In the summer of 1967, I had a summer of racing that was the envy of my middle-school buddies and still, after all these years, at the forefront of my childhood memories. That is the year that the Thompsons – “Big” Tommy and “Little” Tommy – attempted to set the USAC racing world on its ears. And to this day I have never been entirely sure why we attempted it.
“Big” Tommy (that’s my Dad) was a racer extraordinaire as far as I was concerned. But the truth is Dad was a local racer that more often than not attempted to compete in race divisions at least two levels above what his finances could justify. To this day, I admire his resourcefulness and seemingly endless optimism that he could somehow, through sheer will and just being a little more innovative than his competitors, overcome his chronic lack of cash. On rare occasions he would be successful, but more often than not, the disparity between his equipment and that of his better-financed peers would win out and leave him scratching his head and figuring how to “get ‘em next week.”
About two years prior to my summer of racing, Dad had decided that he was going to quit competing in local stock car events and instead race with the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA), a touring midget racing association still active today that sanctions races in and around northern California. Dad and I had sat together in the stands watching the mighty midgets of the BCRA, which sometimes ran jointly with the USAC midgets and sprint cars when the national organization would make their “West Coast swing.” In my young mind, USAC midgets were as good as racing could be. Heck, how could they not be!? Foyt, Andretti, McClusky, Kenyon, Rutherford, McElreath, Jones – all the racing heroes of my youth raced them!
Dad purchased a 15-year old Kurtis Kraft midget with a then-almost obsolete V-60 Ford power-plant in it. He immediately began entering it in local events with little success, most times failing to qualify for main events. The following year, after switching to an Offenhauser engine, he still made little headway as he struggled to learn the new engine and tune his self-fabricated fuel injection system.
It was about this time he made the still puzzling decision to take the summer off work and hit the road to race with USAC’s best throughout the heartland of the country. This decision was followed by one to take me along with him despite objections from my mother.
Dad built a tow vehicle/sleeper from a late-1950s milk truck – a project that was a true testament to his ingenuity and resourcefulness. He bought and rebuilt a big block Buick that he spotted at a buddy’s wrecking yard and installed a Ford rear end in it that he scavenged from a wrecked delivery truck. He then put a gas stove in the back along with a table and benches he built that could be converted into a bed. After loading tool boxes, spare parts and extra tires inside the sleeping area as well, there was hardly room to walk. But I could have cared less… we were going USAC racing.
As we left the relative coolness of the San Francisco Bay area in early summer, one of my most vivid memories of time spent in our tow vehicle – besides the ever-present smell of 90 wt. gear oil that had leaked, soaking the carpet in the “sleeping area” of the vehicle – was how miserably hot it was. With no air conditioning and hot air (and fumes) escaping from the wooden engine cover that sat directly between us, we rode with the sliding doors open, me constantly in fear of dozing off and falling out of the open door. But I never did.
The milk truck for the most part served us well. We did have to replace a rear axle bearing in a small Oklahoma town whose name I can no longer recall. I do, however, remember limping into the town on a Saturday evening with the midget in tow and having to wait until Monday morning to have it repaired as there was no auto parts store available to purchase a replacement bearing and no press available to press off the old bearing or install the new one. I do recall while waiting for Monday to arrive we parked behind a gas station with the owner’s permission, changed the gears in the midget’s “quick change” rear end and ate headcheese sandwiches all day Sunday.
The only other real “breakdown” we incurred during our more than 6,000-mile odyssey occurred on a Monday morning on The Loop in Chicago. If memory serves me correctly, we had left Illiana Speedway in Schererville, Indiana after one of our many nights of disappointment at the track. We were slowly heading towards Wisconsin to race the following weekend when the tongue of the racecar trailer broke in half. Amazingly my father was able to navigate morning rush-hour traffic with the trailer and racecar swerving dangerously, tethered only by a safety chain behind us.
