NASCAR Beginnings Featuring an Interview with ‘Tiger’ Tom Pistone

“Tiger” Tom Pistone was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 17, 1929. He began racing in 1950 at the age of 21 and became a legend at the famed Soldier Field where he won three consecutive championships from 1951-1953. He remains the all-time winner there with approximately 38 feature wins.

Photo Credit: Tom Pistone

He has often been called one of the best short track drivers of all time. Glenn “Fireball” Roberts once described Pistone as, “The toughest guy there is to beat on quarters and half-milers.”

During his career, he competed in both the NASCAR Grand National and Convertible divisions.

Pistone’s first win in a NASCAR-sanctioned race was at Soldier Field in 1956. He drove his 1956 Chevy ragtop to victory lane after passing leader Curtis Turner with only six laps to go. He captured his second NASCAR win, again at Soldier Field, in the Hardtop Series in 1957.

CarParts.com
Shop for Official NASCAR Collectibles at Store.NASCAR.com

His most competitive season was also his first full-time season.  In 1959, he scored two victories, 12 top-five finishes and ended the year in sixth place in the point standings in the Grand National Series. He scored a third win that year in the Convertible Series.

His racing career lasted from 1955-1968 with two wins, 29 top-fives, and 53 top-ten finishes in 130 starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Pistone was known not only for his skill behind the wheel but for his ability to set up a racecar that could withstand his aggressive driving.

“When I came south in 1955, they more or less had strictly stock automobiles,” explained Pistone.  “They were cars like you actually drove on the street.”

Pistone changed all that. His innovative ideas and expertise led to a second career building racecars and engines. Drivers like Harry Gant and Bobby Issac drove to victory lane in his equipment. His most successful partnership came when he teamed up with his friend Tiny Lund in the 1960s.

You’ll read about drivers with more wins and championships, but you would be hard pressed to find any with more heart and soul than Tiger Tom Pistone.

His career is a reflection of the all the drivers who shaped the early beginnings of NASCAR.

Tom Pistone with David Pearson and daughter Chrissy
Tom Pistone with David Pearson and daughter Chrissy

Pistone’s story began in 1950 when he met Andy Granatelli, a promoter at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

“He more or less organized all the races,” Pistone said. “You run the way he wanted you to run. A lot of people didn’t know but in his races, the white flag was the winner, not the checkered flag. He put a show on.”

The racers were a different breed and they handled problems with other drivers in their own way, without a rule book or a NASCAR official. Crashing someone on the track or fistfights after the race was not uncommon.

“In Chicago, it was that way,” Pistone continues. All they did was fight and crash each other. It was pretty bad. But it was exciting for the fans. They loved it.”

“Back then you had to be a man. I used to tell those guys, we’re all the same size in a racecar. I’m only 5’2” and I used to bring 10 guys with me to every race. You had to.”

“Tiger” Tom had his admirers back in the day and one of them was a youngster named Fred Lorenzen. “His Mom used to tell me that Freddy wanted to be just like me when he grew up.”

Pistone goes on to recall how he sold the “great” Lorenzen his first race car.

Remembering Lorenzen, he says, “He was the first one that did pit stops.” And then he pauses and says, “We used to laugh at him and say what the heck is that guy doing?”

Both Granatelli and Lorenzen would later play a pivotal role in Pistone’s career. Pistone calls it “the sore spot of my life,” as he recounts the story.

Pistone came up with the idea to visit his old friend Andy Granatelli and talk him into sponsoring his cars in NASCAR. Granatelli had become prominent as a sponsor in Indianapolis and became an Indianapolis 500 winner in 1969 with driver Mario Andretti.

“So Tiny and I flew to Indianapolis and we met him in the hotel and we got him to agree to sponsor our car.”

Or at least they thought they had an agreement. But Granatelli decided to sponsor Fred Lorenzen instead.  However, that partnership didn’t last long and Lorenzen soon lost the sponsorship to Richard Petty. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jack Roush, owner of Roush Fenway Racing explained the significance of that partnership.

“When Richard did the STP sponsorship deal it forever changed the business model in American motorsports,” said Jack Roush. “At a time when a lot of people were panicking about money, not unlike today, he and that company presented a solution that changed the face of racing.”

Pistone’s passion for the sport is evident as he talks about his experiences and the drivers he competed against.

When he moved his family to North Carolina to continue his career, his biggest competitors were the drivers who got their start running moonshine. According to Pistone, “Junior Johnson was the kingpin and Junior Johnson and I were good friends. Junior helped me a lot in the racing industry. He’s the one that got Winston into racing and Winston put NASCAR on the map. Junior used to help me out with parts. Anything I wanted, he gave me. That’s the only way I survived.”

Who were the best drivers in NASCAR? According to Pistone, “Larry Frank (Pop), Curtis Turner, Fred Lorenzen and Junior Johnson were some of the toughest drivers in racing.”

Of course, he didn’t get along with all the drivers.

“Buck Baker was about the meanest guy I ever met in my life. He just didn’t like Yankees. Jack Smith, guys like Speedy Thompson, they didn’t like Yankees. I didn’t even know I was a Yankee because I didn’t know what history was. When I was in Chicago I threw my history books away so I didn’t understand what they were talking about when they started calling me a Yankee.”

