Long before that other athlete made the name Tiger a household name, Tom Pistone made it a legend. Nothing in racing came easy for Tiger Tom, he worked for it all. Willing to share whatever he could with other racers, Tiger Tom was often left holding the baggage and bills while others moved up or on to greater success. It would be easy to become bitter after all the disappointments and broken promises, but Tiger Tom keeps moving forward.
Tom Pistone (pronounced with a hard “e” at the end) was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 17, 1929. Seven months after his birth the stock market crashed signaling the start of the great depression and the next 11 years would be the toughest years that Americans have ever faced. This is probably where Tom Pistone learned how to be tough and how to face a challenge head on. By 1950 Pistone was working with his father peddling fruit and vegetables on the streets of Chicago when his friends told him about the stock car races at Soldier Field. According to Pistone, “We didn’t have any money, so we snuck in and watched the races. The next day we pulled our money and bought a car. We took it to Soldier field and started racing.”
“Granatelli knew that people wanted to see wrecks so he staged the races so that people would get plenty of wrecks,” Pistone claimed. “Andy had four or five guys on the payroll, and they would do nothing but crash other cars. When you got into the corner, those guys would tap the left rear of your car and wreck you. He called them “booger artists” and they would be placed in the field where they could do the most damage.”
Pistone says that his crashes were a result of Granatelli’s help in setting up his car. “Andy came over and offered to help me with my car and I said sure. Well, next thing I knew, three guys were standing on the bumper and chaining the left side of the rear axle to the chassis. And then they put me in the pole position.”
According to Pistone, “when the “booger artists” did it to me, my car flipped end over end. I never knew what happened. I hate to say it, but people always like to see wrecks, and Granatelli made sure they got ’em.”
Granatelli recounted Pistone’s crash in his book, “They Call Me Mister 500” saying that when Pistone would crash “It would flip end over end. And the doors would jerk open as it rolled up into the air, and Tom’s head and shoulders and arms would pop out of the door, and everyone could see him in that one fateful moment.” [Anthony (Andy) Granatelli. They Call Me Mister 500. Henry Regnery Company, 1969.]
After several Championships in the stock car division at Soldier field, the track became a NASCAR sanctioned track and Pistone was told that if he won another Championship, he would be promoted out of the division. He won the Championship again and was forced to race in NASCAR’s upper levels. Pistone won the Soldier field track championship five times and had numerous wins at other tracks in the region.
“In 1955, they graduated me to NASCAR,” he says. “So I went down south at the end of that year. I was planning to compete in the North Wilkesboro race and when I got down there I stopped at this service station. This man came outside and said, ‘Son, where are you going? I told him I was going to the North Wilkesboro race, and he said that they ran that race last week. I stayed at that gas station until the following week, and he helped me out.” The man that helped Pistone was Bill France Sr. and that is where Pistone’s bonds with the France family started. “Bill France Senior helped me in so many ways. I never would have made it down here if it wasn’t for him.”
Pistone did make it down south, and in NASCAR. Even now at age 82, Pistone has put together a Nationwide Truck team that will race in 2012 with Tommy Pistone III as the driver. “We’re still looking for sponsors for the full season and I can promise them, all the sponsorship money will go into the truck and not into the shop,” Pistone says, adding “that is a lesson that I learned from Bill France Senior.”
We talked with Tiger Tom the week before NASCAR’s final Sprint Cup race of 2011, and we found Tiger Tom to be one of the most open, candid and honorable men that we have interviewed. He is a straight-shooter with the heart of a tiger. Here’s how the conversation went:
Onedirt.com: You seem to be a very popular man right now. What’s going on? Everybody wants to talk to you.
Tiger Tom: It’s about time! It’s because I tell it like it is.
OD: Ok, tell us like it was. You came up when NASCAR was filled with really hard men and scoundrels. You were friends with some of the most robust playboys that racing has ever seen. People like Curtis Turner, Tiny Lund and Joe Weatherly. How did you manage to stay on the straight and narrow?
I was a spy. I found out what all those guys were doing and I would tell Bill what they were doing.
OD: We heard that you actually were the instigator in many of the situations. It’s been said that you would instigate a fight and sit back and watch Tiny Lund or Larry Frank get into a fight. How true is that?
Tiger Tom: That’s true. That is correct. One hundred percent. When you go out to a bar, things happen. You know that. It seems like everybody wants to pick on the small guy. So what I would do is tell the guys I was with, Larry Frank or Tiny Lund, that the guys over in the corner had called them a bunch of names. So Tiny and Larry would walk over there and one thing led to another. That’s how I instigated things.
I learned that from Andy Granatelli when I was racing for him in Chicago. Basically he would call me in the office and tell me, “Tom, Al Swanson said he was going to get you this next race. You’d better get him before he gets you.” I asked him how he knew that. “Don’t worry, I just know,” he says. So after we were done he would call Swanson in the office and tell him, “Pistone says he’s going to crash you. I know for a fact because we just talked and he says he’s going to get you.” Granatelli stirred all of us drivers up and that’s how he did it.
