower but no doubt imagining it is a front-engine dragster. Ivo often played the part of a mischievous boy. In this scene he chased two men across a lawn and into a pool. It’s easy to see how these experiences led to a life of practical joking! (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Ivo’s character, Junior, played the role of Future Man in the 1948 movie Song of Idaho. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Ivo pilots a fast-moving, horse-drawn stage coach in the film Song of Idaho. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Ivo appears in character as Haywood Botts with Margie co-star Cynthia Pepper in his last major acting role. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
Ivo behind the wheel of the Margie show’s Stutz Bearcat replica. When Margie was cancelled, Ivo could finally drive a much faster car without fear of losing his acting contract. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)
A young Don Prudhomme worked during the day at his father’s body shop, but on evenings and weekends he helped Ivo work on his race cars. Here he paints a body panel for Ivo’s four-motor car. (Image courtesy of the TOMMY IVO COLLECTION)