Stuntman, Racer Louis Tomei Became Indy Specialist

AT INDY: Louis Tomei in the cockpit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1946. (Radbruch Collection Courtesy Bob Lawrence Photo)
AT INDY: Louis Tomei in the cockpit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1946. (Radbruch Collection Courtesy Bob Lawrence Photo)

Another of the characters who made Indianapolis racing what it was in the first half of the last century, Louis Tomei led a colorful life both on and off the track.

Born in 1910 to Italian immigrant parents in Portland, Ore., Luigi G. Tomei moved to Los Angeles by his teens, where he began working as a film extra and stunt man, with driving and fight scenes his specialties.

By 1932, Tomei was racing on the AAA Pacific Coast circuit, a regular at the famous Legion Ascot Speedway and made his Championship debut at Oakland in a Bugatti. After a successful season in AAA Class “B” racing on the Pacific Coast circuit in 1933, Tomei planned on making his debut at Indianapolis in 1934.

Those plans unraveled on March 7, 1934, at the funeral for Pacific Coast star Ernie Triplett, when a group of drivers confronted a photographer and reporter from William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner newspaper.

After destroying the camera and film, some drivers pushed the newsmen into cars and drove them to the Examiner offices. A livid Hearst called for harsh kidnapping penalties and the incident raged in the headlines.

Eventually, Tomei, Babe Stapp and Al Reinke faced lesser charges. Reinke died in a stock-car crash before sentencing and Stapp was fined, but Tomei was sentenced to six months in jail for assaulting the photographer.

Returning to racing in 1935, he made his Indianapolis debut that May, qualifying on the last row and running 47 laps to finish 26th. The following year, Tomei started eighth (his best Indy start), but was out after 44 laps.

Tomei also dabbled in big cars, but primarily became an Indy specialist, much like fellow Legion Ascot grad Frank Wearne.

Tomei scored his best Indianapolis finish in 1937 with a 10th, completing the full distance for the first time. Following a disappointing 1938 race, he went on to complete at least 186 laps in the next three events running at the finish twice, with an 11th in 1941.

After World War II, Tomei returned to make his final start in 1946, only to retire after 34 laps (later relieving Chet Miller). Failing to qualify in ’47, he relieved Wearne and returned in ’48 to relief drive again for Miller. Overall, Tomei made eight starts in the 500.

Tomei continued his screen work, driving and being mentioned in the Tony Curtis racing themed “Johnny Dark.” In May 1955, having survived a dangerous era in racing, Tomei hit his head while filming a fight scene on a motorboat for “Hell on Frisco Bay” and died from the injury. Tomei was 45.