Saturday, 04 April 2009 14:56
In the world of drag racing, there are few people more entertaining than Tommy Gray. Gray has turned an understanding of the entertaining aspect of drag racing into an illustrious career behind the wheel Pro Modvehicle known 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 class 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."
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.
When his career took 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 -- a car decorated with brilliant green, yellow and red coloring splashed over the black base with the words "The Undertaker" written on each side.
"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. "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."
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.
Other drivers began to take notice, leading them to try to mimic the success.
"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."