On January 11, 2012 the drag
racing world was dealt a harsh blow.
From; The Don Garlits Museum
of Drag Racing
I'm so sad to report that Thomas C. , AKA "TC", "Top
Cat" and beloved "Tommy", passed this morning
around 11 AM January 11th, 2012.
This marked the passing of one
of the sport's great as this man was there and did it all! The
work that he performed on the development of the Rear Engine
Dragster cannot be overstated! Tom , Connie Swingle and myself
did the work and each one of us deserve equal credit. I first
met TC in 1968, when he showed up at Seffner with Swingle returning
from Bixby OK from the Christmas holidays. Soon after, he was
my Crew Chief and remained so for many years.
For all practical purposes he
has been here since that date with exceptions of a few "vacations"
now and then over the span of 4 decades. TC was also very instrumental
in the start-up of the Drag Racing Museum in Seffner Florida,
as many of the older restorations are TC's work and he spent
years helping build the exhibits that we all enjoy today. He
spent the last 5 years here on the Museum grounds, living in
the "Cabin", fighting Cancer and winning. However the
radiation treatments had got to his heart and it was a massive
heart attack that got him in the end. Just yesterday we toured
Ocala, saving all the world's economic and social problems! TC
and I are just a little right of Attila the Hun!
Today we were to travel to Stuart
Florida for a TV Show we were doing tomorrow with Master's Entertainment.
We were to leave at 2 PM and I called over to the Cabin around
1:45 to see if he was ready, no answer, I called again, still
no answer! I sensed something was wrong as TC is so punctual!
I went to the Cabin, knocked on the door, still no answer, I
knew then to expect the worst and there he was, dead in his favorite
TC is in a better place now as
he was suffering tremendously during the last couple of months.
TC is survived by his older Sister Wanda Kannady, who lives in
MO. He had never been married, nor did he have any children.
God speed, TC Rest in Peace!
TC & Don 1969
TC & Don 2004
TC & Don 2009
TC and I
by Todd Hutcheson
I arrived at the hotel near the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing
in Ocala Florida. Mickey Bryant came in a few hours later. Mickey
and I were to meet up with Garlits and Tom TC for the next few
days to talk about the history of the Swamp Rat 14 Rear Engine
Dragster for our book 'Don Garlits R.E.D.'
I wandered over to the Museum
grounds to see the famous names on the bricks of the 'Walk of
Fame'. Just a short walk from the Museum and the Hall of Fame
Monument were two houses; the bigger one was the Garlits family
compound, and a smaller house next to it. A pick-up truck drove
in and TC step out and entered the smaller house. That was the
first time I saw Tom TC in 40 years. The first time I saw him,
or noticed him, was at Lions Drag Strip March 8th 1970. He stood
behind the Swamp Rat 13 just before it took off into the greatest
turning point in drag racing history. I was at the fence line
in the Garlits lane staging area when it happened.
The next morning Mickey and I
walked to the Museum souvenir shop. There sitting in a chair
was TC. He got up and introduced himself and shook my hand. We
had been friends ever since.
For about 4 hours TC walked through
the Museum of Drag Racing telling his stories. My digital recorder
captured every word, joke and story. TC stopped at the Urn with
Connie Swingle's ashes. He said he missed that son-of-a-bitch
Swingle, wishes he was here. He got choked up, turned his face
away, and went on with the tour. His tour was so good that we
wanted him to do it again and again. Little did we know he talked
right through his lunch until Don Garlits called us in for the
Tom TC walked the firing line
every weekend and fought many battles and many people, even with
his best friend Don Garlits. But now he is the most beloved figure
by all that knew him and fought with him. He was lovable and
tough, funny and sad, a walking historian of the drag racing
When Mickey and I were done with
the interviews, TC put his hand on Mickey's shoulder and said,
"Thank you for writing this little story, I am glad someone
is telling the story, I mean it's a neat little deal."
After our interviews, TC took
me through the Museum of Classic Cars. He was totally informed
as to each car and its history. He stopped and asked about me
and my family. He said, "Todd, I just wanted to know who
my new friend was, thanks."
Tommy told us many stories, some
we made into cartoons in our book 'Don Garlits R.E.D., however
some stories were "off the record, ya see." TC loved
the ones in the book. Many phone calls over the next few years
confirmed to me how proud he was that his story was told. He
wanted this so much.
One story that we thought should
be out front was about Tom McEwen. TC told us when he first had
Cancer, Tom McEwen called TC every week and said, "So how
ya doing buddy? What you doing? Tell me all about it." TC
said, "Ya see, Tom is my friend, he called me every week
and cheered me up. Nobody else did that."
A cartoon in our book told of
the friendship between Tom and Tom, "There hasn't been any
one person nicer to me in drag racing than Tom McEwen. When I
was a little bit younger out there 40 years ago, working hard
and trying to do good, everyone was climbing over me to get to
the old man. The sports writers, big shots, big name drivers
would leave tracks on me to get to Garlits. But Tom would always
stop to talk to me. I never forgot that. And when I got this
cancer he would call me every week asking me 'How ya doing, what's
going on, tell me all about it.' He's my friend."