OD: It’s funny because you and Granatelli were both men that grew up in depression era Chicago, both of you were fruit and vegetable peddlers on the street, and you both had a self promoting type nature. So much in common. Granatelli would do anything to put on a great show. One of the things he wrote about was your spectacular crashes where you went end over end several times. Did you do this on purpose for showmanship?
Tiger Tom: Oh No, No… At that time we didn’t know anything. Like I told you, at that time I was a vegetable peddler. We didn’t know how to set up a car. Andy Granatelli and his brothers Vince and Joe, more or less ran the show and they said “here, let me help set your car up Tiger.” So Andy and Joe would step up on the left rear bumper, Vince would be underneath with a chain and he would chain up the left rear housing to the frame. What happens is when you go into the corner and some guy touches you, you go end over end over end.
That’s how stupid we were in those days. We didn’t know any better. Andy Granatelli was just trying to make a good show. They flipped me about two times that first year till I caught on.
OD: We’ve read about some of the crazy promotional stuff that Granatelli did like putting a dummy into a firesuit and after a crash having the ambulance roll out on the track to get a driver out of a crash and off the track. On the way off the track the ambulance doors would fly open and they kicked the dummy, strapped to a stretcher, out on to the track. The ambulance would then back up and roll over the dummy which caused panic in the crowd. Did those things really happen?
Tiger Tom: That was all the truth. Everything he wrote in that book was the truth. He had elephant races, he had horse races, he had Ostrich races, he had foot races… you name it and he had it. They [the Granatelli brothers] took a car and put the body on backwards so you’re looking at the nose of the car through the rear window. Then they would have a backup race where you ran ten laps forward and ten laps backward. That’s the way they would race. So the Granatelli’s car would have an advantage.
OD: We heard that Granatelli would open up a water spigot in the corner of one racetrack to make the surface slippery. Were you ever involved in any of that?
Tiger Tom: Rockford. It was Rockford. We drove right through that puddle because we didn’t know any better. In fact, I think one guy went over the wall. Mitchell went over the wall at Rockford.
We didn’t know any better. It was all a hush-hush deal.
Tiger Tom: We didn’t know any better. It was all a hush-hush deal. We didn’t know until we caught on. It took us years to catch on.
See, he had five guys on his payroll that were booger artists then he had five guys that were the winners. Granatelli staged the races. The winners would race to the white flag, then they would back off and let the local guys win. Secretly, the white flag was always the winner. But we didn’t know that. We were the outsiders but the five paid drivers knew that. They got paid for first place anyway because they put a show on. The stadium would bring in thirty or forty-thousand people a night.
OD: Were you ever one of the “booger artists”?
Tiger Tom: No, no, no… I got to be one of the “good guys.”
OD: At some point you decided to move up to a different level and you moved down south…
Tiger Tom: No. What happened was at Soldier Field in 1955 went NASCAR. It was a NASCAR sanctioned track. So they said if I won one more championship that I was going to graduate and I couldn’t race Soldier Field no more. So I won the championship that year and they graduated me and I went south. That’s when I went down to NASCAR.
OD: So you raced your way out of the division and had to move down south to race with NASCAR. The first week you were late to the race by almost a week and got hooked up in an accidental meeting with Bill France at a gas station. He informed you that you were a week late for the race and you two ended up becoming friends. How did that relationship work out?
Tiger Tom: Real good, right up to the last day. All the way till the last day.
OD: Did your relationship with Bill France Sr. cause you problems when Petty was trying to unionize the drivers at Talladega with the PDA?
Tiger Tom: Bill France owned my car. All the way from the beginning. I was racing for Bill France since day one. I helped him get rid of the PDA. I was a spy. I found out what all those guys were doing and I would tell Bill what they were doing. So we broke that PDA up.
OD: This wasn’t the first time that a driver tried to start a driver’s union in NASCAR. So in your mind a union wasn’t a good thing?
Tiger Tom: No. Well, who knows. Nobody knows how it would have turned out. All I know is that nobody got retirement. So today there is no retirement. There’s no pension for the driver. You just quit and that’s it.
OD: What happened with your sponsorship deal with Andy Granatelli and STP?
Tiger Tom: What happened there was Andy Granatelli turned sour on me. See, Bill France Sr. gave me the “go” to go and see Andy Granatelli to see if he would sponsor the car, the 71 Ford that we had that Don Tarr was going to drive, because we found a way around it. STP was not allowed in NASCAR at that time on account of Pure Oil. There was a conflict. Bill France Sr. figured out a way to get STP in there. They called it STP oil treatment and that’s how we got it in there. Andy had agreed to sponsor us. So I went back to tell Andy and make sure that he was going to sponsor us in NASCAR. So Bill France Sr. let STP into NASCAR and what does Granatelli do? He hires Freddy Lorezen. He gives the deal to Freddy Lorenzen, then Lorezen lost it to Richard Petty. So, Andy Granatelli sold me out. I’ve never talked to him since then. Not to this day.
