Saturday, February 23, 2013

A conversation with Tiger Tom Pistone

Tom Pistone was an iconic NASCAR Grand National racer who drove from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s. Originally from Chicago, he raced many late model events and claimed championships at Solider Field. Yes, that Solider Field. The home of the Chicago Bears hosted stock car races throughout the 40s and 50s.

Tiger Tom made a handful of starts in NASCAR's Grand National and convertible series from 1955 through 1957. He did not race in either series in 1958 but signed on with car owner Carl Rupert to race about half the 1959 Grand National season - including the inaugural Daytona 500.

One of my favorite cars of Tom's is his mid-60s #59 Ford sponsored by Shoney's Restaurants. Though I don't have any memories of the car in the era it raced, our family were frequent diners at Nashville's Shoney's Big Boy drive-in when I was a kid.

Photo courtesy of Chrissy Pistone
I've lonnnnnng since bailed on Shoney's as a dining option. But I'll still give them props. My mother was looking for a job and was willing to develop new skill to function in a technology-enabled workplace. She landed at Shoney's and wondered if it would be a short-term gig. Instead, she worked in their corporate training department for about two decades; dedicated herself to learning all about Microsoft Office apps, HTML, learned to troubleshoot her PCs at the office and home; spent countless (and uncompensated) hours on nights and weekends; and was even featured in their Annual Report in the late 90s for her contributions to the company's training initiatives.

But I digress...

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes to speak by phone with Pistone about his memories from the first 500. While I wasn't able to record the call to get absolute quotes, the comments below represent the gist of his remarks. (In an weird sort of way, I kind of hope I do mess up something. It might give me to chance to reconnect with him again to get the story straight - and perhaps cover a new topic.)

For the first Daytona 500, Tiger Tom raced a 1959 Ford Thunderbird sedan purchased as race-ready from Holman & Moody for $5,900. His third place finish in his qualifying twin placed him fifth in the starting line-up. When the checkers fell, Tom's T-Bird finished a very respectable 9th five laps off the lead. Of the top 10 finishers, only Pistone and sixth-place finisher Jim Reed are still with us in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Chrissy Pistone
Tiger Tom raced a couple of times on the old Daytona Beach sand and street course - in 1956 and 1957 - in NASCAR's short-lived convertible series. But his arrival in February 1959 at the new superspeedway was his first time to see the new track. He had not visited it all during its construction.

He said the track was pretty easy to drive from the get-go. The greatest challenge was learning about the draft and figuring out to manage it well. Pistone said before the race weekend was complete, most drivers figured out the draft pretty quickly. 

Despite having run convertibles in 1956-57, he chose to go with the hardtop sedan for the 500. He said the convertibles were simply too slow on the new high-banked superspeedway.

Tom said he hadn't been out of the city of Chicago many times at that point in his life. He was unsure what trips to the South would be like. He wondered if southerners would like him. He remembers flat-bed towing the race car to Florida, passing farm houses, meeting people along the way. He said he didn't know a lot of history back then and wasn't really sure about the whole Yankee vs. southerner debate.

Pistone said two qualifying sessions were held to set the fields for the twin qualifying races. He claims he had by far the fastest times in both rounds - until Cotton Owens showed up and bested his time. He said the cars ran about 20 MPH faster than the Firestone tires were equipped to run. The full-treaded tires started coming apart with the high speeds, and the drivers had to adapt to better manage their tire wear. Pistone believes had be been better able to manage his tires as Lee Petty did that he may well have been able to win the race.

He said his team didn't have much leisure time and certainly not much money for their round-trips to the beach and back to Chicago in the second half of the 1950s. So they didn't have time to visit DIS while it was under construction. And they certainly didn't stick around long after the race wondering who'd indeed won the race: Johnny Beachamp or Lee Petty. If a racer doesn't have the trophy in one hand and his other arm around the beauty queen, he may as well just load up and begin preparing for the next race.

Pistone was very complimentary of NASCAR's first president, Bill France Sr. Big Bill supported Tom in his racing, encouraged him about participating in NASCAR events, arranged a shop in Daytona to work in, provided lodging, etc. Without France's support, Tom said he likely would not have made it in the sport. Despite some initial misgivings about how he and the South might get along, Tom took to the area and moved his family to Florida in 1965.

In 1991, Charlotte Motor Speedway created a quarter-mile track in the grass area between pit road and the frontstretch dogleg. The original purpose of it was to host a Winston Legends race for old-time drivers to race in scaled-down versions of their old cars and painted in colors recognizable to fans of their era. Tom not only returned to race in the event but also told a few old school stories along the way.


Tom still interacts a good bit with race fans - especially when made aware of someone's interest by his daughter, Chrissy. He runs a racing parts business and helps his grandson with his budding racing career. Pistone can also be found on Twitter. If interested in learning more about him or reaching out to ask a question or thank him for the racing history to which he contributed, here are a few channels.

Twitter: @TigerTomPistone
Parts business: pistonetigertom.com
Pistone Racing: pistoneracing.com
RacersReunion.com: stockcar.racersreunion.com/profile/TigerTomPistone

TMC

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