Match Race Q&A with Tommy
By Flyin ' Phil Elliott
Reprinted by permission of American
The Internet, websites and email are the greatest
things. Often, I wonder how I got along without this cyber highway just
a few months ago. I've mentioned before the close-knit community of
drag racers I deal with on a daily basis and invite you to punch up Yahoo Groups
to find your favorite, whether it be current brackets or antique gas
coupes (and a great many more). One day, in a forum called Fuel Coupes
(mostly for the lovers of older funny cars) I noticed the following:
"WANTED: Competitive car to drive at Atco and
other races if necessary/possible. I can help obtain booking, publicity
(magazine coverage) and possibly sponsorship. Experience in Super
Stocks, altered wheelbase and flip top body funny cars, wheelstanders,
and Pro Stockers. If anyone is interested or knows someone who would be,
please contact Tommy McNeely."
Now mind you, I had no rides for Tommy but I sure
remembered the name. And, the response to my first Enunciation told me
that he'd be a perfect candidate for M&L. A lot of this edition
will be in Tommy's own words, some from Emails and some from telephone
There were a few open messages between several folk
for a week or so. Among them Texan David Ray and Michigander Terry
Hedrick, both talented funny car drivers from the old days and both
hopefully to grace this feature in the future. I finally jumped in and
asked Tommy a couple straight questions.
"From where are you originally? I of course
remember when you had the ex-Hubert Platt Falcon. Some years later, I
know you got into wheelstanders. What was between? Would you mind
listing the cars/years you ran?"
"I raced out of the little town of Monahans,
Texas. I started with a 63 E/S Chevy, then the old 62 Hayden
Proffitt car which I bought from (Charlie) Therwhanger. The Falcon
actually was not Hubert's ex-car. I had a 65 Chevy II two-door sedan
built which Dickie (Harrell) needed to borrow when he crashed his
(Retribution Chevy II) and he got me hooked up with Hubert. Hubert had
already sold his (Falcon) but he had this body in his back yard.
It was actually one of three Falcons Ford had built
for the LeMans race. He put it together for me and I had a Marina
Blue Corvette at the time so the car was painted Blue. It was built
in Hubert's basement. He nearly crashed it in his neighbor's front yard
when testing it before we went to Dallas, Georgia to run (Arnie)
Beswick. I drove for Dickie a few times when he couldn't make it
starting with his 63 Z-11, etc. I only live 140 miles from
Carlsbad, New Mexico (Harrell's hometown). Hobbs, NM was basically our
home track back then.
I grew up racing with Dickie, Kelly Chadwick, Don
Hardy (Don was in the Army for two years during this period),
Therwhanger, Brian Teal, Grady Bryant, and Ken McClellan. Fritz
Callier and J.E. Kristek have always been good friends too. I drove some
for a lot of people at times, everything from fuel dragsters to
stockers. Later notables we raced with were Raymond Beadle, Kenny
Bernstein and others. I basically lay off for two years and then
ended up in the wheelstander.
However, I occasionally drove funny cars and pro
stocks for various people at the same time and occasionally at the same
race on the same day as I guess we all did. Get out of one car, run to
the staging lanes and strap into another one. I guess the one thing
I regret most is Dickie did everything he could to talk me into moving
to Kansas with him when he first went and had the Nickey deal. I
still miss him. Later, I tried bracket racing, hated it and built a Pro
Stock Camaro. I always hated national meets so I mostly just match
So what else did I need to write or ask?! In a few
minutes typing Mr. McNeely had given me his complete background, racing
history, compadres and peers, and philosophy.
I quickly communicated and got it wrong again.
"Sorry about the confusion with Hubert Falcon --
I remember now that he crashed his car and borrowed yours for some
western dates while his Mustang was being finished. Is that
"No, Dickie (Harrell) crashed his 65 Chevy II
(Retribution) and used mine (Sad Sack) until Don (Hardy) finished his
66. The car was then sold to Jim Kirby. Mine was the green 65
Chevy II with Sad Sack in a gold rocket ship on the doors. Hubert wanted
to borrow my car, but I had too many dates of my own. He ended up
using the Dick Walter's Ford car. It was a handful to drive. They
had it at Irwindale and Clester Andrews made two passes in it, then
refused to drive it anymore. That's when Hubert made the Dick
Walter's deal because Ford wanted his participation."
