Tommy Astone Jr., a versatile and accomplished open-wheel driver, passed away on April 14 at the age of 70. A native of Fresno, Calif., Astone was born into a racing family, as his father was a stock car, supermodified and midget owner.
At the time of his passing in 2006, Astone Sr. had owned race cars for over 30 years, offering rides to the likes of Jimmy Caruthers and Jan Opperman.
By being immersed in the sport, it comes as little surprise that Astone Jr. received his first quarter-midget when he was in elementary school. In his early days, one would find him piloting his car primarily at a small dirt track near a Fresno, Calif., television station.
From there, he moved to the karts, where he remained into his teenage years.
Astone grew up in an entirely different age in the sport, where far more restrictive rules were in play. Tommy wasn’t allowed to race professionally until he reached the age of 18 and a half and, even then, needed parental permission.
To use the parlance of the time, he began in hardtops, but he was drawn to open-wheel competition. Upon graduation, Astone Sr. gave his son a supermodified for a present, and soon his young charge was jousting with the tough hombres who competed at Fresno, San Jose and Clovis.
It was serious business, and he would learn his trade going against stalwarts like Howard Kaeding and Al Pombo. Ken Clapp is a racing legend in California, and for years he was NASCAR’s main man on the west coast, and is still a mover and shaker in the sport.
When he thinks about the supermodified scene in his home state, Clapp said, “It was one of the toughest little circuits in the country. Look at all of those guys that raced in the group, who did well in midgets and sprints, and then went on to Indianapolis. It was a tough ballgame. To make the main event, especially at the Kearny Bowl (Fresno), and San Jose, was an accomplishment.
“I can remember guys moving up from C races to B races, and finally making the A and finishing 14th or 15th, and they felt like they had won the Indy 500.”
As he remembered watching Astone perform, Clapp noted, “He was smart, and he was what I would call reserved aggressive.”
With more experience under his belt, soon the midgets called. He would begin by driving for his father. As anyone who has been in his shoes can testify, this can be a dicey enterprise.
“I was learning,” Tommy said, “and he was trying to teach me.”
The truth of the matter is that Astone proved to be a quick study. His car was a veteran piece. It was an ex-Ernie Ruiz, Offy-powered car that Johnny Boyd had driven in 1960.
After getting his feet wet in 1969, in 1970 he served notice that he was poised to be among the best in his craft. He struck early, taking a win indoors at Santa Rosa in February, and then snared his first outdoor victory at Petaluma on the second day in May.
In June he won again at West Capital Raceway in West Sacramento, and on the 12th took his last win in his father’s car at the Kearney Bowl.
When an opportunity came to move to a car campaigned by legendary owner Jack London, he jumped at the opportunity. London, a transplanted Oklahoman, had been involved in midget racing since 1936.
London eventually took the reins of the Bay Cities Racing Ass’n, but the list of drivers who worked for him included Fred Agabashian, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Parsons, Dick Atkins, and A.J. Foyt. In short, you were expected to perform.
When asked what that experience was like, Astone said, “Scary. He was very strict, and he was a great teacher.”
Thankfully, the student kicked butt. He reeled off four in a row, including a doubleheader at San Jose on July 3. Two more wins came, and he led the points heading into the finale at Roseville.
All it took was a reasonable finish but, in the end, a black flag was displayed and he finished second in BCRA points to Gary Arnold.
Shaking off that disappointment, in 1971 he competed with the United States Racing Club, United Racing Ass’n and USAC. It was also another strong year with BCRA, where he finished third in season points.
During this period, he regularly raced London’s car on the pavement and the Pimentel and Booth Sesco on the dirt. He also raced sprint cars at Ascot on non-conflicting dates, first for his dad and later for Lenard Faas.
He had another great year in the midget. A high-water mark came when he swept the July doubleheader at San Jose and, significantly, he scored victories on both dirt and pavement.
In early 1972, Astone was excited to be able to race a sprint car in South Africa. With the money he had made on that trip, and now being of age to race with USAC, he took a bold step and headed east.
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