Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Overdue Thoughts On The Passing Of Tom Curley

Tom Curley passed away Friday, and I haven’t had much to say about it, until today.

As someone who makes his living with words – both written and spoken – I found myself uncharacteristically speechless at the passing of a man who did so much to shape both my life and my career.
It wasn’t like we didn’t see it coming. Tom had been in failing health for years, as the crippling effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease slowly extinguished the competitive fire that had burned so bright for so long. Last fall, we made plans to have dinner together the night before the annual Milk Bowl at his pride-and-joy race track, Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl. But Tom was under the weather than evening, and was forced to cancel.
“We’ll catch up next time,” he promised. But I think we both knew that might not be true.
Tom was singularly the most complicated man I have ever known. His childhood was filled with turmoil and upheaval, and as an adult, he was more comfortable with conflict than most. He was a feisty Irishman, a “my way or the highway” kind of guy who could be your biggest supporter and greatest tormentor, all in the same day.
And when it came to promoting stock car races, he was the greatest of all time.
Curley had an uncanny ability to see 10 years down the road, properly positioning his tracks and series for what was to come. I only saw him get conned once, when the Detroit automakers convinced him (and NASCAR) that V8 engines were on their way out, and that V6 power would be the wave of the future.
He was among the first to rail against the skyrocketing cost of competition, and absolutely the first to do something about it. He took control of the engines, implementing a low cost crate-engine program, despite violent opposition from the engine builders who had lined their pockets for decades at his racer’s expense. He mandated spec shock absorbers, then ensured compliance by periodically requiring competitors to unbolt their shocks after qualifying and swap them with a fellow racer. He implemented track tires that were often harder than ideal, ensuring that deep-pocketed racers could not simply spend their way to Victory Lane.
Curley implemented a “ladder system” at his local tracks, allowing entry-level drivers to test their skill and resolve in a dirt-cheap, four cylinder race car, without mortgaging their home to do so. Those who experienced success graduated to the second tier – the Flying Tigers class at Thunder Road – where they spent a little more money and went a little bit faster. The ACT Late Models were the headline class; the “thunder and lightning” division where the top drivers showcased their skills.
Over the years, lots of drivers climbed Curley’s ladder, all the way to the top. Nick Sweet, Mike “Beetle” Bailey, Jason Corliss and a number of others became Late Model winners -- even graduating to the traveling American Canadian Tour – after beginning their careers in Curley’s Street Stock class. Sweet won the ACT Tour championship in 2016, and few moments made Tom happier, or more proud.
Curley’s pit meetings were the stuff of legend. He had definite opinions on the way drivers should conduct themselves on the race track, and he had no qualms about expressing those opinions, often at top volume.
Hundreds of times over the last three decades, I heard him preach his motorsports gospel.  
"If a guy has the balls to run the high groove, get alongside you and pinch you down in the turn, you owe him the lane,” he said. “Either concede the position, or be a jackass and wreck both of you. He earned that spot, give it to him!”
Tom was also a stickler for “taking what the day gives you.”

