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Motorsports

Ex-NBA player a big man on track

Tom Hammonds, one of NHRA's few minority drivers, isn't dabbling; he wants to excel.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003


GAINESVILLE -- People notice when NHRA Pro Stock driver Tom Hammonds gets behind the wheel. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound former NBA power forward gets a kick out of it when fans come up and ask how he fits in his Chevrolet Cavalier.

"I have a lot of fun with them," said Hammonds, who played in the NBA for 12 seasons. "From the crew guys cutting my legs off to sewing them back on when I get out of the car, to fitting me in the car with a big shoehorn."

The 35-year-old, who raced this weekend in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, would not race down a quarter-mile as fast as he does if he were not at least comfortable. His top speed is 202.33 mph.

Hammonds, a driver/owner/crew chief has advanced to three NHRA final rounds in his career. He did not qualify for today's final eliminations at Gatornationals. He went 6.859 seconds at 200.62 mph.

"It has been a little bit of a challenge for me in the fact that I used to make my living running up and down the court, being in shape all the time and going to training camp," Hammonds said. "Now, I rely heavily on my guys to do a good job and prepare the car. I've got to do the job as a driver to negotiate the quarter-mile and such in order for the team to do well."

Hammonds also is one of five African-Americans in the NHRA who attempted to qualify for the Gatornationals. He established his Pro Stock team in 1996 and competed in selected events and devoted himself to his new sport after retiring from the NBA in September 2001.

Friend and Pro Stock Bike racer Antron Brown, who is African-American, said Hammonds is a true competitor. To Brown, the Pro Stock class is the hardest.

"When he came out to the sport it's not just him being out here; he came out here to win," said Brown, who is in his fifth year racing in the NHRA. "Not to be out here just because he's a minority.

"He was coming out here to compete with the best. He played in the NBA, and this is the NBA of drag racing to him. He came out here to be with all the professionals and improve his track work out on the track."

Hammonds has been racing for about 17 years. Though he is not proud to say it, he started learning on the street in his hometown of Crestview, challenging people to race. It is something he doesn't condone because "it's very, very dangerous."

"Whatever I could get my hands on, whether it's my mom's station wagon or my grandpa's pickup, I was out there trying to race something," he said.

It served him well as he campaigned the world's quickest street legal car in 1992-94.

Mother Ruth White, who also lives in Crestview and was on hand this weekend, said it is exciting and emotional to watch. She gets more concerned seeing her son at Gainesville Raceway than battling in the low post.

"He was a team player and there were other guys there," White said. "If they did what they were supposed to do and if he did what he was supposed to do, then it came together. But here, he's out here driving and it's his car and his deal. It's nerve-racking."

After going up against the likes of Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal, Hammonds feels he is safer now. "I'd rather go against the best pro stock driver because Shaq will kill you," he joked. "I'd rather at least have a chance of walking away."

Hammonds still occasionally plays basketball, especially when his oldest son Tom Hammonds IV, 17, wants a friendly game of one-on-one.

"I get a chance to go out there every time he gets a little inclination he can beat me," Hammonds said. "I've got to dust off my shoes and then put them back up in the closet."

Hammonds, whose No. 20 basketball jersey was retired by Georgia Tech, still follows his old team. He went back to campus last weekend when the basketball court was renamed after longtime coach Bobby Cremins.

Between the drag racing and his involvement with the GM minority dealership program, there's not much time to be involved with basketball. Hammonds recently finished the two-year program and received his certificate at the beginning of the year. He is on a list to be hired by the next available auto dealership, preferably in the Crestview area.

Although Hammonds did not qualify for today's final eliminations, he is looking ahead. His home state served him better last year.

"It's definitely tough, especially after the success we had here last year where we qualified No. 2 and went a round or so," Hammonds said. "We've got a young team, and we've got a lot of growing and a lot of learning to do."

His next race is in Las Vegas the first weekend in April.

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