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Quad engines or nitro? T.V. Tommy tried ’em both, nearly ending his racing career in one and definitely ending it in the other

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions, except where noted.

If we were to assemble a clickbait top-10 list of T.V. Tommy Ivo drag-racing moments, the creation of his quad-engine Showboat exhibition racer and the 1974 Winternationals crash would vie for the two top spots, if for no other reason than the sheer spectacle of each. In January, the car at the center of one of those episodes, and an Ivo-approved replica at the center of the other, will both cross the block as part of a collection featuring several other drag history highlights.

The 1957 ban on nitromethane by the National Hot Rod Association might’ve meant slower speeds – to begin with, at least – but it also launched a wave of creative workarounds to get gasoline-powered dragsters up to the speeds previously seen only by nitro-powered cars on the dragstrip. Ivo, who started racing a couple years prior, took up the challenge in 1960 with his twin-engine dragster, a car that not only set records (first to 170 mph, first to 180 mph, and first gas-powered dragster in the 8s, according to Ivo) but also attracted the attention of crowds across the country.

Ever the showman, Ivo decided that “if they liked two motors, they’ll love four,” so he had Kent Fuller design a custom chassis to hold two drivetrains – one running the front wheels, the other running the back wheels – each powered by tandem fuel-injected Buick V-8s. Bob Sorrell shaped the aluminum bodywork while Don Prudhomme painted it for Ivo.

As Ivo told the story, the car – which Hot Rod dubbed the Showboat to Ivo’s annoyance – got him banned from driving by the studio he worked for, so he simply put Prudhomme in the car until the NHRA banned quad-engine cars along with nitromethane. Ivo parked the Showboat to mess around with a couple front-engine dragsters and then, after the lifting of the nitro ban in 1962, Top Fuel dragsters.

Then in 1964 he sold the Showboat to Tom McCourry who, a couple years later, added a Tom Hanna-built aluminum station wagon body and Buick Riviera-ish nose, re-named it the Wagon Master, and took it back out on the exhibition race circuit.

Meanwhile, Ivo kept racing Top Fuel dragsters, switching from front-engine to rear in 1972. For the 1974 season, he had Larry Sikora build him a new 225-inch-wheelbase chassis, powered by a 484-cu.in. Hemi V-8. The dragster also wore full bodywork up front, including pants for the front wheels. On just his fourth run in the car, at the Winternationals in Pomona that year, an engine explosion severed the car in two, leaving Ivo skidding upside-down and backward across the finish line at more than 200 MPH.

As Tom Cotter wrote in “TV Tommy Ivo: Drag Racing’s Master Showman,” the explosion was caused by a grudge and a too-aggressive nitro mixture.

As they pushed closer to the front of the line, Ivo – nervous about this race against Tarzan – kept leaning out the fuel mixture more and more. “The leaner you make them, the better they run,” he said. “If you can get them to run on the aluminum, they go like a son-of-a-gun at the other end. I just didn’t want to get beaten by Tarzan, even if it meant I was going to burn a piston as I went by the Christmas tree.”

At about 1,200 feet, as he approached the finish line, all hell broke loose. His leaned-out engine erupted in a ferocious ball of fire so fierce that flames enveloped the rear wing, rendering its downward pressure useless.

Rather than simply burning one piston, all eight pistons welded themselves inside the cylinders, causing the engine block to break and the connecting rods to come out the bottom. A pool of oil spread under the rear tires, which caused the dragster to skate sideways.

Photo via Tommy Ivo.

“The car came apart like a two-dollar watch,” he told Mark McCourt for a profile on him in Hemmings Muscle Machines. “It was worth the price of admission. I thought it was curtains, and when I felt that, I became euphoric–the scare went away. I was mad at myself because I’d closed my eyes and missed the show.”

He emerged unscathed and returned to Top Fuel the next year, but in following years shifted to Funny Cars and eventually jet dragsters. Then, in 1982, he bought back the Wagon Master and decided to take a farewell tour, during which he broke four vertebrae after hitting a bump on a frost-hove track in Saskatchewan in the Wagon Master. His driving career was over.

He could still secure his legacy, however, so he began a replica of the original Showboat that eventually wound up – along with the Wagon Master – in the hands of Ralph Whitworth, who was looking to build a museum in Winnemucca, Nevada. While Whitworth reportedly wanted to revert the Wagon Master back into the Showboat, Ivo argued that the Wagon Master should stay in its full-bodied configuration and that Whitworth should instead complete the replica. Bruce Dyda came in to lend his skills to the replica project, using Ivo as a constant resource for authenticity, and completed it as a static display in 2007.

That same year, former Funny Car world champion Bruce Larson debuted his restoration of the 1974 Top Fuel car, a car that Ivo had restored – albeit sans wheel pants – and that had gone on to compete under successive ownership and even suffer another devastating crash. Larson, who found the car behind a gas station in Highbridge, New Jersey, spent about two years on the restoration, relying on help from Ivo, who still had some original parts for Larson to use as references.

Whitworth ended up selling both the Wagon Master and the Showboat replica in 2009 at RM’s Icons of Speed and Style auction: the former for $209,000; the latter for $176,000. Three years later, Larson sold the 1974 Top Fuel car at Mecum’s Indianapolis auction for $200,000.

Both the Showboat replica and the Top Fuel car ended up in the collection of RV dealer Don Wallace, who has consigned more than two dozen cars to January’s Mecum Kissimmee auction. In addition to the Ivo cars, the Wallace collection includes the original Hemi Under Glass Barracuda, a Bill Golden Little Red Wagon Dodge A100 wheelstander, a Sox & Martin Hemi ‘Cuda, a Bob Glidden Pinto, a Mr. Norm’s Challenger Funny Car, Grumpy’s Toy VIII, and Grumpy’s Toy XI.

Mecum’s Kissimmee sale takes place January 2-12. For more information, visit Mecum.com.