INTERVIEW WITH TOM SARMENTO
LEAD MECHANIC OF THE GENERAL LEE
-Below is the interview Tom Sarmento and Rick Walker of the SST Car Show-
Rick: We are at the Fleetwood Country Cruize In in London Ontario with Tom Sarmento, General Lee lead mechanic. Great Show?
Tom: It's fantastic. Look at the weather.
Rick: Couldn't ask for better. You've got a General Lee right here.
Tom: Got a General Lee here and Rob Murphy brought his in here, so we had a nice back drop. We're just having a great time here.
Rick: So you're meeting the fans today, signing autographs. People probably come here with a million different questions but they must always want to know about those infamous jumps?
Tom: The number one question is where's Cathy, let's hear the horn? (laughter).
Well Cathy's not here and the horn we hope we don't hear too much. But the infamous jumps yes. Al Wyatt Jr. he went 237 feet back in the day. Granny Annie was the episode. When he jumped he had flip flops on, he had a pair of shorts, helmet, neck-brace and he went that kind of distance. Nobody has gone that far yet other than Al Wyatt.
Rick: So how do they do that? Is that just the car or they using some sort of slingshot or what are they doing?
Tom: It's all car. It's all car, ramp and the biggest thing is the stunt driver. He believe the car will go that far. So we build him a car he is very comfortable in. They do not like to hear any noises. They're very superstitious but if you do that for them, let them do a couple of approaches, they're comfortable in that car, they'll make that car sale.
Rick: So when these things jump, it's like a one time thing because after they've gone through that you're not using that for much else.
Tom: It's done, we only use them one time. They were expendable. They did more damage then we could buy a new one for and it's already written off on the show. And the liability, there are other things
that could have gone wrong that we couldn't see. So that was the standard. The car was used once and charged off on the show. The next step we move the safety equipment, tires and batteries and went to the crusher.
Rick: How do you prepare a car for a jump like that?
Tom: Well I give myself a good 440. I like the 383's also but Al Wyatt preferred a 440 engine. He preferred 14 inch tires rims on the front. 15 inch on the back. Most of the guys didn't care for the console shifter. They would rather have it right there on the column where they could actually see it and pull it into gear. It's just making them comfortable because you're strapped in that car and then your waiting for roll camera's. Camera 1, 2, 3, 4 and possibly 5. You're sitting in that car waiting for that and then all of a sudden goes Camera 4 Jam, so everything comes to a stop. You're still buckled into that car and they start it all over again. You want to get out of that thing as soon as you can. I mean your heart rate is definitely up. I don't care who you are or anything. Then once it's all over it's you know what I could have gone a little faster (laughter).
Rick: It sounds a lot like launching a rocket?
Tom: Yes it is. It's just a glide and the car comes down and you try to make them land a little bit on the nose so that actually absorbs all the shock before it hits the driver.
It's just like in Nascar. Those cars are made when they hit a wall, they crumble up first before it gets to the driver. Even back in the 70's and 80's, that's what we used to do.
Rick: So you put a roll cage in them but did you engineer crumple zones into the front then?
Tom: No we didn't have time to do that. AJ Thrasher built these cages and they were very stout. We checked the cages once they were done to see if there were any kind of a flaw which we didn't have.
Come to think about the superstitious thing, AJ used to chew tobacco. He's a big ol' guy and he used to chew that tobacco. He'd take a wad of that tobacco and put it right in the middle of the dash and it would be dripping down there and it would just get hardened and dry. Not one of the stunt guys would remove that tobacco (laughter).
It would be bad luck. Other things that we did was each one of the ramps had horseshoes. AJ put a horseshoe on the ramps for the stunt guys. Our pipe ramps, our jump ramps and everything like that.
There's a lot of superstition in that. You figure we've been doing it for 6 years and sometimes 2 or 3 jumps in one episode so there was a lot to be said about that.
Rick: Even if it's something psychological with the driver, that helps too. How much of the factor was the driver in these jumps? Was it all mathematics and physics or was the driver a factor?
Tom: The drivers a factor. He could overall anybody if he wanted more or less weight. He usually went with what we decided and there would be a group of us with Paul Baxley making the final decision on the weight. When we're talking about a final decision on the weight it might be a difference of 50 pounds.
Allan, he was a little bit bigger so we had a little more weight in the trunk. Corey Eubanks he's about 165-170 pounds, Allan 250 pounds. So it makes a little bit of a difference and you got to take in the motor torque.