I found out Tommy was 53, just four years older than I
am, which meant that he was just 18 when he paid Hubert Platt $4,000 to
build him a fuel-burning Falcon back in 1965. And ironically, though he
hated national events, it was at the NHRA Winternationals that the drag
racing world learned of young Mr. McNeely.
After match-racing the Chevy II, it was Chevy-stalwart
Harrell that introduced him to Platt and the two talked the teen into a
Ford. The decision was easy there were far less Fords running A/FX
and bookings would be a cinch. They were right, plus with the GM racing
ban in full force and FoMoCo's interest on the rise, the conversation
gave McNeely a further advantage.
Besides the trip west and a match race in Evansville,
Ind. where he was decimated by the Golden Commandos Plymouth, Tommy and
his Falcon rarely ventured outside the borders of Texas. His was one of
the few competitive Fords and in the midst of the factory ban, he was
willing to run the altered wheelbase Mopars no holds barred.
The factory-backed A/FX Mustangs and Comets were under
strict orders to steer clear of the pesky AWB Mopars unless they agreed
to run gasoline through carbs and weigh 3,200 pounds. It was no problem
whatsoever to keep the Falcon fully booked.
It was a time much different from today when
"Sunday! Sunday! SUNDAY!" radio ads screamed of Ford
against Chevy and Dodge against Pontiac. Tact and tactics were not part
of getting paying customers through the gates and after all, early FX/FC
races were slightly more of a circus act than spectators were used to.
All the extraneous stuff was fun for the fans -- pie fights, putting on
fire suits right out front, rosin, burnouts, and radio and PA shouting
matches. Nobody wanted to lose or they didn't get paid as much or asked
to go to more races. But the show was a huge part too.
There were times when a car was outclassed by its
competition so the driver threw lead or cylinder heads in the trunk and
went into big wheelstands -- the spectacular action of the wheelstand
drew our attention away from a better performance. The "loser"
ended up being the winner because he gained more ink and fans. It was
exciting to watch.
"And scary too some times but we were too young
to know the difference. I was 19 when I got the Falcon. I refer to
Dickie and Hubert a lot because they were probably my greatest mentors
at the time. One of the first things Dickie taught me was if you
know you're going to lose, load the trunk and put it on the back bumper. We
didn't use wheelie bars or even wheels on the rear bumpers at the time. I
have never been able to get the picture, but a guy once told me he had
one with the Falcon almost straight up on the rear bumper and the rear
wheels were approximately one and one-half feet off the ground.
This was like pushing in the clutch and hitting the
brakes. It would come down hard and bend the front axle. My brother
straightened that axle nearly every week. You and Dickie were
right. The spectators hated the winner. Hubert taught me to
steal the show to control and work the crowd -- at any cost.
Sometimes that meant crawling over the fence into the spectators and
kissing some pretty girl or anything else you could do better than the
other driver. All it required was being crazier."
While the AA/FD drivers/owners literally hated the
whole act deal, the early FX/FC deal evolved. To those too young or who
just don't know, these guys like Tommy McNeely started out in literal
death traps that were unsafe, ill handling, ungainly and many were
none-too pretty either. It is difficult to make a reader understand how
several thousand paid to watch a dozen hacked-up stockers that today
would not pass tech or qualify for Pro Gas (9.90) and loved them.
A pair of early FX cars may be the best show ever
because nobody -- including the drivers -- had a clue what the cars were
going to do. They got sideways, did big wheelstands, hit the rail or
each other, went fast, blew up, etc. And haunting questions still remain
decades later. "What would so-and-so have run if his car hadn't
gone into two big wheelstands and bumped into the Armco with the quarter
panel? Mystique is a huge part of these cars.
