WALES — While he’s more widely known for his business success in central and southern Maine, one local drag racing enthusiast has caught the attention of racers and collectors around the country.

Tom Auger carries the legacy of VIP Discount Auto Centers with pride; it’s the company he and his father, who founded L&A Tire, launched in 1976. Yet he also carries a deep passion for drag racing, a sport in which he immersed himself at the age of 19 in 1975.

“I was part of a five-car team led by drag racing guru Ed Hamburger,” Auger said. “He was a master with small block 340 and then later on 360 cubic inch Mopar engines. The famed Hamburger-Auger Plymouth Duster I drove appeared in National Dragster magazine, and was billed as the world’s fastest 340 c.i. Duster. We did very well with that car.”

These days, Auger, now 58, is back into the sport in a big way. While he claims he is “semi-retired,” he juggles his time between a firewood business, a tree farm, his many commercial real estate properties — and, of course, there’s the race team. And the growing collection of nostalgia drag cars, most of which have rich bloodlines.

“I got back into a race car four weeks ago during an NHRA divisional race at New England Dragway,” he said. “It was a major milestone in my life; I hadn’t made a pass in 37 years. It came right back to me, like riding a bike, and the adrenaline rush was bigger than ever.”

Auger employs Jerry Hatch, of Lubec, as his driver in NHRA regional competition. Hatch has a five-hour commute to Auger’s race shop in Wales, yet he’s there when he needs to be. Hatch, 61, won his class championship last year at Oxford Dragway.

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“I hired Jerry for a few reasons,” Auger said. “He has over 20 years of hands-on experience working on Mopar products, he’s a great mechanic overall, and very good behind the wheel, as well. I admire the man, and he brings a lot to this race team.”

This season, Hatch competed in six NHRA Division 7 events out on the west coast, and six more piloting a 1963 Dodge 330 in Division 1 action here in the northeast. The car he drives out west is owned by Auger but housed in Modesto, CA, at the home of Steve Wann, one of the nation’s top-rated Mopar drag racing experts. 

“I’ve worked in a variety of jobs for a lot of people over the years, and Tom is without a doubt the best employer I’ve ever had,” Hatch said while driving the team transporter to Indianapolis last Friday. “I tell anybody who will listen this
is a fantasy come true.

“I have an incredible car owner and a true friend in Tom. I give him 100 percent in the shop and behind the wheel, and he treats me like gold. I just couldn’t ask for a better situation.” 

Today, one of Auger’s biggest contributions to drag racing is his collection of nostalgia Funny Cars and dragsters. He’s the proud owner of two original TV Tommy Ivo cars (one is the last front-engine dragster), and a “Jungle Jim” Liberman Revell Funny Car, among others.

Auger says displaying the old drag cars evokes a reaction from fans every time.

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“It’s extremely rewarding to me when Jerry does well on the track,” he said. “But it’s also very satisfying when somebody stops to compliment the nostalgia cars or take a photo. They talk about how much they loved Tommy Ivo or Jim Liberman, and I absolutely love hearing it.”

Auger hit the road chasing his dream in the mid-1970s. From 1975 to 1977, drag racing was his life.

“I put in a couple of years racing at national events,” he said reflecting on those early days. “I was fortunate that my father allowed me the freedom to travel. I went to California and back twice, and raced at every national event one year.

“I went up against a guy named Dave Bortman about 18 times; and I beat him twice. That’s how I got those two Wally’s. I didn’t win again, but the magazine article called me a late-round threat. Those years were very special.”

Looking ahead, Auger is diving into the sport a little deeper. The thrill he experienced in Epping this summer brought back that desire to compete. Plans for the 2015 season are well under way in both Wales and Lubec.

“Next year, we’ll field a two-car team full time in NHRA Divisional competition,” Auger says with the enthusiasm of a 25-year old. “Jerry will drive one, and I’ll drive the Dvorak car, which is roughly a month from being completed. I’m getting a practice tree so I can improve my skills. I’d like to be competitive next year, so I’ll start getting ready now. It’s not too soon.”

As he approaches 60, Auger is a busy, yet also very happy man. His life is never boring, with firewood customers calling, trees to be trimmed and a race team to operate. Yet he loves every minute.

“I’m lucky to be living the dream,” he said. “I still work hard and stay pretty busy every day, yet I have time to play and relax when I want to. My plan was to retire up on this hill and play with my toys. I still see my mother every Sunday and treasure my time with her. I stop and realize some days just how fortunate I am.”

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