Thomas Elmer Bryant, Jr. (mini bio 2008)
Our family is of Scotch/ Irish decent, with farming and lumber backgrounds. My father, Thomas Elmer Bryant, was the third eldest of nine children. The family has been traced back to Kentucky in the mid 1800s. My mother, Trella Myrtle Lane Bryant was the second eldest of a family if nine children. Her family, the Lanes, has been traced back to the 1500s in England. Both families arrived in Arkansas after the Civil War and the roots are deep in northwestern Arkansas and northeastern Oklahoma. Many of our relatives are still in that area.
I was born February 28, 1930 in Pettigrew, a small mountain lumber town in northwest Arkansas. Pettigrew had probably developed around the “saw mill” which processed the abundant timber in the area. Located in the Boston Mountains about 25 miles south of Huntsville, the Madison County Seat, and roughly 45 miles south and east of Fayetteville. I had the good fortune of being able to go there, with my mother as a guide, in the late 1990s the only time I had seen the place of my birth. There was not much that she recognized from when we had lived there. Today it is just wide spot in the road, a country store and post office and a few houses scattered about.
Shortly after my birth, my father journeyed to northwest Missouri and gained employment as a laborer on a farm east of Rockport. My mother gathered up her two children, my sister Leona, about age 5, and myself at less than 1 year of age, boarded a train with luggage, sack lunches and very little money to make the 400-mile trip to join my father. It must have been like a trip around the world for a poor, sickly mother of two to strike out on a journey of this magnitude.
Dad worked for two different farmers during the next four years. For his labors, (as was the practice for this type of employment), he was paid a monthly salary, furnished a house, which included a place for a garden, a place to raise chickens, received milk, and generally a hog to butcher for meat. By the standards that most us day live today, this was a meager existence. However, it was OK because we didn’t know we were poor people. We were a family that appreciated what we did have.
I don’t remember our first house. But I have been told this was the location that first revealed I was a “risk taker”. There was a windmill, about twenty feet tall, near our house, which furnished water for us. One day my curiosity compelled me to investigate this structure; I made my way to the top where I remained until my father came to rescue me.
I do remember the thrill of climbing inside a tire and hanging on while my dad rolled the tire across the yard. Or sitting on his lap while I steered the car down the road. And, a few years later, riding on the car’s front fender and hanging onto the headlight with the wind in my face, all the time knowing my mother was vigorously reminding my dad of the dangers of such antics. Really, my dad was a kid at heart and enjoyed living on the edge, too. From an early age, I can remember being attracted to anything automotive.
In 1935, we moved from the hill country, east of Rockport Missouri, where we had lived the last four years, and settled northwest of town to the “Missouri River Bottom” the rich gumbo flat lands between the river and the bluffs. The previous four years had produced two more siblings, Norma & Rex, making us a family of six.
In the September, I began my formal education at Cottonwood Grove School, a one-room schoolhouse about 1-½ miles from our house. I was only five years of age, but was allowed to enter the first grade. This was likely one of the major mistakes of my life. Throughout my school days, I was always shy and a bit behind socially. I didn’t have lots friends, primarily because of my shy disposition, I suppose. Usually, I had one or two good friends and spent most of my free time with them. Since I worked on the family farm, “free time” was scarce. I was not able to be the typical teenager. My friends had jobs, making money to spend, cars that gave them freedom to go places and do things while I was contributing to the family’s income and receiving a meager allowance. I guess I felt abused. It was many years before I could appreciate the work ethic that my dad was teaching.
I didn’t like school all that much. I had a vision problem that caused my reading to be very slow; therefore, I didn’t enjoy reading and did just what I was necessary to get through the courses. Math was my best subject. Unfortunately, I didn’t continue with Math past Algebra I. When I was in the sixth grade, in the one-room schoolhouse, we had a ciphering match and I won putting down the seventh and eight graders. I could do problems in my head faster than I could write them on the board. There are advantages of the one-room school where all grades were taught within your hearing. It allowed the student to learn at his/her own rate. There was never a reason to be bored with the subject matter.
