Mel Thomas: Thank You for Your Service – DTD Exclusive


Armed Forces Day is Saturday, May 20 and it is an opportunity to thank and recognize those brave men and women who have defended the United States of America.

One of those men is well known in racing circles and didn’t exactly receive a hero’s welcome when he returned from the war in Vietnam.

Mel Thomas is a name that has been around Central New York racing for decades.

He is well known for creating Thomas Video Productions and providing memories to drivers and fans for years.

He was an integral part as a pioneer in the racing television expansion which provided a foundation for all of the live racing fans can view today.

He was an announcer at various speedways including Outlaw, Fulton and a host of others.

However, he is also a veteran who served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and he was one of the thousands of troops from that war who weren’t welcomed back to the States.

This Armed Forces weekend is a time for Mel Thomas to receive the recognition for what he has done both as a member of the military and as a citizen who contributed so much to auto racing.

Talk to anyone in their late 60’s or 70’s and they will tell you about “my number was” in the draft lottery.

Every year a chip with every date of the year would be drawn and it would determine by your birthday if you would be drafted into service in the military. A low number would probably eventually see you headed for Vietnam.

Looking back at his military career, Mel told Dirt Track Digest, “In 1966 I joined. I had been attending the Rochester Business Institute to study Data Processing and Accounting. I got a notice that I had a good number. I was from Saranac Lake and my draft board registry was in Malone, but they sent me to Buffalo to get my physical. I passed. I went down to the Navy-Air Force recruiters  and the Navy gave me the best deal because I had a year of college. I was an E2 when I came out of college and E1 when I came out of boot camp. I ended up in electronics school in Great Lakes, Illinois for eight weeks. When I got out I went to Bainbridge, Maryland and took communications. I had to learn about frequencies and the kicker was I also had to learn Morse Code to stay in contact with submarines.”

Continuing, he said, “After getting 20 words a minute in Morse Code I graduated and got assigned to Naval Communications in Washington, D.C.  When we got to Washington they had a sequence of jobs. You could stay in Washington and do work in the communications center at Andrews Air Force Base or go to a Navy transmitter site in Annapolis MD. or the boonies of WV to the Navy receiver site. I wanted to go to Annapolis  and that is where I spent two full years across from the Naval Academy at a communications transmitting site. We worked on small transmitters as well as one that fed the submarine broadcasts. The transmitter was as big as a hotel lobby. For five minutes every hour we had to shut down the site and do readings. The tubes had to be cooled.”

The next step wasn’t exactly expected as he explained, “Then my orders came, My term was up. I had been ordered to Commander of Naval Forces Vietnam based in Saigon. I went through a month of survival, evasion and escape schools with the Marines at Quantico, in Virginia. Then we went to Travis AFB, flew to Vietnam and when we  landed I said, “Oh my God. It was so humid. It was 110 degrees. It was unbelievable.”

Continuing he said, “ I was assigned to the consulate in Saigon. I was an E5 by then. Most of the time I was in charge of the teletype machines. We had four teletype machines and transmitted all the things. I learned to type 60 words a minute. The way it was transmitted was a one inch paper roll with punches in it. You learned to read the punches for the different letters. We started out with a three or four foot loop and kept the loop going as it was going out of the transmitter from the top of the building antennas.”

It was then time for another move.

Mel said,  “In the course of being there they were looking for volunteers to go to the support bases in the Mekong delta for communications with the river boats. I ended up learning to run a backpack radio. Most of the military uses them as communication in the field. We had a small support center tied together in the middle of the Mekong River Delta and operated a lot of big time operations for the Marines and the Seals. They planted sensors and you would drop off so many hours and then pick up.”

Eventually the tour of duty was over and it was time to go home.

However, going home wasn’t easy, as Mel noted, “We were not welcome. The worst part is we flew back to Travis AFD and had to go into San Francisco. It was the hub of the protests. We arrived just four days after the Kent State shootings. We were told we probably shouldn’t wear our uniforms going through San Francisco. I wore civilian clothes like we were told to do.”