"I could usually run 10 teens regularly and 9.90s
when it was running well, but I usually didn't run as much nitro as
others because of the parts breakage. There is a picture that was in a
magazine taken in 66 at Irwindale. It was from down the track
and you could literally read the lettering on the side of the car. I ran
Jesse Tyree's Pontiac in the first round, got a big holeshot and the car
was carrying the front wheels a couple of feet in the air. It was
drifting right toward the guardrail so I short shifted to second to get
the front end down, but never let off the throttle. I was ahead of
Tyree. BIG TIME MISTAKE!
The wheels didn't come down or just touched and went
back up. The car made a hard left and I went across the centerline
in front of Tyree. I didn't hit the left guardrail, but the car
continued it's 360-degree turn and I went back across the track behind
him. I decided it was time to shut it off, I wasn't that crazy and
besides he was gone and I had lost. No sense in tearing up the car after
getting away with that. Things like that occurred on a fairly
regular basis but GOD, it was fun!"
Even on 35-40% nitro, the injected 427 Ford had enough
power to shuck transmissions with regularity. Even with a long deal from
the factory, they still cost him nearly $200 each. As a favor,
Mercury-backed Hayden Proffitt sent Ford 4-speeds from LA to a variety
of Texas towns -- on the bus -- for $125! He never tried an automatic.
"I sold my Falcon to Tom McCroan of Garland,
Texas at the end of 66. He planned to put a hemi and automatic in it
and continue racing it. However, I heard he went into bankruptcy shortly
thereafter and went to work for a Chevrolet dealership. I have a feeling
the car stayed in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and if anyone has any
information on what he did with the car, I'd like to restore it."
With the Falcon gone, McNeely subbed for Dickie
Harrell and several other funny car drivers for several years. As time
went by, he made friends with several drivers of funny car offshoots,
exhibition wheelstanders. In '71, Gary Watson bought three Paddy
Wagon, Red Baron and Fugitive and needed help.
After testing all three and replacing the original van
version of the Paddy Wagon with a Vega panel (a version still running
today), Tommy ended up with the all-blue Corvette called Fugitive, named
for the then popular television series. The car too, with huge
trumpet-shape headers on its highly visible supercharged Chevy power
plant, was very popular.
"I liked the car a lot. It never broke, it drew a
lot of attention and was fast. For a fairly low investment, the
wheelstander made a lot of money. I ran against all of em (Bob)
Riggle, "Maverick" (Bill Golden), (Chuck) Poole, (Bill)
Shrewsberry, (Jack) Ehrmantraut, (Richard) Hutchins a bunch of
times. There was a three-year period there when I only got outrun
It doesn't sound as if McNeely had lost the will to
win, even with a supposed exhibition vehicle. Knowing how closely these
cars are checked today, I asked how closely things were watched for
wheelstanders in the early 70s.
"The only time I was ever checked was in
Naperville, Canada and it was because of who I was running. It was in 72
with the Fugitive and I was running the Moonshot injected Chevelle. The
tech guy went over the car with a fine-tooth comb and wasn't going to
allow me to run because of no padding on the roll bar. I finally went to
the owner of the track and explained I was going to load the car and
leave. They still made me make a single to "prove" I knew how
to drive the car even though it was NHRA sanctioned and I had a NHRA
license to drive wheelstanders.
Bob Riggle (Hemi Under Glass) and Bill Shrewsberry (LA
Dart) had signed off a year before for me to get it in addition to the
NHRA Division Director and the track manager at Houston. That's one of
the few times I knew the fix was in. However, the two runs we did make
against each other, I won by as big a margin as possible. I probably ran
a second-and-a-half to two seconds, and 10-15mph faster than he did. It
wasn't pretty for him at what he considered one of his home
The theme switched to promoters, being asked to
"lay down" for a local or favored opponent and contracts.
"Fixed" is not the proper term and carries very negative
connotations, as does "pre-determined result." Terry Hedrick
shared that "In more than 850 races I never once nor was I ever
asked to share winning rounds with another driver."