Another memorable driver was Joe Weatherly who Pistone called, “the comedian of NASCAR.  Joe used to pull so many jokes on us guys.”

Some of Weatherly’s pranks included stealing all the keys out of everyone’s racecars before the race or stealing all the gas caps. Pistone fondly remembers the time he says “Weatherly messed with the wrong guy.”

“That guy was my great friend, the late Larry Frank, who we used to call Pop.” Pop chased Weatherly through the parking lot running from rooftop to rooftop. He never caught Weatherly who was still boasting about how he got away the next day.

“He better be glad Pop did not catch him is all I got to say,” recalls Pistone.

The stories kept coming as he talks about AJ Foyt.

You have to remember that back then, the rules weren’t so well defined. Finding the gray areas and seeing how far they could push the boundaries was just part of the sport.

So what did Pistone think of Foyt?

“He was a bigger cheater than I was,” he said laughing. Then he tells a story to illustrate his point.

“Do you remember when Tommy Irwin went into the lake?” This happened at Daytona in 1960 during a qualifying run. Irwin escaped safely, but the incident scared Pistone.

“I went out and bought a life jacket and an oxygen tube because I couldn’t swim.”

But Foyt took advantage of the opportunity. “He took one of those (oxygen) tanks, put it in his car and filled it up with nitrous oxide and got away with it. Still laughing, Pistone said, “AJ was the best.”

At the age of 82, Pistone is still active in the racing industry and shows no interest in slowing down. Pistone will tell you, “If you want to stay young you got to keep working.”

His business ‘Tiger Tom Pistone Race Cars and Parts’ is thriving. Most days you’ll find him at his shop setting up cars and selling parts for all divisions of racing with an emphasis on Legend and Bandolero cars. He loves to mentor young drivers and is always there to lend a helping hand.

When he’s not at his shop you’ll usually find him at the track.

In 1987, Pistone took time off from his race car building and parts business to compete at Hickory Motor Speedway in a race for retired drivers. Showing that he still has what it takes, he took the checkered flag and drove into victory lane once again.

In the early 1990’s, Pistone began his involvement with the INEX Legends series. This series is often a training ground for drivers hoping to progress to the NASCAR level.

“When Humpy Wheeler first started it, he needed a technical director to help make the rules,” explained Pistone.  “So that’s how I got involved.  Then my grandsons got in it, and that’s what kept me in racing.”

Pistone has been active in charities since 1957 and has his own foundation that he calls the Legends of Stock Car Racing. He works to raise money that will help former drivers and crew members who have fallen on hard times. It’s his way of giving back to those who helped make NASCAR what it is today.

He recently teamed up with Jack Roush to help Steven Kraft, a NASCAR fan with stage four cancer. Pistone’s daughter had learned about the young man on Facebook and her father immediately wanted to do something to help.

Pistone gives a lot of credit to Jack Roush for taking their idea and making it a reality.

“Jack Roush is a good man. He helped my daughter Chrissy and I do a decal for David Ragan’s car in honor of Steven Kraft.   Jack Roush is a fine man and has all my respect and my family’s respect. He even texted me pictures of him and David holding the decal up so Steven could watch it from his hospital room. Thank you, Jack and David, for doing this special tribute!”

It sounds like Pistone has done it all. But he has one more thing he would like to accomplish.

His newest project is focused on helping one of his grandsons, Tommy III, pursue his NASCAR dream. They’re looking for sponsors now and plan to enter him in the Camping World Truck Series in 2012.

The name of the team is the ‘Pistone Racing Team” and his crew chief will be the one Tommy III calls his “pint-sized hero, Grandpa Tiger Tom.”

Tiger Tom and his wife Crystal raised Tommy III since he was 18 months old, after the loss of their son Tommy Jr. Tommy III has been through a lot in his young life. He battled with cancer at the age of 15 but won the fight and the Pistone family thanks God that he is still with them.

Courage and strength of character are something he learned from his grandparents.

“We had eight kids, four boys and four girls and we’ve lost a daughter and two sons. It’s not natural to outlive your children.  No parent should have to endure this horrific pain and huge loss and emptiness in your heart. “

Tiger’s advice is to “cherish every day God gives you with your children or loved ones. Seize the day because a hug, a kiss or anything could be the last time.”

Pistone is taking his own advice and living each day to its fullest. After all, there’s still one more dream he hopes to achieve. His ultimate goal is to win a championship with his grandson.

Once a racer, always a racer.

Achievements:

1953 – 1955 Three consecutive championships at Soldier Field

2010 – Inducted into the Racers Reunion Hall of Fame at Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, NC

2011 – Recipient of Smokey Yunick Achievement Award in Daytona, FL

2011 – Recipient of Smokey Yunick Achievement Award at Charlotte Motor Speedway

2011- Inducted into Jacksonville Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame on December 10, 2011

2012 –Will be inducted into Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame on April 14, 2012

Award from The Augusta International Speedway presented in an oak framed glass display with a picture of the Speedway in Atlanta and an original guardrail bolt

A Special Thanks to Tiger Tom Pistone and his daughter Chrissy and to Racing Radio 740 The Game

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Angie. I feel as if I have been sitting and listening to him tell his tales. Another NASCAR legend that I have been introduced to via your articles. Thank you :)

Leave a Reply to Angela Campbell Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here