OD: Have you ever talked to Fred Lorezen about that?
Tiger Tom: Freddy Lorenzen (sigh)*… I was his idol and I sold him his first race car. His mother told me that he wanted to grow up and be like me. I tried to help him along and Freddy ran off with my ride.
*[there was obvious mix of pain, hurt and disappointment in Tiger Tom’s voice when he discussed his relationship with Fred Lorenzen]
OD: But you and Lorenzen don’t have a relationship today?
Tiger Tom: He never gave me no credit. Never. He never mentions how he got started, who he bought his first race car from, who taught him how to set his race cars up and who taught him how to race. He never gave me no credit. He took all the credit himself. No, we don’t talk.
One Dirt: You have never really gotten the attention or credit for all the things you have done. You are known by most of the older drivers as a real innovator. They give you credit for inventing the weight jackscrew. Why don’t you get more credit?
Tiger Tom: You can’t blame nobody but yourself. I didn’t know anything about patents and stuff like that. There is no secrets in racing and that’s the way it’s always been. Everybody is your friend but they are not your friend. Understand? These days the guys make all kinds of money. They can go out on the track and play games. Back then we raced for money. We didn’t make money and we didn’t eat. The racers today are multi-millionaires. They don’t need to race.
OD: What do you think about these teams that don’t even bring crews to the track, they just run a few laps then pull it back into the garage, the start and park guys?
Tiger Tom: They’re smart people. Very smart. You can make 6.1 million dollars by start and park for one year. I would not want to do that because I want to race and I feel the fans get cheated with start and park teams. I would not want Tommy being a start and park driver. We want to race.
OD: But what does that do for the sport?
Tiger Tom: Well, I don’t see how you can stop it. There’s just no way to stop it. What the problem is, you’re allowed to qualify, so if you qualify and pass inspection they can’t stop you from racing. They can make it tough for you through inspection. They can do that. They can make it difficult for you to get through inspection. But you know what that is called today? That’s a lawsuit. So, you’re going to see a lot of start and parks next year and NASCAR knows it. It’s going to be a big problem next year.
OD: Times have changed.
Tiger Tom: Right. Times have changed. NASCAR is a machine. They have made a lot of millionaires. What’s going to have to happen is that the inspection department is going to have to get tougher. That’s what they need to do.
Tiger Tom: Well, the shows are no good. That’s what they are losing. It’s follow the leader. And they have a bunch of whiners, “oh you hit me so I hit you,”… you follow me? There’s no more of that body slammin’ that there was in the old days.
The newer driver’s feel like you’re suppose to move over for them. You heard Elliot Sadler the other day; “Oh you’re suppose to move over for me because I’m running for a championship,” that is what these guys are saying. There is no more of that “Get outta my way because I’m coming,” there’s just no more of that. These guys have too much.
Tiger Tom: I would have turned around and went head on with him. Nobody is looking at the tape. There’s a slow car and Hornaday is going for the championship, Why did he go up in that corner when he knew Kyle was on the outside of him?
OD: Because he expected Kyle to move over for him?
Tiger Tom: He wanted Kyle to move over! Why should Kyle move over? Kyle was racing for position. Hornaday lost it. He lost control and hit Kyle. Kyle didn’t hit him, he hit Kyle. Think about it. That’s what I posted on twitter. Look at the tape and see who was in the wrong. Hornaday was wrong! He was going for a championship and he should have backed off till he got a clear shot.
What people don’t understand is that these guys are going 180 miles an hour. Do you think they are in their right mind? You think they are real nice, calm and collected? They’re out there running 200 miles an hour and their nerves have got to be shot. Then some guy comes in there and body slams you and almost sticks you in the wall… what would you do? Put yourself in his shoes. Especially when you’re talking about Hornaday. He does stuff like that. You gotta teach him a lesson. You gotta knock the hell out of him and that is what Kyle did.
You can’t take stuff from other drivers. If they know you are a pussy cat, they’re going to do it again next time. You have to show them that you’re not scared of them. If they hit you, you hit them back immediately. You don’t wait till the next lap. But… you don’t do nothing to nobody till they do it to you. Isn’t that what the bible says. [laughs] Case closed!
OD: You’ve raced with a lot of drivers and had some very close friends. Unfortunately some of them were lost in racing accidents. Bobby and Billy Myers, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Jimmy Pardue, Billy Wade, Curtis Turner, your good friend Tiny Lund and lifelong friend Larry Frank. How were you affected by those painful losses?
