From Steve Pados: "....a story I wrote about Tom that headlined the recent Dirt Track Heroes program in Phillipsburg, NJ"
Above image based on an Ace Lane Jr. photo
“Terrible Tom” Tom Hager
Excerpts from Tom Hager as told to Steve Pados
The history of motorsports is an entertaining and truly fascinating journey into a world where the major players have been a strong assortment of everyday people who took their love for racing and their need for speed and parlayed that passion, desire and talent into careers that elevated the bar and made those individuals the racing heroes we carry on conversations about today. From NASCAR to Champ Cars and into the Modified and Sprint Car ranks each division of auto racing has had their own brand of choice characters that has played a major role in creating the attachment the true racing fan has found in his love for the sport. The great country singer Waylon Jennings once stated, “No one ever became a legend by following the rules” and in applying the factual statement to the rules of engagement in auto racing, one such racing legend quickly comes to mind in the name of Modified racing great Tom Hager.
“Terrible Tom”, “Hager the Horrible”, “Big Tom” and “Beef” were some of the colorful monikers or nicknames bestowed upon the likable driving star who began his long and colorful career in racing as a crewman, followed into the ranks of a car owner and later rose into superstar status when he climbed behind the wheel of his race car for the first time towards the end of the 1971 racing season. The series of events that took place when he was a car owner was perhaps the necessary path Tom would need to choose and find himself sitting in the seat of his own race car to begin a driving career that would span four decades and bring the West Easton, Pennsylvania resident close to two hundred wins in his impressive driving resume.
Tom was a bit unconventional in his viewpoint on auto racing and it was truly a blessing for the sport as many of the ideas that came from his innovative mind and put to application were just a few of the components that changed the face and technology of Modified racing as we know it.
Tom would always be considered an underdog in the sport as he was one driver/owner who made the most out of less than anyone who competed in the last forty years of auto racing. The great legendary Easton, Pennsylvania Modified car owner Harold Cope, from his number 1 car fame, once told me back in 1975 as he helped me assemble a motor for my own race car stated, “I do not attend the races too much anymore but if I was back in racing with my own cars, the only guy I would want in my equipment would be Tom Hager as he races hungry and has already gained the knowledge it takes any other guy a decade to acquire because Tom knows and understands what it takes to make a car tick, and you mark my words, Tom will become a legend in the sport and it will be sooner rather than later”. Cope later emphasized, “You know Stevie, I like that kid Hager as nothing at all fazes him and when he tells you be is going out to win a race this weekend, he goes right out and does it”. My own input into Cope’s profound statement was the fact Cope was a huge Ford aficionado in his prime years in racing and was beaming with pride as Hager began his Modified career with Big Block Ford powered Modifieds before eventually making the switch-over to the more economical Big Block Chevrolet powered race cars.
Tom was born in the Garden State of New Jersey and was raised on a farm in his early years. The mechanical end of working on the farm and auto equipment and fixing things was taught to him at an early age and Tom always had the inquisitive nature and the know-how to always go one step farther than he was taught.
Like many of us who were fascinated by auto racing, Tom Hager was smitten as well and always found the opportunity to be sitting in the grandstands at Nazareth, Flemington or the Harmony Speedways and with a very keen sense of what was going on during the racing events. In his teenage years he teamed up with his brother Dave, Harold Diehl and Richard Lauber from the Phillipsburg to first begin working on the number 1 race car driven at the time by Larry Honey. Tom would later become a part owner in the team and the team would find success at Nazareth and Harmony with a motor that Tom built for the team. After a successful span together, a dispute arose as to who owned what on the race car, and Tom knowing full well the motor in the car was his property, held his ground and stated the fact to the arguing owners. After a strong debate, the group told Tom if indeed the motor was his, he should take it out of the car and leave the team. Undaunted, “Big” Tom, who in those days was in excess of a burly three hundred pounds, unbolted the motor from the race car and proceeded to pick it up via the bear-hug method and carried it down South Main Street in Phillipsburg to his home a few blocks away. Enough said.
Tom would later build his own hot rod with the existing race motor and placed it in a 1937 Ford Sedan for battle at Dorney Park and pavement specialist Jack Jones became the driver of the race car and the team enjoyed some great success on the pavement at the tight one fifth mile oval. In 1971 Tom built a Falcon bodied Ford powered creation with Larry Honey back in the driver’s seat and the team found success at the Harmony Speedway. Towards the end of the season at Harmony, Larry was complaining about the car after a heat race event for even though he qualified was not happy with the performance of the race car.