(Dukes of Hazzard horn)
Rick: There's that horn (laughter)
Tom: Now where's Cathy (laughter).
But the motor torque because it's going to want to go over to the right. And when you're sailing that far but our guys were very good. When they left that ramp they were off the throttle.
They didn't blow them up in the air. A lot of them had blue smoke but that's from the oil filter and the front hitting the K-frame and sharing off and the oil going back on the exhaust, you'll see a blue smoke.
As far as I'm concerned they have a lot of talent. I just give them the car that they want, the talent and the jump is up to them.
Rick: Not just talent, those guys are brave.
Tom: Well they are because those guys are going to be sore. We're not going to hurt them, we're not going to draw blood. No broken bones but they got to work the next day so we try to give them the safest car as possible and make them feel as comfortable. Then once that's over then it's all time for the auto boys.
Rick: I've heard a lot of guys online saying it's terrible that they destroyed all those cars
because now we're not going to be able to buy any and now they're too expensive. What do you have to say to guys who complain about you having destroyed that many. Like 317 General Lee's.
Tom: Well there was like 100,000 of those cars made. There was more people killed in drunk driving in those cars than we would ever wreck. As far as the popularity, if it wasn't painted orange and had an 01 on it, it wouldn't be worth a dime. Those cars we could be for $500 a piece on the street.
Rick: So what are you doing now? I know you've been on the road sometimes. The show on television might be over but the dukes Legend lives on. The mania lives on. The fans are still out there and you're still greeting them and I think still on occasion you're jumping a car.
Tom: Nope jumping's gone, that's done. I did my last one in 2009. I was a little sore on that, fractured my spine. That was the last one cause I'm 70 years old now. I just got back from 5 weeks in Europe. I was over in Ireland. I had a car in Northern Ireland, one in Ireland, one in Germany and one in Holland. So we did a photoshoot with a castle in Trim, Ireland. It had this fantastic archway.
6 years ago we did it and we were going to film in that archway but it rained. We were going to tear up all there lawn and stuff and they were nice enough to do it. We got a permit to go ahead and bring the car in and do another shoot. So we did that shoot and it should be in a magazine in Auto Los Angeles
either the end of the year or next year.
Then we went to Holland when all the tulips were in bloom and we had a farmer let us bring the car into the tulip beds and we did some of the old windmills. So we get to do that kind of stuff but just fantastic people over in Europe and the following is just unbelievable.
Rick: I'm going to ask you one last question and it's a little bit controversial but I want your opinion on it and you know where I'm going. I just want your opinion on the flag on the roof of the General Lee. What do you think of that. Should it come off or should it stay on?
Tom: It should stay on. It was a battle flag. It had nothing to do with race or anything like that.
It was a battle flag, the car went out to do battle on the short tracks on the weekends. If you really want to debate on the flag you go talk to Ben Jones. He knows all the political aspects about that.
Rick: I've seen some videos and I have a pretty good idea what he thinks.
Tom: Nothing was said 35 years ago and stuff like that. It's just some of those people being in the wrong place, wrong time with the flag. It was a battle flag and it meant nothing to us on the show.
You would never even give it a second shot.
Rick: I guess it depends on how you or maybe somebody superimposing a meaning on something.
Tom: Correct and that's heritage on different parts and that's what our country was based on.
On freedom and first amendment rights. Like I said if you want to debate somebody, Mr. Ben Jones is the man to talk to. He was a congressmen for two terms.
Rick: Well I think the show too and we talked about this before the last time we spoke, it was really kind of family oriented?
Tom: It's a G-Rated show. Cartoons aren't even G-Rated anymore and you watch kids growing up with that stuff. But there was no blood, nobody getting shot. It was fun, it was slapstick humour. We all had fun, made fun of everybody and just had a good time.
Rick: Well I hope some day you maybe come out of retirement. Maybe not jump yourself but help somebody. Should come here and jump a car out in the back. (laughter)
Tom: We discussed that with Steve a couple years ago.
Maybe we could get somebody to get out here and instead of doing a big jump or maybe do a turnover or something because it's expensive and yes I do spend a lot of money on the cars
because they got to be done right and that's the only way I'm going to build them. If it's too much for the budget then were not going to do it. I'm not going to do it.
We got to make it safe.
Rick: Well tom there's a lot of people who want to meet you today so we will cut the interview off here but it's been an absolute privilege.
Tom: Thanks very much Rick.