He started out as a sportswriter for the Mansfield News-Journal before taking a job with CART’s public relations staff, and then had a short stint with Trans-Am before landing what turned out to be his dream job in 2003.
The story of how Thomas Eugene McHale (aka T.E.) went from a nondescript newsman stuck in the middle of Ohio to one of the most influential people in the IndyCar paddock is as cool as it is unlikely. And today is his last on the job as Honda Performance Development’s motorsports manager.
“It’s going to be tough to replace him because he’s been so valuable to the Honda brand, and so helpful to guys like me,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. “The paddock is going to miss him a lot.”
Well-read and an aficionado of all things rock and roll, the Notre Dame grad could have never envisioned making a career out of auto racing. Sure, he covered whatever ran at Mid-Ohio in the summer, but he was hardly a gear-head. But a connection at the annual CART race got him a position writing the pit notes, which soon blossomed into being news manager and writing the event guides. The CART job was cool because he got to travel all over the world, and work with the best PR staff ever assembled for IndyCar.
Fairly reserved and softly-spoken, McHale went about his job with quiet precision and never asked for anything. Well, except that one time at Toronto in 2000. We were standing on the roof overlooking a packed Exhibition Place, and just before the start he said: “I don’t cheer for or against anybody in this job, but we don’t need Team Penske to win another race and finish 1-2… we need a new storyline.”
So I asked my pal if he wanted me to give polesitter Helio Castroneves and points leader Gil de Ferran “the nuts?” He didn’t understand, and I explained it was a long-lost art of putting the whammy on somebody by grabbing one’s crotch with both hands, but could only be used in rare emergencies.
He requested it, so I applied the nuts and on the opening lap Castroneves missed a corner and plugged into the tires while his teammate (starting eighth) spun at the other side of the track. They finished 16th and sixth, and that cemented our friendship.
CART was a good gig, but moving to L.A. for HPD turned out to be a perfect match for both himself and his new employer. Yes, he understood the media, and when to feed someone a little nugget to help their story or report after feeding them lunch. Honda hospitality was always a good place to find drivers or owners, and T.E. was a great host. A.J. Foyt was the only person allowed carry-out service, and on the days brussel sprouts were served, if you didn’t eat one, you weren’t allowed to have dessert (per T.E.’s orders).
But at some point he became much more than Honda’s official mouthpiece who always signed off on the press releases, or the genial host for breakfast and lunch. Loaded with common sense and good ideas, he became more and more involved in company policy and helping shape Honda’s battle plan. He gained the friendship, then the trust, of Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Alexander Rossi. They became his guys and he starting working with Honda’s brass to identify their MVPs and to do whatever necessary to keep them.
“He became a power broker,” said Franchitti, who spent 16 of his 18 years with Honda. “It was behind the scenes, but he made things happen and it was always so reassuring to have him in your corner.”
There is no better example than last summer. Michael Andretti had been approached by Zak Brown to become partners with Chevrolet and McLaren, and that meant Honda was in danger of losing Ryan Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta and Rossi. McHale dug in and spent endless hours on the phone or in person with all the players, and was instrumental in keeping Honda’s immediate future in the building. And Rossi was his top priority.
“Getting to know T.E. the past four years has been such a blessing to me, not only on the professional level, but on the personal level as well,” said the 2016 Indy 500 winner. “He was one of the first people who recognized how much IndyCar racing meant to me in 2016, and made me feel welcome from the very beginning.
“My relationship with Honda and HPD was strengthened exponentially because of his presence, and for that I am truly grateful.”
Now 66, he said a few months ago that 2020 would be his last year and then HPD kindly made him a great offer to retire, so unless we see him at Long Beach, that’s probably going to be our only chance. He’s got a book to write, guitar cords to learn and old vinyl records to track down.
“I will miss sharing meals to hear about his latest musical discovery at the local record shop, as well as his judgment-free reaction to me ordering a banana split the night before a race,” said Rossi. “But I’m happy for him and wish him nothing but the best in the future.”
McHale came a long way from covering softball in Mansfield to negotiating with IndyCar’s heavy hitters, but he treated everyone with dignity, respect and honesty – such a rarity in big-time motorsports.
We’ll miss those characteristics, just like his Cheshire cat grin and laugh when somebody accurately quotes Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles. But we won’t miss the brussel sprouts.