"If you’re having a shitty day, take your 15th place finish, bring your car home intact and come back next week,” he’d say. “Don't screw with the guy who’s having a good day. Let him have his day, just like he’ll let you have yours when it’s your turn.”
Tom was also a big fan of props, often bringing toy race cars to the track as part of an animated demonstration of what did (and did not) qualify as acceptable on-track behavior. More than once, he demolished the cars with a hammer for effect, captivating his audience and delivering his message loud and clear.
Once, at a time when ACT’s core group of officials oversaw three weekly race tracks and a traveling tour each week, Tom would elect to repeat the previous night’s pit meeting; something the traveling officials corps jokingly referred to as “a rerun.”
“Tom,” I said on one particular late-night drive back to Vermont, “you need new material. I’ve seen the same damned driver’s meeting, four nights in a row.”
On the rare occasion where a pre-race sermon failed to have its desired effect, Curley took a more hands-on approach. He was known to red-flag a race that produced multiple crashes in the opening laps, stopping the cars on the front stretch, marching down through the grandstands, pulling the drivers out of their cars and reading them the riot act in front of the entire house. Invariably, he received a standing ovation on his way back to the official’s tower, before enjoying a caution-free event, the rest of the way.
One on especially egregious night at Thunder Road, the Flying Tiger class compounded a lengthy rain delay by throwing off three caution flags in the opening two laps. Tom parked `em on the frontstretch and stormed trackside, delivering a patented, arm-waving T-Bone tirade for the ages, punctuated by a crack of his umbrella across the race leader’s windshield.
He re-entered the tower wearing an impish grin, prompting me to ask simply, “What happened?”
“Goddamnit,” he replied, holding his demolished umbrella. “This was my Norwich Alumni umbrella. I really liked this one…”
Curley was an innovator, once adding a pink flag to the standard mix of green, white, yellow and checkered.
“This is the Pig Flag,” he announced to an incredulous group of drivers. “If you want to be a jerk and hog both lanes, we will show you this flag. Do it again and we’ll show it to you again. Do it a third time and you’ll be parked for the night, because you’re a lousy racer.”
The “Pig Flag” is still in use at Tom’s race tracks, and no one has ever gotten it more than twice.
There were no names in Tom’s pit area, just car numbers. He was as likely to penalize the point leader as any backmarker, and one year, he gave the most popular driver in the history of Thunder Road, Dave Dion, the heave-ho after his crew ran onto the race track to confront a driver who had triggered a wreck that turned their car upside down.
“I need to behave myself,” said one driver known for his temper. “If Tom will throw Dave Dion out, he’ll sure as shit send me packing.”
Curley also had a knack for painting the “big picture,” convincing a group of tough, take-no-quarter racers to look out for each other on the race track, while also doing what’s right for the fans. Every Opening Day at Thunder Road, Tom would deliver a variation on the same speech.
“Ken and I don’t own this place,” he’d say. “We just pay the mortgage. Those people up there (pointing to the grandstands) own this place. Without them, we’re all out of business. They spend their hard-earned money to come and watch you race, and you owe them a good, respectable, competitive show.”
During the height of the GM National Stock Car Series in Canada, Tom and I traveled to Toronto every few weeks, where I would voice-over the TV broadcasts that aired north of the border on TSN. It was an eight hour drive each way, just to do a 90-minute voiceover, turn around and drive home again. 
We made nearly a dozen of those trips, creating a slew of unplanned adventures and new “Tom Curley Stories.”
One night, TC and I were heading back to Vermont after a midweek voiceover, driving a Chevy Lumina Pace Car that had been provided by GM of Canada. The car was pretty trick, with some extra horsepower-producing doohickeys under the hood, a multicolored graphics package and side exhaust pipes that ran the length of the vehicle.
As anyone who knew Tom will attest, he loved wringing every last drop speed out of whatever he was driving, and this Pace Car was no exception. Unfortunately, after a few months of high-speed T-Bone abuse, the car had begun to show clear signs of fatigue. Halfway home, the passenger-side exhaust pipe came loose from its bracket and began dragging across the asphalt in a shower of sparks. Pulling over the examine the situation, we quickly determined that some “guerilla engineering” was required, if we were to make it home before dawn.
Tom and I removed our leather belts, knotted them together and wrapped them around the dislodged exhaust, running the other end through the open passenger-side window for me to hold. That may have been the longest ride of my life.
A few weeks later -- during another top-speed Toronto return – we drove up on a State Police roadblock at the entrance to what was then called “The Indian Reservation” in upstate New York. The trooper in charge informed us that the resident Akwesasne Tribe was up in arms over the latest in a decades-long series of tax disputes with the State of New York, and had constructed a large bonfire in the middle of the highway to express their displeasure.
“I wouldn’t go in there,” he warned. “If you get in trouble, we can’t come in after you.”
“Are you saying we can’t keep going,” asked Tom, knowing that doubling back would add at least an hour to our already too-late arrival time at home.
“No, but if you do, you’re on your own.”
Tom gunned the throttle and drove on, saying, “I guess we won’t have to worry about speeding tickets for the next few miles.” Not far down the road, we did indeed encounter a roaring bonfire in the center of the two-lane highway, with a few dozen locals huddled around for warmth. Tom matted the accelerator and blasted past – two wheels on the asphalt and two on the shoulder – showering the Native American “protestors” with gravel as they dove for cover in an adjoining ditch.
Tom was infamous for running past "E" on the gas gauge before stopping to fill up. I don’t know if he saw it as a test of manhood, or an opportunity to thumb his nose at the universe and its conventions. Either way, his penchant for “running on fumes” often resulted in him being stranded by the side of the road -- at all hours of the day and night -- out of gas.

