He’s still hanging in there, getting up early and heading over to the race track to fire up one of the big green monsters that go round and round.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago – well, yes it does – that Tom Helfrich took the reins at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Ind.
Everything in the world has changed, it seems, but Tommy remains at the helm of one of the most enduring and successful short tracks in the nation.
It isn’t easy to be a promoter these days. Not that it’s ever been, of course. It’s just that today anybody with a smartphone is the greatest track operator who never was.
So the promoter spends his days trying to tune out the bad vibes, trying to figure out this impossibly fickle audience, and trying to keep enough happy people coming through the gates each time they swing open.
Tom, with wife Loris at his side, has swung those gates open many, many times over the past 30-plus years.
He is hardworking, he is devoted, he is a bit of a perfectionist, and he can be intense. But he is also just about the least complicated person left in this nutty world of short track racing.
Tom looks at things simply. You give your word to somebody, you keep it. You treat people as you’d like to be treated. You tell the truth.
You listen to your customers and try to give ‘em what they want. You keep the place clean.
Tom occasionally runs into trouble with people, and he doesn’t hide the fact that they sometimes make him mad as hell.
Oh, that’s another simple element to Tom: he tells you exactly what’s on his mind, even when it’s a little uncomfortable. He isn’t abusive; but he’s honest.
It’s a little like Harry Truman said: “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”
Where Tom gets into trouble now and then is that he assumes everybody else is as straight-up as he is. They aren’t, of course. Not all of them.
That’s where we all have trouble, I suppose. We view others in the context of how we would handle a situation, and we’re disappointed when they don’t operate the same way we do.
But the conflicts have been relatively few, and Tom and Loris are now the last remaining old-line promoters among iconic Indiana open-wheel dirt tracks.
At every other core, longtime track in the Hoosier State – Lawrenceburg, Bloomington, Paragon, Kokomo, Lincoln Park, Terre Haute, and Gas City – a generational change has taken place at the leadership position.
Someday generational change will come to that wonderful track on U.S. 41, too. But hopefully that’s still a ways off.
In 1957, Tom’s parents – Ed and Irma Helfrich – built Tri-State Speedway and hosted their first race. Tom helped at the track as a small kid and grew up to become a national touring star in dirt late model racing.
In the late 1980s, he quit racing to focus on running the race track and the family farm.
Next to Loris and his kids – oh, and grandkids, too – those are the two things nearest and dearest to Tommy: racing and farming. He has worked extremely hard to do both to the best of his ability.
He has been, at every turn, one of the best friends Indiana open-wheel racing has ever known. Tom stuck with sprint cars even when things were thin; he launched the MSCS series some years ago to give regional guys a series of their own; and he’s been a tireless cheerleader for racing throughout the state.
He has a keen mind and it never stops working, never stops thinking of ways to make racing bigger and better and safer and stronger.
Right now, Indiana open-wheel racing looks pretty solid. Oh, there are hiccups and trouble spots, but the fundamentals are strong. Frankly, we can thank Tommy for some of that.
Over the past 30-plus years he’s tried to build the sport up, every step of the way. He’s worked with other tracks and sanctions and he has always contemplated his decisions through this filter: Is this good for racing? Will it make it better?
Sometimes he laughs and describes himself as a hard-headed German, and that’s probably not too far off the mark. Hard-headed or not, he has given his heart and soul to the sport and he’s still going strong.
The one thing we don’t get very often in this world is for somebody to simply say, “Good job.” So here you go, Tommy. Here’s a great big “Attaboy.” And that’s from the heart.
Now, get back to work. Go outside and fire up that big green tractor, and roll out on that beautiful black dirt. Make the track racy. Make it nice. Make it exciting.
That’s what you do best.