I can’t recall any of my lower grade teacher’s names, it has been too long ago, and there were three or four in all. I do recall some of my high school teachers, however. Mr. Houston, the superintendent, taught Civic Studies, Mrs. Newland, the principal, taught Mathematics, Algebra and Spanish, Mr. Shaw, was the Ag and Shop teacher, Coach Hinderlighter who besides coaching football, basketball and track, also taught Social Science, and Miss Della Douglas, the English teacher. I took Typing and Bookkeeping, but can’t remember the teacher’s name. Miss Douglas was my favorite, a very proper single lady, probably in her late twenties. She had hard and fast rules and if you broke them you were sorry, because there were consequences. One of her pet peeves was gum chewing. If you came to class chewing gum, she would stand in front of the class until everything was very quite, then with probably every eye on you, she would call the offender by name and say, “Would you please put your gum in the waste basket.” This usually only happened once to anyone! Aside from her strictness, she was very good at encouraging you to higher things and to expect more from yourself. I appreciate what Miss Douglas gave me in the four years I attended her classes, English I, II, III and English Literature. I can still recall some of the memory work she required of us. Shakespeare was her favorite author and we covered most of his works in our senior year. She was very strict, and I am sure, loved her students. From talking to my classmate in recent years, I know she gained our love and respect.
(I was unable to compete in sports during high school. I had been diagnosed as having a heart murmur and my doctor felt that pursuit of sports caused enlargement of the heart so that was the end of it.)
While living in the “bottom land”, two more sisters, Lois and Marcia joined the family. Then in the spring of 1941 we moved back to the hill country north of Rockport. Dad rented a farm and acquired a government loan of $1000, which was used to purchase need equipment to work the farm. The equipment consisted of four horses and various horse drawn implements. For the next six years the family lived in a six room, two-story house that featured a bathtub upstairs and a path to the outhouse for a toilet. In time, dad erected a 20 foot, three-legged tower and mounted a wind-powered generator, (which came with a radio we had previously purchased), to charge a couple of six-volt car batteries that powered a single light in the kitchen. We were living in the lap of luxury...we even had Aladdin Mantle Lamps which gave a very bright light, that replaced the kerosene wick lamps of the past. The whole family worked the farm and made a good living, eventually purchasing 120 acres that adjoined the place we were farming.
Living on the farm was a great place to acquire a good work ethic. While still living on the Bottom Land, my older sister and I worked with dad during harvest, picking corn, to enhance his income. (Income was derived from monthly pay, except during harvest where dad’s pay was earned by a set fee per bushel of corn picked). My sister and I picked the same amount of corn that dad did. We had our own team of mules and wagon following him through the field. Since there was an elevator to unload the wagons, getting the corn into the crib was not a problem for us. In later years, after moving to the hills, the corn had to be unloaded with a scoop, which gives you a pretty good workout.
When we started farming in the hills, I was eleven years of age and became a regular farm hand when not in school. Even when in school, besides walking a mile to catch the school bus, there were chores to do morning and evening which generally included milking four to six cows. This gave me some problems with dad, since there were two programs that came on the radio in the early evening that interfered with the chores. Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy”, and Captain Midnight, were very difficult to turn off and leave to do chores.
Except for working along side my father, we did not have a great relationship. I grew up with little praise and lots of condemnation. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that was how my father had grown up also. I was to find out much later that he was really a very loving person, but I guess the stress of life had kept him from expressing it openly. I know that I also challenged his patience. I was fortunate to have spent a couple of days with him alone on my way to California in October 1952 via Idaho. Talking with my father on that trip, I learned more about him and his desires than I had in the previous twenty years. I cherish those hours we spent together. Leaving him at my Uncle Troy’s, mother’s brother, in Nampa, Idaho I continued on to California. Just three months later, in January 1953, he was killed in an auto accident, broad sided by a truck while taking his children to school. Two of my sisters and two brothers were in the car with him, but fortunately no one else was injured.
We often had to work in the field after school. I remember well, during cultivating time, racing my sister home from school so that I could get the cultivator that didn’t have the cracked seat that pinched. It was a treat to get to use a riding cultivator. There were other plows that I used which require walking. Dad was a very fastidious farmer. He hated weeds with a passion, which required that, after the corn got too tall to cultivate, each row be walked with a hoe to get rid of the weeds. We also used corn knives to cut hemp (we didn’t have a clue about marijuana in those days), and sunflowers. Sunflowers and cockleburs were the two most problematic weeds that we had to deal with. The sunflowers were controllable in a couple of years with a serious program of cutting. Cockleburs were a different story...it is said that the burr could survive several years and still germinate, so it was very difficult to control this weed. But dad gave it his best shot! I remember seeing him stop while picking corn and pick up the burrs from a plant that had been missed before harvest; put them in the wagon and take them in to be destroyed. The fencerows were not clean in dad’s mind unless you could see the bottom of the post. Today, the farmers use chemicals on their crops and let the fencerows become overgrown with weeds. Wild life habitat they say!