One night, we were driving back from Toronto at 1 AM, doing 85 mph in a 45-mph zone. As usual, the "low fuel" light had been burning for at least a half hour, and as we approached one of the last gas stations we would see for a while, I said, "Tom, if you run us out of gas again in the middle of the night, you are going to push this car, while I steer."

"What do you mean," he said. "I can't push this car, I have asthma!"

"You have asthma," I replied, "but I have brains enough not to drive past another goddamn gas station at 1 o'clock in the morning!"

He chuckled under his breath, and pulled into the gas station. I think that is the only argument I ever won with Tom Curley.
Not all of my memories of Curley are happy ones. Like anyone who worked with him for any length of time, I felt his wrath on a number of occasions. He fired me twice during our 30 years together; once from my part-time post as a PR rep/college student, for failing to collect admission fees from the crowd at a Saturday night concert during New England 300 weekend at Catamount Stadium. It didn’t matter than I had never been told to do so. In Tom’s mind, I should have known.
I have always suspected that my firing had more to do with not wanting to keep me on the payroll during a long, cold, PR-starved Vermont winter; a suspicion that was bolstered when he happily hired me back the following spring.
But hey, I can’t prove a thing.
My second firing came prior to what would have been my 31st season on the public-address microphone at Thunder Road, and in truth, it was less a firing than a mutual parting of the ways. Two years earlier, I had accepted a position hosting the afternoon drive program on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR Channel. It was a great career move for me – not to mention a substantial increase in pay – but for Tom, it was a difficult decision to accept. In his mind, you were either with him or against him; all-in or all-out. After nearly three decades, the announcer who had always been waiting at the pit gate when it opened at 2 p.m. was now rolling in at 7:15, missing the first heat race of the night.
It bothered him, and to be completely honest, it bothered me, too. I felt like I was short-changing Thunder Road and its fans, something I had never wanted to do. I was caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to either give less than 100% for the first time in my life, or resign the position I had dreamed of since I was a little boy.
Tom solved the problem for both of us, sending me a polite-but-firm note the following spring, saying he had decided to “move in a different direction.” It broke my heart, but I understood his rationale.
Thunder Road was his top priority, and he needed people around him who made it their top priority, as well.
There was also a softer, gentler side to Tom that not everyone got to see.
In the mid-1990s, ACT was hired by owner Michael Liberty to operate Maine’s legendary Oxford Plains Speedway for a couple of seasons. It was a lot of work, with Thunder Road, Oxford, New York's Airborne Raceway and the traveling American Canadian Tour all under the ACT umbrella. A number of us traveled the entire circuit, racing 4-5 nights a week and sleeping little.
I personally considered Liberty to be a $100 haircut on a $5 head; an untrustworthy opportunist who used people to pad his bank account before kicking them unceremoniously to the curb. He proved me right at the end of the 1995 campaign, throwing ACT out on its collective ear and refusing to pay a substantial amount of money he allegedly owed. I was at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, preparing for ACT’s annual post-season Banquet of Champions, when my phone rang.
“Can you come down to Tom’s room? We need to have a meeting.”
Once assembled, we were told that Liberty had defaulted on his financial obligations, essentially leaving ACT bankrupt. The point fund would be paid – with some delay – but the series was shutting down, effective immediately. It was crushing blow for a group of people who had poured their hearts and souls into the series for many years. None of us knew where our next paycheck was coming from, but Tom demanded that we dry our tears and proceed as planned that evening.
“These people deserve their night,” he said. “They busted their butts all season long, and they deserve a celebration tonight, not a wake. We’re going to go out there and do our jobs, and only at the end will I tell everyone what has happened.”
Emceeing that banquet was one of the toughest things I have ever done; pasting a smile on my face and talking about what a great season it had been. But it was absolutely the right thing to do, and we did it because Tom wanted it that way.
T-Bone could be a tough guy to work for. There were days when I wanted to take him by the throat and shake him. But there were other times – the vast majority of the time, really – where I and dozens of others would have walked through fire for the man, if he had asked us to.
Last month, Curley and longtime partner Ken Squier sold their beloved Thunder Road to former racer Cris Michaud and local real estate developer Pat Malone, ensuring that “The Nation’s Site of Excitement” will survive and thrive for decades to come. Just days later, Thomas Michael “T-Bone” Curley was gone.
I like to think those two events were connected, in some way.
I like to think that Tom hung around just long enough to ensure that race fans in Central Vermont got what they deserved, one last time.
Have a good ride, Tom.
And Rest In Peace.