As we stood beside the road surveying the situation, I remember Dad looking at me and saying, “Tommy, we’re not in the best part of town and look up there, we’re about to have company. Keep your eye on me and follow my lead.” As I looked up, I saw what I can only best describe as a gang of about 10 young men and teenagers older than me, hopping a chainlink fence and hurriedly descending from a steep hill overlooking the freeway towards us.
I learned a lot about a lot of things during my summer adventure, but nothing more than the life lesson this incident provided as to why it is not advisable to stereotype people. Though I have since confirmed that the area we were in was a high crime area and infested with gangs, the group of males approaching us simply wanted to look at the racecar.
Before long, and with the assistance of the curious residents of the area, we unloaded the midget and then chained the trailer to the back bumper of the milk truck. Dad and one of the older fellows serving as his guide then left in search of a welder to repair the trailer. And there I sat, with my new friends, answering questions about racing and “letting” them take turns sitting in the midget alongside The Loop in Chicago for better than three hours. Upon my Dad’s return, our new friends again lent a hand loading the car back on the now repaired trailer. As we left our new friends, I can still picture them watching us and waving as they made their way back up the hill to their neighborhood.
We met a lot of people, for the most part “race people,” in the almost two months that we were on the road – salt of the earth type of folks that would, upon noticing our California license plates, strike up a conversation and then extend invitations to us to stay at their homes. While in Terre Haute, Indiana, we stayed at an exceptionally wealthy building contractor’s home who owned both sprint cars and midgets. He gave us the keys to not only his home but also his shop; he even took his tractor out to a ½-mile track he had on his property and graded it for our use so that Dad could test our car on it during the day while he and his family were gone during the work week.
Such examples of hospitality occurred over and over during our racing tour. Regardless of the state or region of the country we were in, people were without exception nice to us. Tools and even parts were eagerly loaned to us. Countless times we worked in shops, garages and barns of folks that volunteered their help to us.
Our summer of racing with the “big boys” came to somewhat of an abrupt end after my Dad pretty much destroyed our woefully lacking racecar. It happened in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in either a heat or consolation race. “Big Tommy” got his wheels inside a competitor’s and went for an end-for-end ride almost the length of the backstretch at the famed Angell Park Speedway. A vivid memory of mine is the fear that I felt sitting there helplessly in the stands, unable to get to the track as emergency crews loaded my Dad into the back of an ambulance and took him off – sirens blaring.
I made my way to our pit area and remember being told from some official looking man that there was nothing to worry about, my Dad was conscious and was just being taken to the hospital as a precaution. Feeling better, I began loading up our equipment, trying hard not to look at the mangled midget that the track’s tow truck had deposited on our trailer. After doing all I could think to do, I then went inside the milk truck to wait for my Dad to return… and cried.
As the night’s racing ended, there was still no Dad. I waited long as I could before making a decision to move the milk truck and racecar outside of the gates and wait for Dad there. The next morning, I awoke and Dad still had not shown up. I considered calling home, but decided to wait. No use worrying my Mom.
About mid-afternoon the next day, a taxi drove up and out stepped Dad – walking gingerly. “Did you call your Mother, Tommy?” was his first words.
“No sir, she’d have just got upset.” I answered.
“Good job, boy. Well, guess it’s time to head home” he said as more a statement than question.
And we headed home. But slowly, as Dad had wrenched his back pretty good and stopped to “stretch” a lot. And when we stopped, we talked; talking a lot about racing to be sure, but also about his childhood, banana and mayonnaise sandwiches, fishing, girls and my sisters. We spoke with each other more than we had ever spoken to each other before.
That summer of traveling with our truly non-competitive racecar forever shaped my life. To this day, I have never lost the love of travel, meeting new people or auto racing. In 1967, I also learned that we have a big, diverse and beautiful country. I also discovered that there are nice people all around us and that they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, speak with different accents and auto racing folks are among the best of the best.
Maybe I do know why Dad took me on the USAC circuit. I’m thinking it was for reasons besides just the racing.
To all the Dads… have a great Father’s Day!
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