(Editor’s note: Ed Nicholson is a long time BangShift reader. He’s also a long time competitive road racer, instructor, and car guy. Ed knew and raced with Tom Hnatiw a few years before his star really took off with television and major league announcing jobs. Tom’s untimely passing last week shocked lots of us, especially Ed. He wrote this great piece sharing some personal stories about Tom and giving us a little more perspective about his life and “off air” personality.)
(Words by Ed Nicholson) -
This week gone by we heard of the untimely passing of automotive personality Tom Hnatiw after a short illness at the too young age of 53. Many of you know him from his TV hosting stints on Dream Car Garage and Sports Car Revolution on Speed Channel. For many of us racers and ex-racers here in southern Ontario, our connection to Tom through motorsports goes back to the late 1980s. His death has been keenly felt by so many people in the automotive and motorsports communities, even more so for those of here in Canada who had the opportunity to make his acquaintance before he “hit the big time” so to speak with his hosting gigs and pro series track announcing in the U.S.
There are certainly people who are better qualified than me to write about Tom, and those who knew him better. In fact it has been many years since I had been in contact with him prior to his passing. However I did have the privilege of spending quite a bit of time with Tom in the early 1990s, and still have some very strong memories of him from then. Many people don’t realize that Tom actually did quite a bit of amateur racing himself, before the demands of raising a young family and work commitments took too much of his time to continue racing. I first met Tom when he was competing in the local Solo I and Solo II scene here in southern Ontario, with a 5.0L Mustang that I believe was actually his wife Debbie’s car. At the time, Tom was a partner in a restaurant / bar that would host the monthly meetings of the motorsport club a bunch of us belonged to.
It wasn’t long after that when he was hired as the Motorsports Director for Firestone Canada, this was a bit prior to their merger with Bridgestone. Tom became the face of Firestone at many racing events across Canada, and more and more people got to meet the man with the ready smile and laugh, and fantastic personality. Anyone who spent much time with him has at least one, and probably several, “Tom stories”. I’d like to share my favourite one, I think it really shows the essence of Tom’s spirit and attitude.
We were at Shannonville Motorsport Park, a small road race circuit east of Toronto, for a 3 hour production car event. Tom had also ended up with a race-prepped mid-80s Mazda RX-7 in his race stable, which he had decided to run for this event since its agility was a good match for the tight circuit. Tom and I were sharing the car with another local racer who was faster than both of us, Paul Massingberd, another former 5.0L Mustang racer, we were to do roughly 1 hour each in the car.
Tom took the green flag and ran his stint, staying out of trouble, and we were running maybe mid-pack in our class, the best we could hope for with the preparation of the car and the talent level contained within. He came in at the hour mark, we topped off the fuel, and I jumped in for my turn in the car. It took me a bit to get comfortable; as it was the complete opposite of the Mustang I usually raced … the Mazda would stop and turn amazingly, but was not very strong in the power department. The Mustang of course didn’t stop or turn, but had lots of torque for coming out of the corners hard if you could get the power down.
After Tom got out of his Nomex he was on the wall with the pit board showing me some lap times, which were slightly decreasing as my stint continued and I got more settled in. After about a dozen laps, as I come down the long back straight preparing for the brake zone, I glanced over at Tom behind the wall. This time he is standing there with a silly shit-eating grin on his face, flipping me the bird, while displaying the pit board on which he has written with a bright red marker “F&CK YOU!!” in large letters. I was laughing so hard inside my helmet that I barely got the brake and downshift done, almost had to take the escape road off the track. I finished up my time in the car, and came in for Paul to take over behind the wheel. After getting out of the car I gave Tom hell for making me almost crash his car, and then we both started laughing our asses off thinking about it again.
Tom always had the utmost respect for the racers who were out there getting the job done, especially the ones who ran hard all the time. Tom had graduated from Solo competition to wheel-to-wheel amateur road racing, and always made sure he had a great time doing it, even though he was never (by his own admission) anywhere near the fastest guy out there. In fact his team with racing partner Al Ayre was called “PTFBIRT”, which stood for “Put The Fun Back In Racing Team”, and he always did.
Everyone loved Tom for his amazing humour and warmth, which was always genuine. As Brian had mentioned in his blog item, Tom came across as a “regular guy” that you would like to share a beer with while talking cars. I was privileged enough to do that many times with Tom, and he was indeed that guy, always making you bust a gut from the stories and anecdotes he told. He absolutely loved cars and racing, and held all the racers in high esteem for being out there doing what he loved. Growing up in Manitoba, at one point he even owned a somewhat clapped out Shelby GT-500 before the prices went crazy on them. As his star rose through the late 90s and in to the 2000s, all the local people were very proud to see this wonderful man get exposed to a wider audience to appreciate his large personality and passion for our hobby.
R.I.P. Tom Hnatiw, amateur racer, track announcer, TV host, friend of many, family man, and raconteur extraordinaire. He will be missed and forever loved by so many people. I offer my condolences to his wife Debbie, sons Nick and Wyatt, and the rest of his family and friends.