Tribute: Travis Barrett On The Legend Of Racing That Was Tom Curley

Tom Curley (Photo: Courtesy American Canadian Tour)

Longtime motorsports journalist and RaceDayCT contributor Travis Barrett shared a close relationship over the years with American Canadian Tour founder and president Tom Curley, who passed Friday at 73. Barrett looks back on that relationship and Curley’s influence below.

The American-Canadian Tour rolls into Oxford Plains Speedway for a Sunday afternoon show, nearly a decade ago, in the heart of the track’s Late Model era. A little more than a half-dozen media members are staring out at whatever mind-numbing support division is on the track, half paying attention, when Tom Curley comes up to say his hellos and head off to officiate the upcoming ACT Late Model Tour qualifying races.

Some wiseacre in the corner can’t help himself.

“Hey Tom, why don’t we just skip all the pomp and circumstance here and go straight to the feature?”

That wiseacre, of course, was me.

“Let me guess, Barrett,” Curley snaps back, not even bothering to look in my direction. “You’d rather have time trials. Because those are what the fans want.”

A rare hush comes over the press box.

While Curley was well-known for his personality, and he always made it a point to greet and press flesh with the media, he wasn’t known for ever taking time out of a busy race day — HIS race day — to engage in conversation about anything more than the weather, a brief comment about a recent article you might have written, or a question about a feature winner from some obscure track in some far-reaching corner of nowhere.

“Maybe you can try and explain to me how a plus-minus qualifying system is anything more than glorified time trials?” I asked him. “If you just have time trials, then we can cut out the middle man and all the fast cars still start up front.”

The eyes in the press box that aren’t on me are now focused on either their keyboards or the race track. It’s eerily reminiscent of elementary school, when you know your buddy is about to get a Grade-A tongue-lashing from the teacher, but you stare straight down and pretend you can’t hear a single word of any of it.

Tom and I are standing in the rear of the press box. A couple of feet apart.

“Because, numbskull, this is racing. And we’re here to race.”

The exchange carried on in some form for a few more minutes, until we were able to find some common ground.

The Red Sox game against the Phillies that afternoon.

And when the dust had settled, when Curley had shuffled off to race control, after a few minutes, one of my peers came over to me, leaned over my shoulder and said, “That was great. I can’t believe you said that to him. I’ve never heard anyone talk to him like that.”

As always, there’s a back story.

Those who knew Curley well — in most instances, far better than I did — knew that if you wanted his respect, you didn’t back down. He was proud of his Irish heritage, that same heritage that meant sometimes you’d duke it out in a street outside of a pub, put your arm around the guy you just pummeled, and then head back inside that same pub and share a pint or two.

That conversation between Tom Curley and I had been going on for weeks via email, when I wondered whether the plus/minus handicapping system — at that time extended to include the consolation rounds of qualifying — was having a negative effect on competition in feature races.

That Monday morning after the Oxford race and our public sparring session, Tom sent me a detailed email about his thought process. I still have that email, and many, many others just like it.

The subject lines include things like “Tire test,” “500,” “NHMS blog,” “Hamburgs,” and “Oh Travis, You Are At It Again!!”

One particularly scathing email I got from him actually had me laughing fitfully. Tom had that effect on people — which he knew. I know I took great satisfaction in our ability to get under one another’s skin, and I’m reasonably certain he enjoyed it as much as I did. Probably more.

Of all the things I miss about my days working full-time in the auto racing industry — the weather in Florida and North Carolina in the winter and early spring, the great little craft breweries and minor league baseball games, the energy of a 16-hour day at the race track boiled down to a deadline moments after the checkered flag — there’s nothing I ever missed as much as those conversations with Tom. To get a glimpse inside that mind, a mind that looked at stock car racing far differently than most, was energizing. An email about “hamburgs” was never about a hamburger at Thunder Road; it was a 7,300 word opus on where Super Late Model racing was getting it wrong or how ACT could improve at media relations.

The news of Tom Curley’s passing Friday at the age of 73, due to a long, uncomfortable bout with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was a blow. For all of us. That much is certain. When some of your biggest adversaries over the years — I nearly fell over when I saw the Pro All Stars Series Twitter account post a heartfelt condolence — are the first to line up and thank you for all you’ve done for a sport, you know you’ve lived a full life.

I realize that a column of this type isn’t supposed to focus on the writer. It’s supposed to be a celebration of the subject, of a live well-lived and all that. But, see, that’s where the genius of Tom Curley took root. Though it was always about him, about his track, his series, his promotion, he found a way to connect with everyone — drivers, owners, fans, officials, scribes — to give them that little piece of the action they felt they owned.

But none of us owned it.

As the saying goes, it was Tom Curley’s sandbox and we were only playing in it.

Maybe this weekend I’ll find some series somewhere running single-car time trials, and I’ll smile.

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Comments

  1. Terry D says:

    Tom was by far one of the best here and did so much for motorsports threw out the country The lost of Tom will be felt for a long time. Love him or hate him , he was the greatest for short track racing. RIP superman.

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