Book Review: “TV” Tommy Ivo – Drag Racing’s Master Showman

As a kid, I just couldn’t figure “TV” Tommy Ivo out. What the hell did the “TV” part of his have to do with him anyway? I’d never seen him on the tube. And although my interest in drag racing competed with so many other car related interests, I read enough Hot Rods to realize that Ivo never won an NHRA Championship, or even really tried to. Yet, he was everywhere in the mags. Almost fifty years later, thanks to this book I am finally enlightened. As well as entertained and impressed.

I was a ravenous reader of anything automotive in my youth, and drag racing certainly fell into that big bucket. But my actual experience with the sport is very limited indeed; I’ve been to one drag event in my whole life (in high school), and it was both exciting and fulfilling, as well as a bit underwhelming at the same time. Maybe that’s because Ivo wasn’t on the bill.

Ivo was a child actor in the fifties, before I had ever even seen a tv. His earnings allowed him to do things that alone make for a pretty remarkable life: he bought a new house in Burbank (to share with his hard-scrabble family) when he was twelve (it’s still his home). And the day he turned sixteen, he walked into a Buick dealer, handed over $3,000 in cash, and drove out with a new Super hardtop coupe.

Yes, Ivo was destined for something bigger than the average kid. He built one of two T-based rods that not only became the iconic prototype of all subsequent rods, but with a brand new Buick nailhead V8, it became a terror on the strips. Ivo was hooked, and quickly escalated his habit to radical extremes.

He first built a very successful twin engine rail, and then the ultimate monster, this quad-nailhead monster. Ivo’s show-biz experience gave him a unique insight into what folks really came to see at the races: show.

When Hot Rod asked him and his tv costar to pose with it at the tv studio, the suits flipped out and banned him from driving it anymore under the terms of his contract. He eventually bailed,  and turned the Ivo brand into a crowd favorite on strips all over the country, whom he charged “appearance money”.

The story of how he did it is compelling, and typical for a pioneer: he just hooked up his rail behind a Caddy coupe, and talked a very young Don Pruhomme into hitting the road with him, and didn’t come back until some eight months later. The stories and adventures make for a great read. And he kept this up year-in and year-out. No wonder his brief attempt at marriage was almost as short-lived as one of his famous blasts down the strip.

Although he didn’t go to compete for NHRA points, he became the first successful pro in a scene that had been all about the glory and not the bucks. That’s not to say Ivo couldn’t or didn’t go fast, being the first to crack the legendary six-second barrier in 1972.

Ivo’s perfectionism and attention to detail in every aspect of his machines and performances are the stuff of legends, and he is rightly credited with being a true pioneer of the sport. If Ivo had been at the pathetic little Capital Dragaway that day in 1968 when I was there, I might have more compelling memories of it. But this engaging book is quite capable in creating the images of what I missed out on, and that much more. Ivo’s has lived his life as intense and fast as his legendary rails, and this book captures that: never a dull moment.

Disclosure: The book was sent to me by the publisher, my first perk.