“Beef” was his handle, and it fit him to a T.
If anyone has ever been the definition of raw, rugged,
old-school dirt-track racing in the Mid-Atlantic states, that person
would be Tommy Hager, the mountain of a man from Pennsylvania’s
Back in the seventies, Tommy and I banged
bumpers a time or two in those 100-lap qualifying races for
Syracuse. He was one tough customer, so it was with a little
trepidation that I went down to interview him six years ago for
Coastal 181’s book on Nazareth Raceway,
PAVED TRACK DIRT TRACK. What a day we ended up having – and
what stories he had to tell.
Here’s a piece from the book:
Tommy Hager is no racing yuppie. He’s… the vestige of a time
men raced with wits and guts rather than PR managers and
checkbooks…. Somehow Tommy managed to make a living racing modifieds
for over three decades. Bob Snyder [the photographer/promoter] said
“Tommy never took any shit from anyone but he could take a piece of
shit and win with it.”
There’s nothing spit-shined about
Beef. There was no glitz, no pretense, no wrapper. One night during
a TV show, he jumped out of his car on the parade lap and ran behind
a sign. Broadcaster Gary London joked that he must have had to
relieve himself. In fact, that’s just what he did. John Burnett had
just told him that he would lose concentration if he had to pee.
You’ve got to be strong to swim against the tides for so long.
Well over 300 pounds, Beef’s shadow was hardly that of a runway
model. But his bulk wasn’t all fat. When he first got into racing in
the sixties, he got in a spat with his brother about a 289 Ford
engine. ‘Finally he gave up,’ said Tommy. ‘He said, ‘You can have
the damn thing if you carry it out of here.’ It didn’t have a carb
on it. I looked at it for a minute, gave the thing a bear hug, and
walked right down the street in Easton with it.’
|Beef did what he
had to do. Note those roller rockers sitting right
top of the mud-splattered nose cone and
Paved Track Dirt Track, by Lew Boyd. (Jack
Over the seasons, Tommy became an
acknowledged master of his craft – both as a performer and as a
technical innovator. He won a couple hundred features and, despite
his grainy appearance, attracted a huge and enthusiastic following.
But the years had their ups and downs. Despite all his strength
and determination, at one point the fates seemed so completely
against him that he decided to pull the plug. His turnaround
strength came from a single conversation with a remarkable man
everyone called “Double O Joe.”
The late Joe Hoff was a
beloved farmer from New Jersey paralyzed from the waist down in an
agricultural accident. He was an endearing benefactor to Buzzie and
Linda Reutimann, and he was there at the right moment for Tommy. He
told Tommy that he had the goods, that he should get back to work,
and that he should appreciate that he had two legs to get it done.
That late winter day in 2006 when I visited
Easton, Tommy was working on his car, but he did not look well. And
it turned out that he wasn’t.
He soldiered on behind the
wheel as long as he could, but his diabetes grew more and more
complicated, more and more savage. By 2009 he had lost both legs
below the knee. Many people in the racing community rallied round
him, and former rival, good guy Tighe Scott, along with close friend
Judge Leonard Zito, even donated a
But, strangely, even then those
poignant words of Double O Joe seemed to reverberate in Beef’s mind.
His cousin, racing journalist Steve Pados, says Tommy put in a major
effort to equip his car with hand controls. He was simply determined
to race again – with the convenience of two legs, with one, or with
none at all.
It was never to happen. Those physical problems
were simply overwhelming. Tommy Hager died of a heart attack three
weeks ago, on June 7.
|Double O Joe and a
throng of fans greet Tommy in victory lane at
Jerry Fried’s old half-mile oval in Nazareth, PA.
(Jack Kromer Photo)
© 2012 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181
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