MEMPHIS, Tenn., September 19, 2001 - When Tom Hammonds tumbled his Pro Stock Chevy Cavalier earlier this year during Friday-night qualifying at the Lucas Oil Products Nationals in Joliet, Ill., he was determined not to let the episode shatter...
MEMPHIS, Tenn., September 19, 2001 - When Tom Hammonds tumbled his Pro Stock Chevy Cavalier earlier this year during Friday-night qualifying at the Lucas Oil Products Nationals in Joliet, Ill., he was determined not to let the episode shatter his racing ambitions. Last month at the NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., Hammonds debuted a brand new Jerry Bickel-built Cavalier and busted his way into the 16-car field for the first time this season, qualifying in the No. 9 position. Two weeks later at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Hammonds drove his Winnebago Chevy into the top half of the lineup by qualifying in the No. 7 spot. Although he lost in round one at both venues, his performance at the last two events indicates that Hammonds is back on track as he heads to Memphis Motorsports Park for the 14th annual AutoZone Nationals on September 21 -23.
The 34-year-old Hammonds was a collegiate basketball standout at Georgia Tech University where he was twice named to the first-team ACC All-Conference team (1988-89). He ranks fifth on the Yellow Jackets all-time list in scoring (2081), sixth in rebounds (885), sixth in field-goal percentage (.566) and fifth in minutes played (4387). Upon Hammonds' departure from Georgia Tech, Yellow Jackets coach Bobby Cremins called him "the hardest-working player I've ever had."
Hammonds has also enjoyed a 12-year career as an NBA power forward, first with the Washington Bullets (1990-92), then with the Charlotte Hornets (91-92), the Denver Nuggets (92-97) and most recently with the Minnesota Timberwolves (98-01). Because of his commitment to his professional basketball career, Hammonds has only been able to compete as a Pro Stock racer during the NBA off-season. But his long-term goal after his playing days are over is to experience the same success on the quarter-mile that he's experienced on the hardcourt.
"Racing and basketball are not very different at all as far as I'm concerned," said Hammonds. "They're both team-oriented sports, and I like that aspect of it, but at the same time I'm one-on-one against another driver. It's the same thing as being one-on-one with another basketball player. You give me your best shot, and you better believe I'm going to give you my best shot, and we'll see who wins. You prepare the same mentally as far as getting yourself up for the challenge. Obviously, dribbling a basketball is much different from letting the clutch out of a car and shifting, but as far as preparing for it and the overall picture, they're not that far apart."
What caused the incident in Chicago? "We'd been having a lot of problems with the car pushing to the left at about the eighth-mile. We found out there was material in the rearend housing that was kind of being wallowed out. Basically, we had to readjust the four link every time we made a pass to try and compensate for the wallowing-out effect of the material. We were going to fix it on Saturday, so we went ahead and ran Friday night thinking it would be okay. The car launched pretty straight and was going down through there pretty good, but then it veered left at about the eighth-mile - that right lane has a pretty serious bump in about the same area. After that I pretty much had to just hang on."
How much did it set you back? "It set us back quite a bit. We were already at a disadvantage trying to learn a new racecar. Everybody else had two to three times as many runs on their cars as we did on ours. But the crash set us back even further because we had to bring our old car out of retirement and adapt to the aerodynamic difference between the two racecars. It's no secret that last season we didn't set the world on fire with our performance, so we were just hoping to tread water until we got our new Jerry Bickel-built Chevy Cavalier."
How many races were you without the Cavalier? "Columbus was the first race and Seattle was the last race. And actually we were supposed to go to Sonoma and race, but I was just fed up with the whole situation and decided to pull the plug on our operation until we got the new Cavalier finished. I hung out at Bickel's shop for four days helping out to get it done for Brainerd."
Were you a little apprehensive about getting back in the car after the accident? "You know, it really didn't make me nervous because I know that this is what I want to do. I've dedicated my life to try and go out and make this a reality, and I wasn't going to think about giving up. That never came across my mind. Some people were surprised to see me at Columbus, and I was just hoping that they weren't thinking that I was just going to quit. I'm a competitor and I didn't get to where I am today playing NBA basketball by quitting."
What's been the key to your recent turnaround? "It's been a combination of a number of things. I think a lot of hard work and dedication by my team, Don Gardner, Tim Roberts and Derrick Lesinski. Those guys have worked countless hours trying to get this program turned around. We got a little bit of help from Rickie Smith and he gave us some of his opinions as far as the chassis was concerned. And the engine shop, with Ron Krisher, Jimmy Oliver and Tom Roberts, who have been great to me as far as the engine department is concerned. The whole program has just started to come around."
Are you surprised with the recent improvement in performance? "Not really. I never had any doubt in my mind that I could do this. I knew it was going to take time, I honestly didn't think it would take this long. I didn't think we would have to go through this much adversity. I think adversity builds character and we've got a lot of character on our team. We're looking forward to the future."
How do you like your new Cavalier? "It's a totally different car. The first Cavalier was a little more rigid and stiffer then this new one. This one doesn't have near the amount of bars in the chassis as the first car did. To be honest with you, I think it's a lot more forgiving. You can shake the tires or spin the tires and the car still wants to go down the track."
Are you planning on playing another year in the NBA? "Well, we'll know for sure probably within the next week and a half on what our future is going to be, and hopefully we can come out with an announcement in Chicago."
What does your future look like in racing? "Eventually I think we can go out, go through a full season of testing and racing, and be competitive. I'd like to finish in the top 10, possibly top five, and 10 years from now hopefully have two or three championships."
What goals do you set for yourself when you go into a race? "Our goal is to go into the race and qualify first. Now that we seem like we've turned a corner and we're running a lot better, I want to start going rounds. It's not out of the question for us to qualify and go some rounds and win. That's my goal. That race I had with Jim Yates in Brainerd was the first time I'd gotten to race in awhile and he beat us by very little. The same thing happened with Mike Edwards in Indy. We had him beat all the way down the track, but the car got a little loose and I had to crack the throttle. That's all it took for him to get around us. We know that we've got it. This Chevy Cavalier can go down the racetrack. We just have to put everything together on raceday and go after that chance at winning the race."
Have you raced at Memphis before? "A long time ago when I had my street car. It was the quickest street legal car in the world - a '69 Camaro. So we don't have a lot of information on this track, but I don't think that's going to be too much of a problem. I think my crew does a good job reading the track conditions, and we'll go out there and put a tune-up in it, let the clutch out and see what happens."
Do you enjoy racing as much as you do basketball? "Yes I do. But I'll start having even more fun when we go some rounds and win some races. I'm never satisfied. I'm always striving to do better. That's how I discovered success in basketball. With that kind of attitude I think our future in this sport looks good."