Verner: Ivo put celebrity savvy to speedy use

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 10, 2011

When we think of those who ditch lucrative careers to follow their bliss, a dragstrip burnout probably isn’t the first thing that pops into mind. We envision the path less traveled as a woodsy trail leading to a pottery shed or stained-glass studio rather than the sensory chaos of fire-belching dragsters catapulting down the asphalt at ridiculous speeds.
But for some, joy comes in quarter-mile increments.
Joseph Campbell, meet “TV” Tommy Ivo.
While legions of actors have gone to Hollywood to pursue their dreams, Ivo was a rarity and a genuine rebel. As a young, successful actor, he turned his back on Tinseltown in the 1960s, just as television was coming of age, to follow his soul’s true yearning. And therein, as the bard might say, lies a most interesting tale.
It’s one told admirably by Davidson-based automotive writer Tom Cotter in his new book “ ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman” (Motorbooks). In a previous book, Cotter wrote about Dean Jeffries, the brilliant and iconoclastic designer of hod rods and custom cars that dazzled automotive enthusiasts decades ago. Just as that book helped us understand the creative urge that drives those who form sculptures on wheels, this book reveals the all-consuming need for speed that motivated one of motorsports’ more transformative and intriguing figures.
As Ivo’s lifelong pal and fellow drag-racer, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, writes in the foreward, Ivo was always pushing the envelope: “When no one had mag wheels, Ivo had polished Halibrands. When guys were welding up junkyard parts, Ivo had candy apple paint jobs and chrome plating. It was Ivo who helped turn drag racing from a hobby into a profession.”
He was the first to perceive the profit potential in touring the country to engage in match races — heavily hyped events that pitted Ivo against other hot-shoe racers. He was the first to run the quarter-mile in under 6 seconds, the first to fabricate an outrageous, four-engined dragster. He campaigned everything from T-bucket roadsters to funny cars to jet-turbine powered rockets on wheels — and came close to killing himself on more than one hair-raising occasion. He was a brilliant self-promoter and a prankster who sometimes secretly poured motor oil into Prudhomme’s shampoo bottle.
In the beginning, though, he was a curly-haired ham with a cherubic smile who was performing on stage by age 6. Beginning in the 1940s, Ivo was a child star who appeared in TV shows and movies alongside such long-ago stars as Pinky Lee, Boris Karloff, Spencer Tracy, Jerry Lewis, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In 1961, at age 21, he had a starring role in the TV series “My Little Margie,” appearing as the bumbling Haywood Botts.
Ivo had been building and racing cars since his teens but eventually had to engage others to do the driving after the studio suits threatened to fire him if he persisted in such reckless activities. So Ivo reined himself in, officially at least. Then “Margie” was canceled, and the 21-year-old Ivo arrived at a fateful moment. Would it be the cameras or the cockpit?
Actually, as he relates to Cotter, it was no choice at all. Ivo shut his dressing room door and shouted for joy “because now I could go racing.”
For the next two decades or so, that’s what he did, traveling around the country (and even Europe) competing in a series of self-designed, flamboyant race cars. As the title suggests, while Ivo had left Hollywood behind, he put its lessons to good use in the way he traded on his celebrity persona and marketing savvy to build a fan base. Ivo never won a drag-racing championship, but that was never what it was about for him. He wanted to go fast, have fun and write his own script.
It was, as Cotter concludes, a life well lived and vividly recalled. Today, in his mid-70s but still possessed of his trademark grin, Ivo’s racing days are long past. He’s one of the sport’s elder statesmen, a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America as well as the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. A few years ago, Hot Rod magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in racing.
In addition to Cotter’s anecdote-rich narrative, the book has a wealth of photos showing Ivo at various stages of his career, from his early acting days to flame-engulfed launches at the strip. It also has detailed passages on the many cars that Ivo campaigned. While gearheads and race fans are the target audience, Ivo’s story might also be instructive for ulcer-plagued corporate climbers trying to figure out the fastest way to leave the rat race behind.
Ivo would probably recommend a supercharged hemi.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.