John Potts · Friday May 8, 2009
Sometime last year, our trivia guru here on Frontstretch.com asked a question about a former NASCAR driver with one win in, what is now, the Sprint Cup series who had the same name as a current writer for this site. The answer was Tommy Thompson, and that brings up some memories for me. Had to do some research to add to my own memories before I could do this column.
Tommy Thompson was from Louisville, Kentucky, a very successful engineer-contractor, and I first saw him driving what we called “hardtops” at the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Sportsdrome in my year of introduction to racing, 1949. The hardtops were mostly 1939 and 1940 Ford and Mercury coupes and sedans, with a Hudson or two tossed in here and there. Tommy and Milt Hartlauf, who I’ve also mentioned here, drove a pair of Hudsons. Milt in a No. 39 coupe and Tommy in a No. 40 sedan. They were tough, let’s just leave it at that.
Milt left us a few years back, and Tommy has been gone since 1986.
Tommy had a reputation for what we would call “aggressive driving” nowadays, and a lot of folks didn’t care much for him. But there was a lot he could do with a race car. I recall one night he got spun out coming to the checkered flag in a feature, and the car which spun him stalled. Tommy jammed the Hudson into reverse and crossed the finish line a half car length ahead of second place.
He was also the first president of the Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville and one of the original 10 investors, who ponied up $10,000 apiece to build the place in 1961. Can you imagine building a track, any size, today for $100,000? Having his own company as the contractor helped, but it still amazes me when I think about it today. I was just out of the service and was on the work crew.
Tommy also gave me my first flagging job, in 1962 when promoter Bob Hall was on vacation. Bob was a friend of the family, and when he came back he asked my mother for permission to give me the job permanently. The rest of that story is history now.
According to Allen Madding of Insider Racing News and historian Greg Fielden, Thompson was active in the early NASCAR days, starting his first race on the beach/road course at Daytona in 1950. In 1952, he was running sixth on the final lap and lost control coming to the finish and hit John Bruner, Sr., the flagman. John took a flight through the air, but wasn’t seriously injured. I’ll have to admit I thought about that every time Tommy came on the track when I was flagging in the last years of his driving career.
That only win came in a pretty important race, the Motor City 250 for what was then the Grand National series on the mile dirt track at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit in 1951. This race commemorated the city’s 250th anniversary, and was important to Big Bill France because representatives of all the manufacturers were on hand.
Tommy and his 1951 Chrysler was in a battle for the lead in the last part of the race with none other than Curtis Turner. With 25 laps left, Pops pulled a slide job, but Tommy wasn’t intimidated by Turner and they ended up trading lots of paint and crashing into the wooden guard rail. Tommy got his car going first, and when Pops got running, he found out a damaged radiator had put him out of the running. The accompanying photograph, from Fielden’s history of NASCAR, shows Tommy pulling away while steam pours from Turner’s Oldsmobile.
Meanwhile, a driver named Joe Eubanks was running at a pretty conservative pace and had taken over the lead. He apparently didn’t know he was leading, and Thompson managed to catch and pass him, leading the last 18 laps on the way to a $5,000 payoff and delighting the Chrysler executives on hand. Tommy had that car lettered up as the winner and proudly drove it on the streets for some time thereafter, and showed it off at the Sportsdrome occasionally.
One of the things I remember most was him telling me years later that one piece of equipment was a big reason he was in contention toward the end of the race. He had modified the car’s windshield washer expanding the water capacity and using a quarter-inch pipe.
“Everybody else had some trouble with visibility,” he said.
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