Another heated discussion ensued and Tom quickly grew tired of hearing what the car could and couldn’t do and found Tom climbing into the race car and competing in the feature event for the first time and drove the car from last starting place to an impressive fourth place finish when the checkered flag fell. Thus began the driving career and the ultimate legend status that would follow the successful years Tom would enjoy in racing.
Tom would have an incredible season in his rookie year of 1972 and was very impressive in capturing the Flemington Sportsman driving championship and also winning rookie of the year.
All told Tom would garner in some 28 wins in the season as he was runner-up at both Nazareth and East Windsor and also grabbing the Rookie of the Year honors at Nazareth as well. In his initial season Tom had built-up a solid following with those some big wins and solid finishes and his daring moves on the race track immediately made him a fan favorite in the grandstands.
Tom decided Modified racing was the place to be and found some Big Block fuel injected Ford equipment for his rookie campaign and built another new Falcon bodied race car to serve notice he was the real deal. Tom was impressive right out of the box in his initial season in the Modified division and the new kid on the block soon found his way into the winner’s circle at the Nazareth Speedway and also earned Rookie of the Year honors with his sixth place finish in the final points. Tom also earned Rookie of the Year honors at Flemington as his success was swift and by his second year in the Modifieds was soon fielding offers to drive for other car owners notably the famous Alfie Silliman owned number 4 that had been vacated by the great Oliver Butler. Hager earned his first Modified win at Flemington in 1974 and one year later in addition to fielding his own racing equipment landed the ride in the powerful Vern Garozzo owned number 21 Mustang that had earlier been driven to minimal success by Walt Olsen.
Tom found success in driving for other car owners but Tom was definitely a man of his own principals and was better suited to drive his own race cars to collect all of the winnings instead of the percentage of the winnings the car owners paid out.
Big Tom met speed shop entrepreneur John Burnett in 1976 and the pair began a long-lasting friendship that still exists to this very day. The 1977 season saw Tom and John hook-up in a joint partnership that found Tom utilizing a Burnett-built chassis for the first time in his career. Tom was a master at making things better and did some tweaks here and there on the chassis that enabled the use of the term “Hagerized” to become prevalent in and around the racing circles. The success Tom found on the race track equated to additional success he found while working on ways to improve the race car in hooking up to the race track. Tom developed the Hager Transmission and earned a patent for the product and it was that technology that paved the way for all racing transmissions on short tracks today to be similar to the original Hager design. Tom was a ferocious competitor with a tenacity to race until the checkered flag fell and it was at a time when Tom began to race for a living.
The 1979 season saw Tom hook-up with the legendary Will Cagle in a partnership deal that saw Tom do much of his racing in New York State as the pair worked out of the same garage in New York State even though Tom still found time to race at his favorite Nazareth Speedway facility. Tom made friends quickly with Show Car Engineering owner Howard Conkey and a deal was hammered out for Tom to run the Show Car equipment while racing wherever and whenever they could find a track in competition. The new combination enjoyed success and Tom was able to score his lone Nazareth Championship in 1980 to forever etch his name into the long list of champions who raced in Nazareth.
The deal with Conkey ended prematurely and Tom was back at his shop located in West Easton, and another throwback location in racing history as Tom enjoyed the same garage space that at one time had housed another legendary racing figure in the Easton area, former multiple Langhorne winner Jim Delaney. Tom was full throttle with his racing efforts full-time and often a pair of 76 or 43 numbered race cars would come hell-bound into Nazareth on Sunday evenings and usually the last car in-line as Tom went over the race cars after a previous night at OCFS or Flemington to make sure they were ready for an assault at Nazareth on Sunday.
Racing was the life blood for Tom Hager and his tenacious approach to racing and the fact he parlayed his racing into a living sometimes made for a bit of pushing and shoving out on the racetrack. The memorable battles at Nazareth with Kevin Collins, Carl Collis and Doug Hoffman are the stories of legends and even though more was made of it by the media than the actual competitors themselves, when one’s food supply and way of life depends on the money he brings home from a weekend of racing, it is understandable the heat of battle can lead to some unpredictable outcomes when the dust settles on the speedway.
