KING OF THE ROAD: The Story of the Road Kings

by Susie Hodgson

Remember American Graffiti? There was a scene in it where Harrison Ford races Paul LeMat. It’s a street race and (spoiler alert!) the Ford character nearly dies. (So does his passenger, played by Cindy Williams).

Or maybe you remember Rebel Without a Cause – the James Dean classic. Dean is in a street race game called “chicken” – and Dean (the character) lives. I think we all know he didn’t in real life. And that was due to some fast driving in a classic sports car.

Cars are part of Our American Life. They define us. They tell a story; they are a part of our history. Their creators are demi-Gods (or maybe devils – right, John Z. DeLorean?) And all this is even more so in Southern California – land of the Great Commute.

If you know anything about drag racing, street racing, hot rodding or funny cars, you probably can thank Burbank! The nationally-known Burbank car club “Road Kings” is arguably the most famous car club ever. It is also the oldest car club still in existence. But perhaps even more amazing is the number of famous members who have come from the Road Kings!

It was in Burbank in 1952 when a young Ralph Marshall and a group of “guys” started their car club -- the Road Kings. The club’s original bylaws stated that their mission was to create interest in various types of hot rod activities, as well as promoting good sportsmanship and citizenship among members. The monthly dues were a whopping $1.00 and they met weekly. The bylaws explicitly stated that good behavior was a must because a “swat” may be given for such sins as cussing and finking! (Remember finking?!)

The Road Kings were initially a racing club. Soon the focus morphed more into hot rodding But let’s take a look at some of Burbank’s finest – finest racers, that is. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tommy Ivo – aka “TV Tommy” – first.

Tommy, a charter member and native Burbanker, initially gained fame in Burbank’s other big business, show biz. He got his start on stage at age 6, but it was at age 9 that he got his big break co-starring with the world-famous Boris Karloff in a play called On Borrowed Time. Movies came next and Tommy made dozens! Some of the most famous include I Remember Mama and Belles on their Toes (a sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen). Tommy also got to act with the famous comedy team of Martin and Lewis in You’re Never Too Young. But Tommy’s personal favorite of all the films he made was Treasure of Lost Canyon starring William Powell. And, remember, these are only a few of the films in Tommy’s cinematic career.

Bet you can guess what Tommy jumped into next. Television. (Yes, we know. His nickname, “TV Tommy,” is a clue!) Recognize any of these TV shows Tommy was featured in? Lone Ranger,” The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Margie, Petticoat Junction – and many more!

But through it all, Tommy loved racing. In the 1950s, Ivo raced a twin side-by-side Buick nailhead-engineered dragster which was the first gas-powered dragster to break the 9-second barrier – a record! Tommy went on to win race after race, including NASCAR’s first National Drag Race. He was a master showman and a beloved one at that – no surprise considering his career in the dramatic arts.

For his lifetime achievements in drag racing, Tommy Ivo was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2005. You could say Tommy put drag racing on the map! But now let’s take a look at another Road King – one who crewed for Ivo way back when. This not-yet-famous racer raced Ivo in 1963. Ivo and this other racer (and only he and Ivo) owned seven-second Top Fuel diggers. So they raced. That other racer? Don Prudhomme. Don beat Tommy.

You may well have heard of Don Prudhomme – especially if you’ve ever heard those loud commercials announcing Don --“The SNAKE!”– Prudhomme! Don became a Funny Car driver and earned the National Hot Rod Association’s Funny Car Championships more than four times in his 35-year career. He was the first Funny Car champion to exceed 250 mph.

But wait (as TV infomercials love to proclaim) there’s more! Prudhomme’s name will forever be linked to that of another driver: Tom –“The MONGOOSE!”– McEwen. Fans loved watching the rivals fly around the tracks in Prudhomme’s 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and McEwen’s 1970 Plymouth Duster. In a move that can only be called brilliant, The Snake (Prudhomme, that is) and The Mongoose (McEwen) arranged a deal with Mattel Toys who made “Hot Wheel” toy duplicates of their famous ‘Cuda and Duster. You probably recall how popular Hot Wheel toy cars were back then. The deal was a tremendous success, causing ad men and ad women country-wide to wish they had thought of that!

And still there are many more famous Road Kings! Jimmy Miles, Bob Muravez, Tom McCourry, Don Johnson, to name a few. The Road Kings’ accomplishments as a club are also impressive. They started the tradition of showing classic cars at Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside Drive on Friday evenings. But the greatest achievement of all? The Road Kings’ devotion to giving back. The Road Kings have helped support Burbank’s worthy nonprofits and causes to the tune of nearly $400,000 over the last decade alone.

So next time you think of Burbank, don’t just think of the movie studios and Lockheed, beloved though they are. Think of cars, hot rods and racing. Don’t think of American Graffiti’s Harrison Ford almost dying of course – he does that himself in planes, after all (!) But DO think of all the good our Road Kings have done and continue to do!

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

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