Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday June 12, 2007
This coming Sunday's race at Michigan will occur on Father's Day, and for me, that only seems appropriate. Auto racing and memories of my father are very much intertwined, as the sport played such a large part in our father and son relationship. Like most sons, I worshipped my Dad; from an early age, I attempted to emulate him, desperately wanting to be like him. But unlike the fathers of the kids I grew up with, who were interested in golfing, bowling, fishing, hunting, or volunteering to coach their Little League teams, my Dad built, fixed, and drove racecars. Thus, wrecking yards, garages, and racetracks became my father's "classroom," as he attempted to instruct me on the ways of the world and guide me, though often times reluctantly on my part, to adulthood. And in his classroom the roles were always clearly understood; he was the instructor and I was the student.
Dad was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929, just in time to experience the hardships that so many other millions endured as our country entered the "Great Depression." Born into poverty and a dysfunctional family structure, he found himself working and hustling for his own survival at the tender and unbelievable age of seven. The stories that his older sisters and aunts have shared with me of my Dad's harsh childhood are truly heartbreaking to hear, but a tribute to the intestinal fortitude that he had to rely on to simply survive.
At twelve years of age, with World War II commencing, Dad began to work his way across the country on road construction crews, teams of people who were busy cutting highways across the United States to ease coast-to-coast automobile travel and enhance commerce nationwide. As the stories were told to me by a couple that became lifelong friends of the family and traveled with my father during that period of his youth, my father, even at a young age, had an uncanny ability to operate the various types of heavy equipment that construction crews employed in the early 1940s. And in short order, it was discovered that he had an even greater aptitude for maintaining and repairing such equipment. Barely a teenager, he found himself not only working as a maintenance mechanic for a variety of large construction firms of the day, but in short order, supervising mechanics twice his age.
At sixteen years old and no doubt wise beyond his years, Dad and some of his construction crew buddies built a race car to compete in the popular Roadster division at numerous tracks, mostly dirt, as the road construction slowly progressed through Wyoming and points westward. Now, a Roadster of that era was nothing more that an older model car that had been modified by removing most of the unneeded weight, such as fenders and roofs. Then, as money would allow, racers would "soup-up" the stock motor as much as a stock motor would allow "souping-up". Their car of choice, or perhaps more accurately, no choice, was a 1931 Ford.
As the old story goes, my Father was designated to be the driver of this hot rod only after a number of his older cohorts, after taking turns behind the wheel, agreed that he was probably best suited to drive what they had determined was nothing more than a certain "death trap." So Dad joined the U.S. Army at seventeen, taking the Roadster with him, and after completing boot camp he was stationed in Seattle, Washington. During his military years he continued to barnstorm Roadsters up and down the West Coast, from Washington State, to San Diego, California, enjoying more than a fair amount of success. Thus began a lifelong involvement with race cars, and racing…a hobby with which he would one day involve his family.
Married to my mother in 1952, Dad shortly thereafter was discharged from the military and gave up his rogue lifestyle, taking a job with the Ford Motor Company as a mechanic at their assembly plant in Richmond, CA. Still racing and building a reputation as a highly competitive driver in open wheel cars on the West Coast, it appears that any desires that Dad had of advancing his driving career to a professional level began to give way to the increasing responsibilities as a family man with my arrival on the planet in 1954. Had there still been any glimmer of hope that he could juggle his role as the family's provider and still race for a living, those dreams certainly were dashed in the following four years as my two younger sisters emerged onto the scene.
In 1956, with help from the GI Bill, Dad and Mom bought a new home in the San Francisco Bay Area. And for the next 25 years, the attached two-car garage of the house never served to store the family automobile, nor was it used as additional storage of household treasures as our neighbors used their garages. In fact, it was not even referred to by Dad as a garage; it was his "shop." And in that shop is where I spent a considerable amount of my free time as a youngster, toiling side-by-side with Dad, always building or fixing some type of race car or another. That activity often went far into the night, blending with the early morning hours of the following day before we would end up catching some much needed rest. There was not much time to slow down, however; we seemed to be constantly hurrying to make a weekend race at one of the many racetracks that operated in and around the Bay Area in the 60's and 70's.