But Tommy remembered at least one time when a pre-race
set-up was requested.
"I ran against the Flying Red Baron in Toronto
one time. It was supposed to be three rounds on Saturday and two on
Sunday. The track manager did ask me to lose one round on Saturday. If I
did that, which I did, he had us run three rounds on Sunday and gave us
a good bonus. I won three straight on Sunday. However, wheelstanders
were a whole different deal than what funny cars were doing."
Hedrick also made a blanket statement about his
experience with promoters: "My contracts had breakage clauses in
them from 1967 on. They also had a provision for 60 minutes between
rounds. If you raced for good promoters like Gil Cohn, John Grivins,
Bill Bader, and others you had a professionally prepared contract that
covered breakage as well as rainouts, etc. The top booking agencies like
Rachanski-Witz and Associates and The Gold Agency demanded them."
"Mine did too, but in 65 and 66, many of them
didn't. Gil (Cohn) also put a clause in the wheelstander contracts that
if we ran over the lights, we bought them. Gold was very picky also.
Rainout money is why I ran the Fugitive in the rain. There was about a
$750 difference in what I would have gotten paid. Another time we were
all in Akron, Ohio and it started raining. I spent several hours in the
truck with (K.S.) Pittman. Alex (XXXXXXXXX) came over and told me if I
would make one run in the Fugitive, he would pay us all our money and
call it a complete race. I went 105 in the rain."
The second Fugitive Corvette was built for the
ever-increasing speed wheelstanders were asked to perform and even
considering all the experience McNeely already had, it was anything but
an easy transition.
"The 73 Fugitive with the headers out the windows
might have made a (better) funny car. It wouldn't pick the front wheels
up when we first built it, but it sure was fast and (on the ground)
really didn't handle bad at high speed. We put 1200 pounds of lead in
the rear of the frame and wheelie bars. We also put the widest slicks
Firestone made -- they were 16 or 17" I can't exactly remember.
We still had trouble getting it to lift unless you put
it in low gear and really stood on it. I think that's one reason we
always had handling problems with it. We were leaving so quick and hard,
the car was really out of shape before you could get it high enough to
see through the floorboard and do anything about it.
Another reason may have been, with that much power
applied, the rear wheel steering brakes didn't have the affect they did
at lower speeds and they got hot quick. I still think that's what caused
the first crash. I believe the right rear steering brake got so hot it
was dragging bad and when I set the car down, it made an immediate hard
right turn and rolled over onto the roof. After that is when the fun
At this point, it is necessary to state that the crash
happened at Edinburgh, Texas and that the driver of the track's 1953
Cadillac ambulance nearly killed him trying to get him out of the car
and onto a gurney.
Though the chassis and running gear car was not badly
hurt and was rebuilt to run again sans body -- the following
weekend, McNeely had skidded upside down through a barb-wire fence and
he was badly beat up. But considering the incompetence of those
attempting to help him, Tommy waved them off and struggled to find the
manager's wife who he asked to take him to the hospital.
Unfortunately, the emergency room there was unable to
do much because their only X-ray technician was unavailable until Monday
morning. He filled up with pain pills and slept until the hospital could
diagnose a concussion, broken ribs and a major spinal bruise. Like the
car, being battered up didn't stop him from running the following
During his heavy touring days, Tommy was often the guy
that stayed to get the pay for all the booked-in wheelstanders. Why?
Besides having a car capable of 10.20/150mph on the back tires, he had
the fastest truck. It was the usual 1-ton truck but he'd switched out
the 5.13 gear set to the 4.56 from a ¾-ton, making his ramp truck a
legitimate 125 mph vehicle.
One time when he really needed the speed was following
an event in Fleming, Michigan, against the Red Baron Mustang that
didn't finish until after 3 am. He made it the 680 miles to Omaha for
a noon start an average of more than 70 mph!
Reprinted by permission of American Drag News,
where Flyin' Phil used to write a regular "Match Race Myth and
Legend" column. ADN has been sold, but if you want to contact Carl
Blanton, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flyin' Phil Elliott
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