Tales from the Crypt: IHRA's original showman 'The Undertaker' still captivating crowds In the world of sports, there is perhaps nothing more entertaining than the sport of drag racing. And in the world of drag racing, there is perhaps no one...
Tales from the Crypt: IHRA's original showman 'The Undertaker' still captivating crowds
In the world of sports, there is perhaps nothing more entertaining than the sport of drag racing. And in the world of drag racing, there is perhaps no one more entertaining than Tommy Gray.
Recognizing from the very beginning that drag racing is, above all else, a form of entertainment, Gray has turned that understanding into a long and illustrious career behind the wheel of the wildly entertaining and over-the-top Pro Mod vehicle known the world over simply as the Undertaker.
Sporting wild paint schemes with an elaborate show to boot -- a show that has at times included crew members dressed in Halloween costumes, fireworks and hearses -- Gray has been able to make a name for himself in a world where drivers simply aren't that well known.
"Back in the IHRA days when I was running full time we had a white Corvette that just said Tommy Gray on the door like most guys had back then," Gray said. "I just kind of looked at the whole situation from a business aspect and said we are putting on a show -- but the show was actually pretty boring. I knew I had to come out with something that could push myself forward more than the other teams."
So instead of becoming just another face in the crowd, Gray decided roughly 12 years ago to do something a little different in an attempt to make him and his team more recognizable.
"My family was involved in the funeral home business back then and that is where we came up with the Undertaker deal and it just kind of took off from there," Gray said.
Now when the Undertaker car pulls onto the track, people notice.
"Some guys do this for the ego, for me it is a little bit of everything. To me it is the man against machine aspect and the fun of making other people smile at what I do," Gray said. "We have a good time with it and so do our fans. It has worked out real well for us."
And to Gray, the fans are what it is all about.
Gray's racing career began in the 1960s as a child helping his father Tommy Gray Sr. with his racing operation. His father began racing late model production vehicles and eventually got involved in Pro Stock in the early 70s, giving a young Tommy Gray Jr. a taste of life in the fast lane at a very young age.
"Back then it was a do it yourself deal. They built their own cars, trailers -- you name it -- and I always used to be involved in that stuff when I was a little kid. I guess it just got in my blood stream," Gray said.
Eventually that passion led to Gray's own racing operation, beginning with street style cars and leading straight into Pro Mod roughly 15 years ago.
In the early portion of Gray's career, he found moderate success, but nothing like what he expected. So instead of just becoming another face in the crowd, Gray decided to take his future into his own hands -- and he hasn't looked back since.
"The first year we came out we didn't know much. We depended on some people and nothing worked out right and that is when I came back and said I will never again listen to everybody else," Gray said. "We started going in our own direction and collecting our own data on our cars, did our own nitrous system, our own car setup and went to our home track (Maryland International Raceway) and won that race.
"We then went out and won Atlanta the following week and that is when I knew I was on to something. That whole situation brought some good things to our deal."
But not even that was enough for the marketing mastermind.
With his career finally taking off, Gray decided to push the scales even further with a revolutionary concept that he hoped would help mold the Tommy Gray brand -- make people identify with the car.
Wanting to make his racing operation stand out above the rest, Gray took some paint and decorated his car with brilliant green, yellow and red coloring splashed over the black base with the words "The Undertaker" written on each side.
And immediately the fans responded.
"The first Undertaker car was like a dream come true. I bought some shirts, went to Darlington with a brand new car with this crazy paint job, won the race over Scotty Cannon and we sold out of shirts. That is when I said we have to take it to the next level and that is when I decided to dress these guys up," Gray said.
As the season went on, Gray began to dress his crew in elaborate costumes that consisted of black robes and skeleton suites complete with skull masks and a sickle. He also incorporated a hearse to pull the car onto the track and a casket for his crew to emerge from.
It was clear this wasn't your average race team.
"They were all totally against the idea at first. Imagine trying to dress a bunch of race guys in Halloween outfits in front of a crowd of people," Gray said. "I coordinated them with what I wanted and the first time they went out and did the show during the night qualifying the fans went crazy and we sold out of shirts that night."
