Tom Hammonds Tom Hammonds is not your average drag racer. The 35-year-old just retired from the NBA in September and for the first time is competing in a full slate of Pro Stock races. The 6-foot-9 Hammonds is the first to tell you that he is...
Tom Hammonds is not your average drag racer. The 35-year-old just retired from the NBA in September and for the first time is competing in a full slate of Pro Stock races. The 6-foot-9 Hammonds is the first to tell you that he is one lucky guy as he begins a career in his second professional sport. Behind the wheel of the Winnebago Chevy Cavalier, Hammonds makes a return to his former stomping grounds this week as the Georgia Tech graduate is heading into Commerce, Ga., to compete in the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway - a track that Hammonds often attended as a fan. In this Q&A session, Hammonds talks about making the transition from the basketball court to the quarter-mile drag strip along with everything that comes with being the new full timer on the circuit.
Q: Technically, you retired from the NBA in September. Do you feel like you are "retired" now?
Hammonds: You think the word retirement would mean a lot of relaxation and a lot of vacation time. That has been the last thing that we have been doing. Since I retired from basketball, we have been working full time on the racing program. The results are starting to show. We are looking forward to having a good year and hopefully we can bring the championship hunt down to the wire.
Q: Who is a tougher competitor, Shaquille O'Neil or Warren Johnson?
Hammonds: I will tell you what, they are both pretty tough. But at the same time, regardless if I am guarding Shaquille or racing against Warren Johnson, I have got to do my job as a professional and do the best that I can to put my team in a position to win. If that means taking a hard foul against Shaquille O'Neil or cutting a good light against Warren Johnson, you have to do whatever it takes to win. To me, I don't look at them as being intimidating. I am a hard-nosed competitor and I hate to lose. Regardless if you are Warren Johnson or Shaquille O'Neil, I am going to fight you tooth and nail in order for me to win. I might not win them all, but I guarantee that I am not going to lose them all.
Q: What has helped you from your years of professional basketball as you make the transition into drag racing?
Hammonds: Just competing at a high level. I think that has helped me get into drag racing. I have been competing my whole life at a pretty high level. This is no different. This is the NBA of drag racing. You have to be prepared every time that you and your team go to the starting line.
Q: Do you ever look at who you are racing?
Hammonds: Never. I try to concentrate on doing the best job that I possibly can. I want to cut a good light and make a good, clean, straight run. Those are the things that I can control. I can't control who is in the other lane, so there is no use in getting yourself in an uproar by thinking about who is next to you.
Q: What is the biggest difference in six months ago and now? Before, you were a full time basketball player and part time NHRA drag racer. Now you are full time in racing.
Hammonds: Just the focus, more than anything, is the biggest difference. Now I get to focus all of my time and energy into one thing. That has been a big contributor to our improvement on the track. As far as I am concerned, we still haven't done anything because we have not won a race yet. Until we are a regular in the winner's circle, I am not going to believe that we are successful. We have a long way to go and we have a lot to learn.
Q: Since the retirement, you have qualified better and have gone further into the rounds on Sundays. What is it going to take to get to the next level and earn a victory?
Hammonds: This is our first time running all of the events throughout the season. There are some tracks that we have not been to yet and we don't have any data for those tracks. That has been a big stumbling block for us to start the year. A lot of these teams have books and records that they can fall back on. We don't have that. We are not going to make any excuses. We have got to go out there and get the job done no matter what the situation is. We are going to get better and better as the year progresses.
Q: What brought you to drag racing? How did it all begin?
Hammonds: You know, I am not proud to say it, and I don't condone it at all, but I started out street racing. If I wasn't playing basketball, I was trying to drum up a race somewhere. It was either in my mom's station wagon or my dad's Chevy pick-up truck. It didn't matter what it was, I was trying to race someone. When I was at Georgia Tech, and I wasn't playing basketball, or in study hall, I was at the races. My first competitive race was in the mid-'80s. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know about the Christmas Tree or doing a good burn out. I just thought you went up to the line and just mashed the gas. Whatever happened, happened. I was just used to street racing and going out and having a good time. Then I went out to be competitive and very serious in this sport.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to race professionally?
Hammonds: I knew I wanted to race a long time ago. I am a big fan of Pro Stock racing ever since Lee Shepherd and Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson were in their hey days. I watched all those guys. I was always a big fan of Pro Stock drag racing. I knew that, given the opportunity, this is what I wanted to do. Other than play basketball, this is all I have ever done.
Q: Given that you are a bit taller than the average racer, were there any chassis adjustments that had to be made to your car?
Hammonds: I may be a little taller, by about six or seven inches, at least. I get that question all the time. It gets comical because sometimes I give different answers every time people ask me that. I tell them that every time I get into the car, to get out the crew has to cut my legs off and then we sew them back on. I've also said that we have a big shoehorn inside the trailer and they pop me into the car before we run. But really, Jerry Bickle did a good job of constructing our Chevrolet Cavalier. It takes my height into consideration and I feel very comfortable.
Q: Do you ever think about racing in the nitro categories?
Hammonds: No. I have never thought about it. I don't think I would ever want to do that. Pro Stock is where I want to make my mark. Hopefully we will be around for many, many years to come and win a lot of championships and have a good, successful career.
Q: What has the learning process been like? You said you used to "mash the gas" at the line. What has changed?
Hammonds: I think, as a driver, you have to know how the car works to be able to come back and explain to the crew what you think should happen. I could put the clutch in and now I can do the engine maintenance, things like that. In my opinion, I think I have one of the best crews in the pits. (Crew chief) Donnie Gardner and our guys are doing a great job. I like to concentrate on my job and let the guys do the rest. But it definitely helps me knowing about the car and the details of drag racing. Knowing what happened on a run and knowing what to say to the crew about what changes should be made helps our team.
Q: Every week there are anywhere between 35-45 Pro Stock cars competing for 16 spots. What is it going to take to be there on Sundays?
Hammonds: It is a very tough category and it seems like it is getting tougher every week as the year progresses. You get 35-40 cars for 16 spots and you have no choice to be on top of your game every time you roll into the pits. That is what I love, just competing and putting my team against your team and seeing who is going to come out on top.
Q: What is your dream race? Where are you racing and who are you facing in the final round?
Hammonds: My dream race would always be Indy, to be at the U.S. Nationals. That would be tremendous. Regardless of who it is, I just want to win. I really want to win the U.S. Nationals.