In my reflections on time long past, it would be less than truthful of me to say that I always appreciated spending time in this manner with my father. Often, I wondered why he insisted that I be present with him in the shop. And as I grew older, I became more and more resentful of having to spend time working on race cars and cleaning. It’s time that I would have preferred to spend hanging out with friendsâ€¦and doing nothing.
It seemed to me at the time that life in the shop consisted of nothing but a continuous series of lectures on anything and everything. These are lectures that I still hear echoing in my head forty plus years later: "Let me tell you something Tommy, all a man has is his word. If you're going to lie, you haven't got anything left worth spitting on." "Only a coward of a man would hit a woman." "Damn it, Tommy, God gave you two good handsâ€¦use them!" And many, many more codes of conduct that were constantly repeated and drilled into my impressionable young mind.
Admittedly, along with those lectures came times of great joy and satisfaction. Probably one of my most vivid and cherished childhood memories was my eleventh birthday, when I received as a gift from my father a pair of white cotton pants. This signified that I was officially a part of his pit crew and would no longer be sitting in the stands with my mother and sisters at the races. Men were required to wear white pants in the pits at most tracks, and that day I felt as if I had become a man.
There were many times I remember bursting with pride as we would roll a race car out of the shop and out into the street. The neighborhood kids would look on with envy and tell me how lucky I was, how they wished their dads would get a race car, too. Times like that compensated greatly for what I perceived as a deprived childhood, unable to run the neighborhood unfettered as many of my friends were permitted.
And boy, when we did well at the track I would be ecstatic. I always understood that we were the underdogs, and that we didn't have to win to be proud of our accomplishments. Because, though seemingly always underfunded in comparison to our competitors, Dad was a master of making do with what was available. At times, he’d even take parts such as water pumps, alternators, and batteries off the tow vehicle to use on the race car after arriving at the track. Lessons in thriftiness and being resourceful were covered regularly in my father's classroom.
Most of Dad's teachings usually came with a real life example attached, such as the time he permanently banished from the property a buddy after repeated warnings not to use profanity in my presence. The expulsion was followed by a lengthy lecture for my benefit on the proper conduct of men when women and children were present. Another time, there were instructions on owning up to one's mistakes by helping a competitor repair his wrecked racecar for the best part of a weekâ€¦ "Because it is the right thing to do." These are just a couple of the countless episodes that occurred in the shop and in our joint participation in racing that I know contributed greatly to the development of my core values.
Dad was "Big" Tommy, and I was "Little" Tommy. And by my mid-teens, our names became a source of good-natured jabs being directed towards my Father. He was about 5' 7" tall and never weighed more than 150 lbs., and I had outgrown him by several inches and considerably more pounds. But I knew who "Big Tommy" was then, as I know to this day. Life made Dad tough…tougher than I have ever been required to be.
Even as the years passed and I successfully raised children of my own, Dad and I continued to share our passion for racing, and we enjoyed catching a race together whenever we could. In his later years, and even as his health grew more and more fragile, our relationship remained virtually unchanged from that of teacher and student. And still, but with even greater respect and appreciationâ€¦I listened.
With my youngest sister and I by his side, and having gone full circle, "Big" Tommy died in the early Fall of 2003 in Birmingham, Alabama. My father faced death as he was forced to confront lifeâ€¦with guts and determination. But unlike in his early life, he fought secure with the knowledge that there were many that cared for…and about him.
And I did, as an adult and father myself, eventually come to understand why my attendance was required in the shop. It was because I was his son and he loved me, and he was going to be there for me like no one was for him. He knew firsthand how frightening and unforgiving the world could be to a child without guidance, and he was determined to keep me close and protected. He was determined not to let me down…and he never did.
I won't miss the race this Sunday. But on Father's Day, even more so than usualâ€¦I will miss my father.
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