Fence building was another job that I didn’t like. It requires lots of physical energy. I thought that digging postholes was hard work. (Looking back, I see that it was not all that bad, in our area there were no rocks. Since then I have had the opportunity to dig postholes in northern California. A much different experience!) Fence building was another example of my father’s perfectionism. He could take a fence post that was as crooked as a dog’s hind leg and keep rotating and sighting down the fencerow until it was in perfect alignment. It was always important to him to have things look good.
Our primary crop was corn. Corn takes lots of nutrients from the soil, so after a couple of years in corn, the field would be sown with an oat and sweet clover mix. Sometimes the oats would be allowed to ripen and be cut with a binder which left the oats in bundles that were then shocked (six or eight bundles stood up against each other and allowed to dry for several days) then it was threshing time. Someone who had a threshing machine would come and set up. The bundles were loaded on a wagon and taken to the thresher where the oats were separated from the straw. Other times the oats would be cut for hay. In either case, my job, likely my favorite of all things I was required to do, was to man the wagon stacking the bundles or the hay on the wagon to be transported to its final destination. In the case of oat hay, you learned very quickly to load the hay properly or it could end up sliding off the wagon. Oat hay is very slippery. Alfalfa hay was much easier to handle. After the oats were cut the sweet clover would began to flourish. The overshadowing of the oat crop had held it back. The clover is a legume, which puts nitrogen back into the soil and in the fall was plowed under giving more nutrition back to the soil. Corn could be planted again the next year and produce a good yield. During the war years (WWII) because prices we high, many farmers didn’t rotate their crops, but my father did. He also planted corn on the contour, (rows following the contour of the hill) before it was the popular practice. He understood that you have to look beyond the present to be successful.
Most of our crops were fed to the livestock, just prior to a new harvest; any surplus grain might be sold on the open market. We raised hogs and cattle, Duroc (red) hogs and Milking Shorthorn cattle. Generally there was a Jersey or Guernsey cow or two in the milking herd to increase the butterfat yield in our milk. Of course we also had a large flock of chickens, which supplied us with both meat and eggs. Saturday evening was the time to go to town, socialize, sell our produce (eggs and cream) and buy groceries and supplies for the coming week. Generally, after buy the necessities there would be a few dollars left over from the produce income. Mother had a large garden and canned everything imaginable. We had both pork and beef, too. We were monetarily poor, most of my school years we didn’t have a telephone or weekly newspaper, but we ate well.
I often think about the years from 1942 through 1946 when this nation was at war, it was much different than today! Everyone was affected someway by the conflict. It was a tough time to be growing up, but I am thankful for the experience. I didn’t have a car, but Oscar, a friend that live close by, did. It seemed that anytime we went anywhere we were fixing flat tires. Tires, gasoline, sugar, gum, rifle shells and about everything else were unavailable or rationed. Everyone was part of the effort. As school children, we gathered scrap iron, saved gum wrappers, toothpaste tubes, fruit jar rings, etc. Recycling is not a new thing!
When I was a Junior in high school my last sibling, Gary was born. Our family now numbered nine, four sisters and two brothers. (Forty years later, my brother Rex, who carried on the farming tradition, passed on to his reward). 1946 was also the year we bought our first tractor. Up ‘til then everything was done with horses. Plowing was done with two horses pulling a 16” single bottom plow that you walked behind. Later, we got a riding plow, but it was still a long job turning under thirty or forty acres sixteen inches each time around the field. We had a couple of horses that doubled as riding horses. Smokey was a very gentle animal with a rough gait that discouraged a faster pace than a walk. Then there was Dick, a one-eyed part mustang that was fast as lightening, never rode against a horse that could beat him. Even in harness, he was always the leader. He had a smooth fast pace that was very comfortable to sit, but once you ran him he was miserable mount from that point on, almost impossible to hold back I would have liked to have known his history.