Tiger Tom: Well, now I sit back and have a lot of time to think about it. If you keep yourself busy, you don’t think about it till night-time comes. It hurts. It hurts very much. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to spend more time with them. Let’s put it that way. I didn’t have the time to do it then because I had to raise a family. Today these guys have so much time on their hands they can do anything. You can read face book or twitter and see that. These guys are telling you that they are going to get a haircut and it’s qualifying day. They tell you everything they are doing but it’s not working on the car. They’re not at the track making sure the car is good or inspecting the car. They’re not doing nothing. When they get there the car is ready and they take it out. They have so much time on their hands it’s pathetic.
In our day we didn’t have that amount of time to spend with each other. We were constantly working and raising our families. You worked on the car, you drove the tow truck with the car to the racetrack, you constantly worked so you kept your mind busy.
OD: Today’s fans probably don’t understand the things you had to do in order to feed your family. Things like Jimmy Pardue doing tire testing and losing his life to earn extra money. What would you tell today’s fans about the difficulties of being a racer in the early days?
Tiger Tom: We had to do something to make a dollar. Tiny Lund and I would have to run the Sportsman race and the Cup race with the same car. We’d be out there racing three and four nights a week. We used one car the whole year. Eighty races with the same car. Today it’s not like that. What gets me mad is today’s divers don’t have time for the fans. There is a special time for autographs. I can understand not paying attention to the fans during qualifying or practice… I can understand that, but they could stay there a couple of hours and sign autographs. They’re in a hurry to get in their jet and get outta there.
In the old days you had a certain time to get to the next race. These new guys don’t have that kind of restriction because they have their own plane. So they can leave anytime they want. I think they are not being fair to the fans. They ought to open the gates and let all the people come to the infield after a race. That’s what they used to do. Tiny Lund and I used to stay around and give the kids a ride in the race car. That’s what builds your fan base. The kids. If the kids love you, they are going to bring their parents. You gotta get the kids to love you. Watch the next race, those drivers finish the race and they are on that golf cart and are out of there.
OD: Was there a particular driver that you had a very close friendship with?
Tiger Tom: Junior Johnson. His shop was always open. You could take anything that you wanted. That’s the way he was. Wendell Scott was a close friend of mine too. I let Wendell drive my car at Rockingham one race. Wendell and I were the last guys to leave the racetrack. We used to pick all the stuff up that these other guys threw away so we could reuse it.
OD: We understand that you got a rude awakening when you went down south. You were darker skinned and had a very ethnic sounding name. Did they treat you the same way that Wendell was treated?
Tiger Tom: Worse. When I went down south, I didn’t know my history. When I was in Chicago, I didn’t take history. I threw the books out the window because I didn’t like history. So when I came down here, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Bill France Sr. smartened me up and told me that “you gotta join them.” So I did. I joined them. I didn’t know what they were talking about “yankee go home.” I never heard that expression in my life till then.
I’m the same way today as I was back then. You have to fight to make a buck. That’s why I am the same as I ever was.
OD: When the other racers talk about you, they say you were one of the toughest short track racers ever.
Tiger Tom: I don’t understand these guys. I led every super speedway race there was… until I blew up. [laughs] I can’t figure that one out because I was strong on super speedways. I think I was tough on the short tracks because that’s the way I came up. At Granatelli’s tracks, the faster cars started in the rear. Nowdays the faster cars start up front. That’s no good. You don’t learn nothing by doing that. When you start in the rear you learn how to come through traffic like Kyle [Busch]. Did you see how Kyle Busch came from the back at Phoenix? That’s what people recognize, coming all the way to the front from the rear. If he was out front at the start, they wouldn’t have even talked about it.
OD: Do you think that NASCAR should still be driving on dirt tracks?
Tiger Tom: Yes. Dirt makes a better driver. One hundred percent. Definitely from a car control standpoint.
OD: What are you most proud of?
Tiger Tom: I’m proud that my family is still together and close. I’m proud that I’m still recognized. It makes you feel good when people call you. Now that they are starting to induct me into the different halls of fame, radio shows are calling, TV people are calling. I’m proud that they still remember the early days of Chicago racing. I’m proud of that. I fully believe that it’s because of the time that I spent with those kids at the track back then. Those kids great up and they are the ones that remember me. If it wasn’t for those kids, I’d be long forgotten.
Still in the Game
In the sixty plus years that Pistone has been involved in racing, his path has crossed with many other legendary names with differing results. Of the people and products mentioned in this interview, only the Tiger is still involved in racing. Tiger Tom plans on fielding a NASCAR Truck team with Tommy Pistone III handling the driving duties this year.
After talking with Tiger Tom, we have to wonder, “after all the drivers that Tiger Tom helped get into the upper levels of NASCAR, who is going to step up and help the Pistone team make another run at the title?”