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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Match Race Q&A with Tommy McNeely

By Flyin ' Phil Elliott

Reprinted by permission of American Drag News

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 Egroups 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 interviews.

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.

Phil:

"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?"

Tommy:

"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 raced."

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.

Phil:

"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 closer?"

Tommy:

"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.

Tommy:

"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.

Tommy:

"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.

Tommy:

"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.

Tommy:

"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 once."

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.

Tommy:

"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 tracks."

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.

Tommy:

"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."

Tommy added:

"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.

Tommy:

"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 started."

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 weekend.

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!

Flyin' Phil Elliott
flyinphil32@earthlink.net

Reprinted by permission of American Drag News, where Flyin' Phil used to write a regular "Match Race Myth and Legend" column. The paper has been sold, but you can still contact former editor Carl Blanton at carl@mokandragway.com.

 

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