The new home was more modern than the one we had inhabited. This was a single story house, two bedrooms with one bath and a full basement, which contained a wood fueled furnace that heated the house. It had running water, supplied by a 120 foot deep well next to the house and a windmill to pump the water, when and if the wind was sufficient, otherwise I took my turn at pumping water. (We later equipped the pump with a pump jack and electric motor to deliver the water to the tank in the attic that gave us our water supply.) The REA, (Rural Electrification Act), had recently been extended to our part of the country, so the house had electric lights, but, except for the radio (which had the capability of using either six volt battery or 110 volt) there were no other electrical appliances for a while.
As I stated earlier, my formal education began at Cottonwood Grove, a one-room schoolhouse on the river bottom. When we moved to the hill country, I began the seventh grade and continued my education at Lone Cedar School, another one-room school. In 1943 I started high school at Rockport High, walking a mile to catch the bus and riding seven miles to school. This continued until graduation in 1947. While in high school I continued to work on the family farm, but as a senior, began to work at part-time jobs in town as well. Our school had an Ag Shop, but nothing automotive. My best friend, Willard Jones, had a 1937 Ford pickup, which we tried to work on occasionally. This, a short stint as an attendant at the local Conoco Service Station, and eventually work as a mechanics helper in a local one-man shop whetted my interest in things mechanical. My mechanical experience consisted primarily of maintaining a fleet of “bull hauler” Chevrolet six-cylinder trucks. I assisted with several engine overhauls. This is where I learned that a good method of starting a new engine was to use acetylene as a fuel to keep from washing the oil off the cylinder walls on first startup. Of course, we were dealing with babbit rod and main bearings, which were set up with rather close tolerances often requiring more starting power than the original 6-volt starter, would produce. It was here that I learned hooking two 6-volt batteries in series would boost the starting power considerably.
In our part of the country, the Midwest, our competition with cars was at wide-open throttle on the highway. My friend, Willard was considered a bit of a daredevil by most of the adults. If he had been in California, I am sure he would have been in the forefront of the “Hot Rod” movement. We were car nuts! I recall the two of us, sitting in the truck, looking at a Hot Rod Magazine, the particular issue that had the Pierson Coupe on the cover. We were really taken with the car. At the time, I never dreamed that one day I would own the car.
After graduating from high school, I spent the next few years stretching my legs. A couple of friends, Oscar Hosfield, Carl Kish and I decided we would “follow the harvest”. Wheat harvest in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas gave opportunity for young men, who were willing to work hard, to make some serious money. As it happened, we journeyed south to Chickasha OK, only to find we were too late to catch the “harvest” so we headed back north and didn’t stop until we were at Westhope, ND where Carl had worked before. Since we were too early for the wheat harvest, we found work in the hay fields for a month or so while waiting for the harvest.
I returned to North Dakota the next year in February, spending the rest of the winter and early spring in Bottineau working in the local creamery until the weather warmed, then as a service station attendant for a while before getting a job with a farmer in the Westhope area. I injured my foot and had to go back home to Missouri a couple of months later.
In January of 1949, I made my first trip to California with a couple of friends, Oscar Hosfield and Harold Smith. Again, it was not as rosy as I had thought. Work was not plentiful. Oscar and I got a job setting pins at the Whittier-Atlantic Bowling Alley in East LA. We made $5 each a day for our efforts which just paid our expenses. Becoming discouraged with this existence, Oscar decided to hitchhike home. Since we had made the trip in my car, hitchhiking was not an option. Smith and I made our way back home by car soon afterward.
After returning to the Midwest, I met the love of my life on a blind date. It was love at first sight, but I still had an itchy foot and later in the year, I went back to North Dakota, stopping in Rugby and eventually going to work for a plumber there. Rugby had just finished construction of a sewerage disposal plant so there was lots of work for plumbers. After a few months as an apprentice, I was given the responsibility of Journeyman Plumber, doing the rough in plumbing myself. I continued to work for McLean Plumbing off and on for the next couple of years.