One of his favorite stories was
also about McEwen. He knew McEwen could take a joke. TC story
went like this, "After Garlits first big victory (3rd race)
with the new Rear Engine Dragster Swamp Rat #14 at Pomona Winter
Nationals 1971, Tom McEwen was the first to order the new Rear
Engine Frame from Garlits Chassis. It was delivered with an odd
spring and knob behind the seat. TC had marked on it 'More or
Less' with a knob to tighten it.
TC was in the shop working when
the phone rings, a call from McEwen. TC answers "Dragster
shop." McEwen asks sharply, "What the hell does it
do?" TC answers innocently "Oooh, it does nothing...just
messing with ya." All this time McEwen was sitting there
turning the knob trying to figure out what 'More or Less' does."
A Tom TC story.
When I talked to him on the phone,
he was friendly and upbeat. Sometimes he complained about the
pain and trouble and 'those doctors', but he always was glad
to hear from me. He would ask, "When ya coming back?"
When TC and I were alone and
relaxing back in 2009 at the museum race shop, he said this to
me, "Ya know Todd, I'd be in bad shape if it wasn't for
the Old Man. He takes care of everything. I don't have to worry
about nothing. He can be a tough son-of-a--bitch... but he's
soft with me. Wasn't always that way, but he is my friend and
I don't have many friends like him."
Tom loved the Old Man and the
Museum and always took time with the visitors answering all questions
and giving tours. Tommy was well taken care of by his best friend
Don Garlits. He lived in a very nice home, Don and Pat would
take him to the hospital all the time. He even got a retirement
check from Garlits. Don made sure that Tom had all that he wanted
and needed. Don should get all the credit for making TC's last
years happy and comfortable ones. What more would a true friend
Todd Hutcheson &
T.C. in 2009
January 11, 2012
Below are a few of TC's classic
lines with comic illustrations. They are from the book Don Garlits R.E.D. by Todd and Mickey Bryant.
TC's chair at the Garlits Museum.
A sad reminder of the man who could be found there so often.
On personal note, having known
him for some 45 years I can tell everyone that didn't know him
that T.C. was one of the most unique characters drag racing ever
saw. His keen wit, talent and knowledge of drag racing history
and most of all his great stories will be sorely missed. If he
couldn't get a gut laugh from you then a coroner should have
been called. The stores of he and Big's decades of adventures
would make a great book.
If you were politically inclined,
it was no secret that Tommy was a staunch Republican - a conservatives
conservative. If you got him started, his normal wit turned into
an informed ally of limited government - not an Obama fan. At
all. He had many layers beyond his public persona. I loved them
Even though one of his favorite
lines was the fact he was fired by Garlits in five consecutive
decades, the two were as close as two men could be. It was a
great comfort to all of us to know that Tommy was under Don and
Pat's wings for the last years of his life. Now he and Swingle
along with so many other talented drag racers can make the heavens
a better place. Rest in peace my friend. Don Ewald
Now I would like to share a few
random photos of TC from WDIFL.com
In 1971 TC rolled into Pomona
with the car that would make a believer of the masses just four
TC did it all right down
the the SR tire pressure here in 1971.
Like I said, he did it
all. Here he guides Big back in 1976.
TC pours the VHT for Big at Fremont
in 1971. If Big was running, you can almost bet the farm TC was
somewhere in the photo.
TC lining up Big at Bristol
TC thrashin' away at
the 1973 Popular Hotrodding Meet.
Bowling Green 2003: Don Ewald,
Gary Cochran, Goob Tuller and TC . 160+ years of of drag racing
history and at least that many lies!
In the early 70's TC
and Don had the fire burnout down to an art form.
Lions, 1970. T.C. (a legend in
his own right) turns away after lighting the gas for this fire
burn-out. These were very popular with the fans but really rough
on paint jobs. This shot was taken the night before he experienced
the horrific 2-speed explosion that cut the car in half and took
a hunk of his left foot with it.
This was a typical scene in 1970.
T.C. (Tommy) working on the car while Big leans on the cage and
watches. Just kidding. This appears to be in the staging lanes
of Pomona. Later this year Garlits would have the devastating
transmission explosion at Lions that cost him half a foot and
ultimately changed the face of drag racing forever. Those damn
rear engine cars! BUT, ya gotta love the bellbottoms on the gal
to the right!
TC (and helper) push back Garlits
from a burnout in 1973. Like most teams of that era Gar and TC
had to recruit local help to compete at any given race. Who wouldn't
want to be a gopher for Big?
Greg Sharp and "Big Cat"
at Bowling Green in 2003. One can only image what the conversation
2003: Recipient of the Justice Bros. "Reunion Spotlight"
award was none other than Don Garlits. Now the award is one thing
but who was at his table was another. From LtoR: Tommy "TC"
Lemon, Big, wife Pat and the one and only - Connie Swingle.
Finely a shot of TC and my wife,
AJ. This was her first CHRR in 2001. We got there a day early
and the first person I ran into was Tommy. I introduced them
and went about my business. In a flash they were buds. AJ said
she hadn't laughed that much in a long time. TC made her first
CHRR impression a lasting one. It was not a good moment when
I told her of his passing.
