A Tribute to Tom "T.C." Lemons
An American Original

 

 

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 easy chair!

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!

Don Garlits


TC & Don 1969

 

TC & Don 2004

 


TC & Don 2009

 

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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 first interview.

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 life.

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 do?

January 11, 2012

Todd Hutcheson & T.C. in 2009


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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.

 

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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 too.

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 days later.

 

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 in 1972.

 

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!

 

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.

 

In the early 70's TC and Don had the fire burnout down to an art form.

 

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 was like.

 

NHRR 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.

 

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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

 

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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 sport’s "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.

Godspeed Tommy.
Jon Lundberg

 

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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 offering.

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.

Ron Barras

 


 

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 deal".
U will never be forgotten our friend...

Mike Civelli

 


 

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.

Paul Wilson

 


 

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!

Fred Seay

 


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