Margaret and I were married May 27, 1951, moving to Council Bluffs/Omaha shortly after. I had three jobs while in Omaha. First, working at Interstate Machine & Supply, a wholesale house, as a Warehouseman and then at the Front Sales Counter. Next, returning again to my love for cars, I took a job as mechanic at the Crosley Dealership in Omaha. I made my second trip to California as a vacation with my mother, father, a sister, a brother and my wife. This cemented my desire to make the move permanent. After working at the Dealership a few more months, I lost my job. As a stepping-stone to California, I took a job loading munitions, 105 mm shells and black powder for shipment to the war in Korea. (Being tuned down for service because insufficient vision in my right eye, this was my total war effort.) About six-weeks later, I loaded everything we owned into the trunk of my 1939 Deluxe Ford Coupe, taking my father with me, we headed for Caldwell Idaho where I dropped him on my way to Southern California. Margaret had stayed behind in Omaha working to earn enough for a railway ticket to come and join me.
I acquired my love for auto racing in 1951 while living in Council Bluffs Iowa. They had an old ¼ mile dog track that was converted to “jalopy racing”. I really got addicted to it. I came to California in October of 1952 and settled in La Habra (Orange County). We were about 25 miles north of the Orange County Airport where the Santa Ana Drags were held. It took a couple of years for me to find my way there.
I worked in Santa Fe Springs at the Productol Chemical Refinery where I became acquainted with Bob James, a chemist there that had built a ½” stroke by 3/8” bore flat head motor (324 cubic inch, I believe) and installed it in a 1936 Ford coupe. It was a real ground shaker built by Nelson Taylor and John Ryan in Whittier. After a ride down the street in this car, the racing addiction returned and it wasn’t very long before I found myself at the Santa Ana Drags. During this time, I joined the Road Runners Club, (SCTA), it was there that I first experienced the longer runs. Although I was heavily involved in the ¼ mile from 1959 through 1962, the longer runs were pulling me away from the ¼ mile.
In 1959, I quit the refinery and went to work for Emil (Griggs) Grissotti at Fullerton Muffler in Fullerton CA doing tune-up and exhaust work. During the two years I worked there I was very actively involved in drag racing. Griggs and I went to the 1st Bakersfield National Drags and made the Santa Maria trip. At that time we held the top time records in our roadster class at all the strips in the LA area except Long Beach. We had exceeded their record but had not torn down to claim it.
We were running a 300 cu. in. Desoto, which was giving us top times around 122 mph and ET’s in the high eleven-second range. Our first run at Santa Maria raised the D/GR record from 116 mph to somewhere in the low 120’s, I don’t remember exactly. At the end of the day, we had also won the Top Eliminator Prize, a $25 Savings Bond, by defeating the local Cadillac powered Dragster. We were treated like Kings the whole day. It was one our more memorable outings.
I first went to Bonneville in 1957 with Ak Miller and Dr. Nathan Ostich, tagging along with some other Road Runners. Ak & Doc had built a Chrysler powered Henry-J that they dubbed “The Thing”. It was an interesting entry, an “ugly duckling” that ran about 176 mph before Ak parked it. Another Road Runner had a ’57 Chevy Station wagon that some of us took turns driving. I was hooked! I have competed at Bonneville every year since except 1968 & 69. After moving to Redding and opening my business, my shop was burglarized resulting in the loss of the fuel injection and heads off the racecar. It took a couple of years to recover from that incident.
Ak Miller was a big influence in my racing experience. He was a bit of a hero to me and to others in the club. For many years, my entries have been known as the “Tom Thumb Special”. Here is the “rest of the story”! Ak’s motto was “There is no substitute for cubic inches”. Consequently, he nicknamed me Tom Thumb because I ran, and still do run a 300 cubic inch engine. The name stuck, so much so that some didn’t know me by any other name, even calling my wife Mrs. Thumb.
Ak also gave me my first roadster. It was a ’27 T that he and George Hanson had run in the ¼ mile. My recollection is that they had run it at Great Bend Kansas at the National Meet. It was not much to look at and gave me problems just about everywhere I ran because Ak was always on the edge of the rules. This is the car I ran at the Bakersfield National Meet where I was soundly defeated by the Scotty’s Muffler entry in the first match up. We spent the rest of the two-day meet walking through the pits amongst over-flowing outhouses kicking beer cans as we walked. It was a great event, but without a doubt, the attendance was grossly under-estimated by the promoters. It was a zoo!