And if you can believe it, he still wasn't done.
Always wanting a little more, Gray then added music, fireworks and an elaborate lighting system to the show that included a dark red glow in and underneath the car.
"I took it one step further when we added fireworks and music into our deal. It was just a win-win situation for everyone -- the IHRA and Tommy Gray Racing," Gray said.
Suddenly Undertaker merchandise began to fly off the shelves and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the most talked about car in racing.
But it wasn't just the fans who took notice.
Other drivers began to realize the marketing aspect of a theme car, leading others to try to mimic the success of the original bad boy of racing.
"At first there was a little jealousy, but I realized that while it benefited the other teams, it also benefited us," Gray said. "I saw that I was a pioneer of everyone else coming out with the faces and names on the cars which was a plus. It just makes it better for everybody.
"It is hard in drag racing to relate to a name, but a theme car, that they can relate to."
Now, nearly 20 years later, Tommy Gray and the Undertaker are still going strong.
Sure a few things have changed, Gray has since switched from nitrous injection to a blower and his '68 Camaro is now a bright shade of green and yellow with red bolts -- but the recognizable "Undertaker" logo is still there.
And Gray's talent behind the wheel hasn't changed either. Gray piloted the Undertaker machine to a runner-up finish at the season opening IHRA Summit Racing Equipment Mardi Gras Nationals in Baton Rouge, giving the team a big momentum boost to start the season.
"I think we did damn well down there for our car sitting in the shop since the end of last year," Gray said. "We weren't like a lot of these teams that were out testing and testing. We went down there and had to make due with what we had."
Now, with a race under his belt, Gray is ready to get back in the car and head to Rockingham at a track where he knows he can run well.
"We are sitting here itching and ready to go. We are looking forward to it because we feel like we will be able to run in the 5s there. The last race in Louisiana we were having problems trying to get aggressive with it, but I think everybody is going to be able to get aggressive at Rockingham," Gray said.
But Gray isn't looking to just run well at Rockingham; Gray feels he has a car that can win the race and maybe a few others over the course of the season.
"We feel this year in the IHRA that we will be able to clinch a couple of these races," Gray said. "We had a car that could win last year, but we didn't do a whole lot of national events. We have a lot of good people behind us and we are ready to go."
In Gray's two decade career he has recorded four national event wins and six runner-ups all as an independent, all-volunteer team. And as Gray approaches the later stages of his racing life, he admits that he would love nothing more than to one day add a championship to his trophy collection.
"I am not just somebody who started out in this thing. Me and my cousin Carl Hobson, we have been at it since we were kids. We race hard and we make smart decisions and it seems like nowadays it is all about who can buy who and it does leave sore spots because I am not in that situation," Gray said. "It would be nice for one time in my life to able to go out and concentrate on one series and go after the championship."
Until then, Gray and his dedicated team will try to make due with what they have and chase as many wins as possible all while hoping for that one major partner to come along and push the team over the top and into championship contention.
"I have been trying my heart out here and I am getting close to 50 years old and I would have thought by now I would have landed a partner where we don't have to worry about funds," Gray said.
Even without the help of a major partner, Gray still admits that the team he has behind him is one that can get the job done and one that will help put him in victory circle before the year is out.
"I couldn't do it without my crew. My dad, Tom Gray Sr., he is retired but he still sticks with it. Richard Dixon, Richard's Automotive in Pennsylvania, he is not just a friend and he is the biggest reason we are even doing any of these races right now. And Gil Davies Race Engines, Mike Janis is actually the engine builder, but Gil does maintenance. And of course Carl Hobson, Dale Hiel, Gil and Glenna Davies, George Lark and Roger Duncan," Gray said. "I also wanted to thank Palmer Race Fuels, Hoosier Tires and all the local help we receive. We have a tone of local support."
Now all that is left for the Baltimore, Maryland native is to pack up and head south in pursuit of another win beginning with the IHRA Spring Nationals in Rockingham April 24-26.
"I plan on winning," Gray said. "Our schedule will move forward from there. I just have to take it one step at a time."