  1. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Well said Dave! Thanks for sharing.
    Kevin F

  2. I have waited for days to see this write up, I stated attending Thunder road about the same time you left. I listen to you on my way home in the evening. Dave you did an excellent job in both rolls and this was a great write up. RIP TMC

  3. Anonymous4:01 PM

    Well done David. Only you could make us really feel the loss of TMC. He would be proud.

  4. About time Moody. I've been waiting since Saturday for this. Damnit what the hell took so long. Sorry I couldn't help it. The pen is mightier than the sword. You my friend just have a way with words. You can carve your way through a column better than Crouch can carve up Thunder Road. You just have a "way with words." I don't know what Tom would think of this, but you have done my heart well. I have always admired Tom and respected him for what he was doing. I think I felt his passion for the sport and understood why he did a lot of things that were not exactly popular. TO me he was bigger that life it self. I miss him a ton. I needed to read something that captured my feelings. I wanted to read something that I felt described the Tom I thought I knew. I wanted someone to try and put Tom's racing life in some sort of perspective that would help ease the pain. Something that would make me thing it was not all for nothing. You have put Tom into words that make me feel good. I will keep this article and hold it close as my way of keeping him close. Thank you so very much RIP Thomas.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, old friend! Beat to you and yours.

    2. Anonymous7:30 PM

      Dave, maybe nascar should look at some of this man's hard earned experience. Reminds me of the 2 Real Frances, the owners, promoters, team owner's ,driver's and even us fans, knew who was in charge. I am sorry for your loss and for his family and friends, I'm truly sorry for the racer's, it seems they may have lost their best friend.

  5. Mike Ray6:26 PM

    Great article,wish you hadn't used the Lord's name in vain, hurts my heart when i hear or read that.Have a great day.

  6. Well said Dave!! R.I.P. TOM

  7. Mike Perdue8:45 PM

    Great read Dave. I had my run ins with Tom as well. I remember the time I HAD to confront Tom about getting my handicap spot. I HAD to do it for the team but i didn't want to because i knew it was not going to be fun. I talked to him and asked for my spot. His Quote "Can you handle it"... Yep...OK "Dammit then start up front and Don't stink up my show" A few weeks later I won a race and I will never forget the smile that he had that night as we locked eyes i can only imagine what he thought but i felt proud that i didn't stink up the show that night.. RIP Tom you were awesome at what you did.

  8. Anonymous11:04 PM

    Thank you so much. One of your absolute best. may Tom's spirit travel peacefully to his next adventure.

  9. Anonymous7:53 AM

    Excellent, as always, Dave! Although, I think you gave Liberty a bit too much credit. :-)
    RIP Tom

  10. Goodyear8:38 AM

    Well said, Dave. Goodyear Racing never worked with a better man than Tom Curley.

  11. Bob Riley9:55 AM

    Fantastic remembrance Dave. Tom and I knocked heads a few times when I was working on Ron Barcombs 09 car. But we still respected one another afterwards.

  12. Tears in my eyes, again. Thanks.
    Tom Schmeh