Friday, September 26, 2014

Tom Pistone feature


(NOTE: This story appeared in the Hickory Daily Record in 2013.)

Pistone still has a tiger in his tank

By Tom Gillispie

Tiger Tom Pistone was a practical race-car driver.
In 1960, he wore a life preserver and an oxygen tube in his car while racing at Daytona. Tommy Irwin ran into the lake in the middle of the speedway (but did not drown) during the first qualifying race that year, and Pistone was afraid of running into the lake and drowning.
Pistone says the highlight of his relatively short career was getting his first NASCAR victory, at Trenton, N.J., in 1959.
But mostly he remembers the people, especially his best friend from North Carolina.
“There was Junior Johnson; we were friends all the way from the '50s,” Pistone said. “Junior was an innovator, a car builder, and a great driver. He could do it all, on dirt and asphalt, and he would help you. There were also guys like Curtis Turner and Neil Castles. A lot of guys helped me on my way up. Without them, I couldn't start racing.”
He recalls flying to races with Turner, a pilot and one of the nuttier drivers.
“I went to races with Curtis, and we used to go to tracks and land on straightaways; we landed on the racetrack,” Pistone said. “Back in them days, they used a map. That’s how we flew; we flew low and followed the highways.”
The late Joe Weatherly stood out among Pistone’s friends.
“He was a clown, joked around a lot,” Pistone said. “He was a very enjoyable person.”
Pistone paused before adding, “They were all great, great, great friends.”
Pistone, a native of Chicago, started out racing at Soldiers Field, a sports venue made famous by the Chicago Bears.
“It was similar at Bowman Gray (Stadium),” he said, talking about another tiny racetrack built around a football field. “Bowman Gray reminds you of Soldiers Field.”
“In 1955, Soldiers Field went NASCAR,” he added. “I won three championships (in a row) there, so they more or less booted me out, and I went south. Andy Granatelli (later of STP fame) was in charge back; he was the promoter. (He was) the greatest promoter beside Bill France Sr.”
Pistone started his racing career Soldiers Field, Rockford, Ill., and Milwaukee, Wis.
After coming south, he also raced at a tiny dirt track in Newton, N.C. He ran six NASCAR Grand National races at Hickory, finishing 31st, fifth, 20th, 22nd, 20th and seventh.
His favorite memory of Hickory, he said, was “Winning the first asphalt race there, a 300-lap race, Late Model Sportsman.”
His worst memory?
“When Bobby Isaac died at the racetrack,” he said. “He was driving one of my Late Models.”
Pistone, a member of the Racers' Reunion Hall of Fame, said that he raced on tracks all around North Carolina and felt comfortable on them.
“I was born and raised on that kind of track,” he said. “I raced Bowman Gray, North Wilkesboro, Hickory, Martinsville, Asheville-Weaverville, Augusta Speedway, Greenville(-Pickens), Charlotte, Concord. I ran most of the North Carolina races.”
He also raced in the first World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) in 1960 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“The whole track came apart,” he said. “I was leading the race, too, and broke my A-frame.”
He finished 31st among 60 drivers in the first 600.
Pistone’s first Grand National (now Sprint Cup) race was in 1955 at North Wilkesboro; he started 28th and finished 27th in his only race that year. He wound up running just 130 races over 11 years, with both of his career wins in 1959 (Trenton and Richmond, Va.). Those 130 races would just cover four years on NASCAR’s current Cup schedule.
He also ran 34 NASCAR Convertible Series races and won two of them.
He eventually decided that racing wasn’t the way to go.
“There was no money in it,” he said. “You couldn't make no money. In my whole racing career, I made $44,000 (actually, $45,683 in the Grand National Series). The money started coming in in the '90s.”
After his career ended in 1968, he dove full-time into his chassis and parts business, which he’d started in 1955.
“I’m still doing it,” the 83-year-old Pistone said recently.
He says he goes to “five or 10” Cup races and “all the Legends races” each year. He mentors young drivers, and he sells car parts to small Cup, Nationwide and truck teams, as well as teams that run Legends cars, Bandoleros, Thunder Roadsters and Late Models.
He’s also trying to help his grandson, 37-year-old Tommy Pistone III, get his racing career off the blocks. If all works out, his grandson will be racing the Camping World Truck Series next year.
“I’ve got the truck; we’re just trying to find some sponsorship,” Pistone said. “He started racing with me when he was 21. We started racing Legends cars, and he ran two Craftsman Truck races back in (2002, 2003).”
Looking back on six decades of racing, he says the ’70s and ’80s were the best era of stock-car racing. He says the costs of the cars and engines have gotten way out of hand.
“They need to make the cars more stock, go back to what the cars are supposed to look like,” he said. “They need to go back to the stock design, like it used to be.”
That would certainly save on car parts.

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