Tom continued into the nineties after the close of the Nazareth facility in 1988 and his Nazareth career closed out with a very impressive forty victories earned and most of them coming the hard way as there were times Hager would have to beat the clock after a malfunction would suffer in the engine either the evening before or at track the night before and work right up until race time to cure the problem for battle. Tom moved around to Bridgeport and Orange County after Flemington went the pavement route two seasons after the final curtain call at Nazareth. Tom came back to compete at Flemington through the urging of Flemington track promoter Paul Kuhl.
The cars had already changed over to specialty type race cars just for pavement racing but Tom was a man of his word and put on some good shows while wrestling his dirt car around a very scary fast square race track.
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Tom raced at a majority of the facilities and captured wins at thirty different venues from Florida and up through New York State. In assembling this story for print for the Dirt Track Heroes program, I take note of the fact I enjoyed the opportunity to call Tom’s first win at the now defunct Lake Mocatek Speedway in Lakeville, Pennsylvania back in 2003. I vividly remember the fact Tom had made a promise to Lake Mocatek promoter, the legendary “Belvidere Bandit”, Carl “Fuzzy” Van Horn to race at his facility when he had his small block motor program in place.
Tom had arrived at the speedway after the season began and was his usual fast but had some gremlins occur such as flat tires or a mechanical concern when he was in a position to win a main event. Tom was a crowd pleaser and the fact he lent his name to the list of driving talent at the Lake Mocatek facility brought in larger crowds in a very short span of time to watch “Big” Tom take on the track regulars. Tom found his way to victory lane and it proved to be a popular win for Tom in his short stay at the now shuttered facility.
In 2005, the rising cost to field a race car and drive to carve out a living proved to be a detriment in the way Tom went about his daily business. He scored wins at Bridgeport and New Egypt but Tom was beginning to suffer from some health problems that saw him winning big one night at New Egypt and was forced to pull off of the speedway while leading as he was out of breath due to a respiratory problem that was hindering his ability to function.
A sure win went down the drain but it was the tip of the iceberg for Tom as further complications with his health saw him lose both of his legs to the knee and put into uncertainty whether Big Tom would ever be able to ever race again. The hurdles are large but if it is tenacity and desire that will put someone back into the seat of a race car I would make a bet that it would be Tom Hager to prove the odds wrong.
Tom is the ultimate throwback to the golden era of racing and had the underdog theory in his favor as the racing fans migrated to their favorite tracks and followed the drivers who could accomplish more with less and that alone placed Tom at the head of the racing class.
I had the opportunity to dine with the late Nazareth Speedway promoter Jerry Fried at the Rainbow Diner in Nazareth for weekly business calls and it was the great Mr. Fried who tried to make the most sensibility out of the rising costs of racing and would lower his glasses and say to me, “Kid, I have been in this game a long time and this racing stuff is going to spiral out of control because people refuse to heed all of the warning signs. The only guys that got it right were Schneider, Van Horn and Hager as they have the capacity to do much of the technology on their own merit and have been successful at being able to stay ahead of the rising curve of this mess”. Fried went on to say, “If the racers don’t take the bull by the horns and stop it soon, racing as we have come to love and enjoy will one day go away”. Jerry Fried, love him or hate him, was one profound individual and a visionary most promoters could learn some valuable lessons from today.
Tom Hager took his success on the race track and was able to earn a living from the sport and did it in the only way he knew how…his way and without reservation as he applied the same successful formula to his racing and the racing technology he developed while keeping in front of the competition. In his time in the world of motorsports and in which he still insists is far from over, Tom made a large impact with his great cars and his ferocious driving capacity. The statement at the beginning of the story from Waylon Jennings really sums it best in describing Tom Hager as Waylon stated, “No one becomes a legend by following the rules”. In this particular case, Tom followed the rules and used them to his advantage as he might have adjusted them a bit, bent them a bit and even massaged them a little more often than not. Nevertheless, it created the legend of “Big” Tom Hager and racing has benefitted greatly due to his approach to the sport and we all can be thankful for his presence in racing. To be blunt in the Hager way, “He came, he saw and he conquered the sport’s ass by giving it all he had and the reason he is a racing legend.
We are all saddened by the loss of "Big Tom Hager" and we thank Steve Pados for sharing his words above in tribute to Tom Hager.
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