The ‘27 had to run Modified Roadster by SCTA Rules, a fuel class, so I built a 1946 Ford coupe for the 1958 Bonneville season and in 1959 started building a 1930 roadster for further competition. In 1963, we retired the Desoto and started using a Chevrolet for power. In 1964, we upgraded to a ’29 roadster, which set the D/GR record at Bonneville in 1965 @ 176.774. This car continued to campaign until 1982. In 1980, I acquired the Pierson coupe and ran it very successfully through the 1991 season, reaching a top speed of 227 mph in D/FCC. We campaigned the car longer than all other owners combined. The last time it had run at Bonneville was 1958. Tom Cobb and Phil Freudiger ran the car powered by a Blown Chevrolet (crank-driven Potvin) reaching a speed of 196 mph. The last time the car was in competition before I acquired it in 1980 was at the Bakersfield National Meet in 1959. Bob Joehnck had installed Chrysler in it with the intentions to take it to Bonneville. The car exhibited handling problems so Bob scrapped the idea and sold it to one of his employees. The car eventually found its way to Redding where it was in storage for a number of years before it surfaced again.
Just before Speedweek in 1991, Bob Bouder, who ran a restoration shop in Big Bear CA contacted me about purchasing the coupe. I really didn’t want to sell it, but he was persistent, saying a client wanted the car, so I named a number that I thought would discourage further conversation. Shortly after Speedweek, Bob called back wanting to know when they could pick up the car. I told him that I was not going to release the car until the ’91 season was over. The deal was closed and Bruce Meyer, a collector from Beverly Hills became the new owner of the Pierson Coupe. I delivered the car to Bob in January 1992. On the way home, stopped by Dick Williams’ shop to pick up a PoliForm’34 Ford 3-Window Coupe body. Construction of the new car began in February, making its debut at Speedweek the same year. This car, which we still run today, is basically a stretched wheelbase (156”) Pierson Coupe with tucked in rear wheels and streamlined front body section.
After leaving Fullerton Muffler in 1961, I was employed by White Automotive in La Habra for the next seven years as a Carburetor and Electrical Specialist. During this time I served on the SCTA Board of Directors and as President during 1961 & 62. While president, SCTA regained control of the Bonneville Nationals and swelled in membership by addition of the Rod Riders Club and other members from the disbanded Russetta Timing Association. The SCTA also did a series of timing events for Andy Granatelli during his promotion of the Paxton Supercharger, which was capped by the introduction of the Studebaker Avanti, which ran in excess of 170 MPH on the old highway at Jean NV south of Las Vegas.
In early 1968, I left La Habra to make my home in northern California. We opened Bryant Automotive in Redding on May 15, 1968 and continue to operate the family business there. In 1979, I started teaching part-time in the Automotive Department at Shasta College. Due to cutbacks in funds after two semesters, my class was discontinued, so being in the habit of going out to the college, I started my higher education on a part-time basis. Four years later, I graduated with a 4.0 plus GPA, receiving the Top Student Scholarship Award. (A little improvement over my high school days.) My youngest son, Barry had finished his AA the previous semester and since there is only one graduating ceremony each year, we received our degrees together in June 1984. That Fall Semester, I was reinstated as Part-time Instructor remaining on the payroll for the next twelve years.
Bryant Racing is a family endeavor where most of the family is on the salt every year. I entered the Bonneville 200 MPH Club in 1990 at 217.236 mph driving the Pierson Coupe. By week’s end, we had raised the record to 221.898 mph. Since 1999, six more family members have joined me in the 2 Club, my three sons, Jeff, Dan & Barry, my brother Gary, grandson Tim and nephew Ken Smith, the last, in 2004 @ 244.260 mph. Margaret, my wife, has no desire to drive the car, but is an avid supporter of our efforts.
I am still active in the pursuit of speed. Although driving is not my primary desire anymore, I do drive every year and at present hold fast time in the car at 248+ mph. My son Jeff and I are also members of the El Mirage and Muroc 200 MPH Clubs. The only record I personally hold is the D/FCC Record at El Mirage (211.085 mph) set in 1995. Son Barry has been trying to erase this for the last three years and so far has run only 209 mph. Dad just can’t seem to get the tune-up right. Could this failure be my sub-conscious at work?