Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tom Hammonds in Drag

Hammonds drops basketball for drag racing

Shooting free throws in front of a hostile crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium is among the most difficult tasks in sports. Timing the clutch, throttle and start lights at a drag strip is another.

Tom Hammonds has done both.

This weekend, the former Georgia Tech all-American returns to North Georgia to compete in maybe the sport that's first in his heart. Hammonds ran a pro stock during Friday's first round of qualifying at the Southern Nationals at the Atlanta Dragway. The second round of qualifying continues today with the elimination rounds on Sunday.

"They're both tough," Hammonds said. "I enjoy them both, that's probably why I'm so hooked on drag racing. It's so competitive. I think a lot of athletes have trouble when they hang up the sneakers because they don't have anything competitive to fall back onto. One of the things I love about this particular class is that it is maybe the most competitive in all of motor sports. I jumped from the frying pan into the fire when I got into this class."

Hammonds has some work to do to make the Southern Nationals finals on Sunday. Hammonds failed to qualify in the top 12 after two rounds on Friday. He ran ties of 6.747 seconds (23rd) and 6.775 (22nd) on Friday. He needs to shave nearly a full second off of that time in two qualifying rounds today to keep racing on Sunday.

"It's kind of good and bad," Hammonds said. "We definitely have some room for improvement. The obstacle that we're facing now is getting the correct tuneup. We have the power to run with the best in this class. But I just think we're missing on our tuneup."

Hammonds has qualified for three elimination rounds in six races this season.

Racing is a sport that does not give much elbow room to people who buy their clothes at the big-and-tall stores. Cockpits are cramped. Steering columns and control pedals are positioned a little too up close and personal for people with limbs long like a Sunday drive. Hammonds stands 6-foot-9 and played in the NBA for 12 seasons. Just like buying a suit, he can't squeeze into anything right off of the rack.

"My Chevrolet Cobalt's made specifically for me," Hammonds said. "It takes my height into consideration. My seat's notched into the frame. My pedals are further forward and the steering column is a little bit raised up. I feel safer in my Cobalt going 205 mph than I do in my own car going 85. Believe me, I can get out of it fast when I need to."

Hammonds is one of the best basketball players Georgia Tech has ever produced. He was a two-time all-ACC performer, a third-team all-American and had his jersey retired after averaging 20.9 points and 8.1 rebounds in 1989. He was the ninth overall pick in the first round of the NBA draft and played 12 seasons for the Washington Bullets, Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves.

"I've got a lot of good memories. It feel good to come back," Hammonds said. "It feels good to be able to come back and reminisce about some of the old times because I'm getting old. I feel old too. It's good to see a lot of old faces."

Hammonds comes from a hot rod family so he had racing in his blood before basketball. His father, Tom Hammonds II, was a racer and the younger Hammonds took over for his father.

"I've been doing this most of my life," Hammonds said. "My dad used to do a lot of racing and everybody wants to grow up to be like your dad. I just got bit by the bug. If I go one week or two weeks without smelling rubber, I'm in bad shape. That's just what I like to do. I love to drag race. Other than playing basketball, that's all I've ever done."

Hammonds started racing professionally while he still played in the NBA. He entered his first pro stock competition in 1997. He qualified for his first elimination field also in 1997.

He retired from the NBA in 2001 and three weeks later he made his first final. He finished 14th in points in 2002, his only full racing season.

He dropped out of racing in 2004 to buy a Chevy dealership in Darlington, S.C. But he couldn't stay away from the track and sold the business to return to racing.

"Running that desk wasn't competitive enough for me," Hammonds said. "I missed racing too much so I decided to sell out and come back to what I love."


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