However, he decided that he had nothing to be ashamed of and said, “ I flew back East from Chicago and landed in Rochester. I wore my uniform and said ‘the hell with it I’m going to wear it’. I remember walking off the tarmac and being greeted by my wife and my four month year old son Michael. I had left for Vietnam when my wife was pregnant. We got married just before I started to go to school.”

In conclusion he said, “I never really felt welcome. A lot of people Now I am proud that I served as I was then, but I just had a different feeling when we got back.”

Dedication and service were part of the military and those traits carried over to his  love for auto racing.

Mel said, “I became a fan in the late 50s and just expanded from there. When I got out of the service I went to school at Cayuga Community college and received a degree in broadcasting and communications. I was a radioman in the Navy so I knew electronics. I approached Glen Donnelly in ‘77 about doing TV and we hooked  up with an outfit out of Syracuse that  had a black and white camera, a cassette like an eight  track that ran an umbilical cord to the camera  and recorded . We played it back in the clubhouse in Weedsport on Sunday nights after the races. From there Glen had the idea of making a program. So we started including Canandaigua and Weedsport and the plan expanded into Fonda. We had an outlet for the program. I was crash editing. That was the start of ‘This Week on Dirt’.

And it was just the start as Mel explained, “It got so popular that we had 12 outlets when Glen took over Orange Coutny and we expanded across the state and put it on cable tv at the time. In 1979  we got color cameras. We did Syracuse with two cameras, one in the crows nest and one in the fire tower in the back straightaway. Gary Montgomery was announcing on the back straight camera and the  PA on the front stretch with Jack Burgess and Joe Marotta. We did electronic editing of this program and that is what sold ESPN in 1980 in coming in for the batmobile show. Andy Fusco was involved with helping me with the production part. Jack, Joe, me and Andy producing the show.”

But the next step was going to see things get bigger, as he said, “Patrick Donnellly came along and brought along Jerry Rumley. The rest is history from there. We started doing audio for Super Dirt Series  races on the internet before the internet really took off with Jim Schmidt.  He and I traveled the circuit and then Matt (Thomas) got involved and he had been doing video since he was 13 and we kind of incorporated the audio and video for a number of years. He got involved just before Glen sold it to Boundless.”

Thomas Video became a reality when, Mel said, “Matt started working with me and really improved our name at Thomas Video.”

This past January Mel and his son Matt were honored  and  he was quite proud of the award noting, “The crowning award was this year at the Eastern Motorsports Press Association where we got the big trophy for supporting the organization and  supporting racing as recipients of the Ernie and  Marylin Saxon award.”

Racing has been a family experience for the Thomas clan.

Mel said, “I started announcing mid to late 70’s I filled in at Dundee for the old announcer out of Corning. I announced a number of years at Dundee in the 80’s and that is when I incorporated Matt and my son Mike into video while I was  announcing. We were selling the VHS cassettes. Went to Ransomville and announced for the Friesen family for 12 years. I watched Strewart Friesen grow up from go karts to TQ.”

The next generation is involved as he noted, “I am really proud of my grandson A.J. he started with us at Weedsport doing the leader camera just to get his feet wet. That was six or seven years ago. He just turned 22 and he is going to CCC where Matt and I went there.”

Racing has provided memories both good and bad and the “best” are, according to Mel, “I was able to  video a lot of  great wins and great races. Obviously the Batmobile at Syracuse in 1980 because we were doing video for ESPN. Probably the sprint car race at Syracuse with Billy Pauch setting  the world speed record is another.”

At the other end of the spectrum he said, “In 1978 taping the Reading 200 and the bad crash where Mike Grbac passed away.  That and the sportsman race at Syracuse where Kevin Fleming was killed. I never got to see that video as Glen put it in a safe  to keep it under wraps for a number of years.”

After all the years in the sport does he have any regrets?

He said, “Not really. I had a very supportive wife. Once we established I was doing announcing and the boys, even as teenagers, were doing video my wife kind of stopped going. She had a lot of friends in racing, but was happy to stay home. I regret probably not spending as much time at home as I should have. I was doing so many nights a week and SDS races as well as weekends.”

However, Mel Thomas has given so much to not only the sport, but also to his country with his service in Vietnam.

He deserves thanks and recognition for everything he has done.