If you have any special TC stories
or photos please submit them for this page that will be entrenched
on WDIFL.com Send to: To
TC on WDIFL
My friend (Don Garlits):
I am sorry for your (and our
mutual) loss in the passing of Tommy Lemons.
In motorsports and particularly
drag racing much of the honor and glory is visited upon
those who win it competing. But, in truth, the rich fabric
of experience and history is written by those who create legend
through story-telling and at that was Tommy Lemons our sports
"Big Daddy", nobody came close. His uncanny gift of
living life and relating those experiences with humor and impact
was/is his legacy to us. And we are much the richer for his having
been among us to make that necessary contribution. That he also
made documented contribution to how racers are able to practice
this sport under much safer conditions is testimony to his love
for the people he met on the path he chose to follow.
That he may now spend eternity
pain free spinning tall tales of daring-do among
those he joins will make the heavens shine just a bit brighter.
So well written and the photographs
were spectacular! Although I never met "TC", I obviously
saw him more than once at Indy during the many years which I
attended. Credit Garlits with taking care of him during his latter
years and if I am not mistaken, "TC" was at the two
races when Garlits and Carbone raced at (Indy). Garlits won the
initial contest, and in addition, a year or two later Carbone
nailed the "Old Man" in the last front engine car to
win a national event, the "burn down". It was in a
Don Long car which was one of the most beautiful fuel cars of
all time and a die cast copy of which I will have (from you)
for as long as I pump air on this earth. That was a rivalry kind
sir! I asked Carbone at this race if he needed some help and
if I remember correctly he was with his wife or girlfriend at
the time (Wiebe's old flame), he declined, but thanked me for
May God bless "TC" as he was better than an icon, and
the list of the departed (CHRR) is growing far too fast and you
simply cannot replace those personalities. It was only a month
or two ago that you informed me about Bob Creitz.
Thank you so much for sending this fine piece to me and again,
it was (truly) well written.
Very few times in ones life we
meet someone who changes it so dramatically it will never be
the same. This was the case for me when I met Tom Lemons. In
1969 I was 14 yrs. old, and went away with the old man and T.C.
and he literally got stuck with the duties of taking me under
his wing. This simple and kind man changed my life forever. He
taught me lessons in life no one else ever did, and always taught
me that ones own dignity was their most important asset. I love
this man with all my heart as his simply put words and actions
to me were genuine, as if he was talking to his own son. I was
honored to have him call me his adopted 'son' as he didn't have
one, and so I promised him I would always try to make him proud.
I was the one who was blessed to meet this man and wanted to
treat others the way he treated me.
Over the years I have been asked
many times to tell my T.C. stories. Each and every one I later
realized was born out of him making me a better person, a fact
I never forgot.
He fought a nasty battle in these
last years, and took great pride and happiness that his most
cherished friends Don and Pat Garlits loved him with all their
hearts. People say the "ole man" is tough, I say he
has a heart of gold to the people that proved to be the "real
U will never be forgotten our friend...
So sad to hear of the recent
passing of T.C. Lemons. He was an amazing person and a very unique
one too. I first got to know Tommy in the mid-70's when I crewed
part time for the Candies and Hughes top fuel team, back when
Richard Tharp was driving for them. In 1977 I had just finished
college and was heading to Gainesville FL from my home in Ontario,
Canada in my '73 Pinto anxious for the sun and the Gatornationals.
I left a few days early as I wanted to check out Don Garlits
Speed Shop in Tampa, I believe. When I got there I met T.C. who
was working the counter. I introduced myself and told him of
my working with Candies and we hit it off right away. By coincidence
another fellow named Jim I think was in the shop too from Quebec
. Tommy thought that funny as two Canadians being in the shop
at the same time, and neither of us knew each other.
Anyways, T.C. invited both of
us over to his place after work to hang out and have a few beers.
Can't say no to that. When he learned that neither of us had
booked a room yet , he said we could crash out on the couches
if we liked. Well we talked drag racing for hours and hours into
the wee hours of the night, the three of us and his dog (Spook)
I believe. I remember him telling us that one time when a tech
guy questioned him about the cleanliness of the racecar, he said
it had had more bathes than him. He also said when the car goes
to the starting line it has 8 little soldiers.....but they don't
all come back! Funny man, that guy in the green glasses! When
we finally called it a night I remember there wasn't much room
left for empty beer cans on the table. Somehow the next morning
we all made it to Gainesville with big heads no doubt!
Now, over 30 years later, I've
never forgotten that night nor his hospitality. Even though lives
go in different directions we still joked about that night every
time I'd see him again at the races. Tommy was definitely one
of the true un-sung heroes of our sport. People like T.C. Lemons
make drag racing the great sport it is. Rest in peace, my friend.
I will always remember the nights
with Garlits, TC and Donovan, especially with TC and Donovan
vying for first place. Now, Donovan was good, but TC would give
him a run for the money! Oh, the laughs and the lies, what nights
those were! Regarding those lies... As Donovan always said, "Never
let the truth get in the way of a GOOD story!