If you knew Thomas Eugene McHale, you knew grace and giving.
McHale, who died on Monday at 68 after a battle with colon cancer, was our anchor — our center — in a loud and noisy paddock filled with wanton self-importance. Honda’s longtime manager of motorsports communications, the personification of calm and class, was the closest thing we had to a village elder. T.E., with a face that was made to smile, was among the most human and relatable figures in the sport. His keen observations on racing, and life, and music, shared on pit lane, in media centers, or at his beloved Honda hospitality bus, connected us in communal ways.
To have been cared for by McHale was a meaningful achievement.
“I was a Honda driver for pretty much all of my IndyCar career,” three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time champion Dario Franchitti told RACER. “And I would get grief sometimes from my crew guys because T.E. and I had a ritual on the grid where he would always find me and give me a big hug. They’d want to get me strapped in and ready, but no, when we saw each other, it was a big, long, long hug. It might have made others uncomfortable, but not me.
“And that’s who he was. Or if he missed me before I got in the car, he’d come and lean in and wish me well and share words and we weren’t moving until that was done. That’s how personal it was with T.E. He was softly spoken, but he carried a lot of influence. He made a lot of things happen for a lot of people.”
Through his oversight of American Honda’s racing public relations efforts, the former reporter for Ohio’s Mansfield News Journal and CART IndyCar Series PR team member brought a powerful level of understanding to the landscape where Honda, Acura, and Honda Performance Development held sway.
Beyond whatever impact T.E. had on a corporate level, it was McHale’s generous support of the writers, reporters, and media outlets who covered the sport that made an exceptional difference. The phrase, “I know where you’re coming from; I used to do the job that you do,” was spoken by T.E. on a regular basis; he’d lived that modest life, earned barely enough to get by, and held sympathy for those who carried on practicing the trade.
McHale’s mobile phone and email address were in constant receipt of requests from those asking if a small slice of HPD’s budget might be spent on something that was helpful. Where most manufacturer representatives prefer to distance themselves from such inquiries and forwarded those matters to their advertising agencies, T.E. never shied away from those outreaches. As I wrote in my memorial for Robin Miller, whose friendship with McHale was thicker than blood, he would buy food and help his fellow reporters when they fell on hard times.
T.E. did the same, but preferred to use his role and influence to provide contract work to support the writers, reporters, and even photographers who were struggling financially. More than capable of penning a feature on his own or having one of his team members do the work, McHale would bless the person in need by releasing some of his discretionary funds to commission a race report, or a press release, or to gain coverage of a smaller event if it meant a freelancer could pay their rent or get themselves out of debt.
He also cared deeply about the motor racing media as an institution. More than a few books about the sport — provided there was a Honda or Acura racing angle included — were heavily underwritten by the brand because of T.E. The steady presence of racing-related ads in auto magazines, racing magazines, and websites often had McHale’s name on a purchase order, and as racing has gone through its cyclical boom and bust phases, he would find a way — as his annual budget was cut repeatedly — to spend with the outlets he respected in order to keep them afloat.
His generosity extended to drivers, as well, with Honda’s best, and even some of the younger stars in need of extra income gained through personal services contracts. On the grassroots level and even up to the various open-wheel and sports car training series, McHale was centrally involved in spotting talent, giving young drivers a shot in some Acura- or Honda-backed program, and making them part of the HPD family.
If Miller was riding shotgun on a golf cart at an IndyCar event, it was usually with McHale or Honda’s Tom Neff behind the wheel, the twosome or threesome bickering and laughing with abandon. Inseparable at the race track, Miller and T.E. would hold court at the Honda hospitality bus, one of McHale’s great prides and contributions to the paddock.
He believed in brother and sisterhood, in creating a space where the art of fellowship was practiced for the betterment of their many guests. Former Honda drivers and team owners, wearing their Chevy-branded team gear, were never excommunicated from T.E.’s traveling sanctuary. Brand loyalties and turf wars were set aside over thousands of cups of coffee and fine meals prepared under McHale’s hospitality tent. All of T.E.’s goodness and care sits within the footprint of that motorcoach.
McHale lost his wife Brenda in 2016; he cared for her and savored the remaining time they had as she bravely dealt with brain cancer. In another sign of the immense regard in which he was held from every corner of the paddock, the IndyCar field carried tribute stickers bearing her name out of respect at the next race in Mid-Ohio.
Offered a retirement package in 2020 as COVID forced most major companies to trim their workforces and reduce operating costs, T.E. welcomed the opportunity to downshift a few gears, spend his days as a free man with no obligations to the world.
“I like the idea of waking up and doing whatever piques my interest,” he told me when the news became public. “I might go down to the beach and stick my toes in the sand. I might spend the afternoon playing my guitar. I could spend the day pulling my albums out and playing records until I fall asleep. I could just go and catch a matinee movie, or go to a concert. I’m liking the idea of writing, for myself, for the pleasure of it, which I’ve missed. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with myself, and that makes me quite happy, frankly. This retirement is some long overdue ‘me time’ I’ve been wanting, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
With the need to stay home and look after my wife for the better part of the last two-and-a-half years, I missed seeing T.E. in his final seasons with Honda. We called on occasion, and emailed, and texted, but they couldn’t replace his physical presence and the personal impact he made. To my great delight and surprise, he made the trip from California to Indianapolis for Miller’s memorial service in October. Amid the sorrow of the event as it wrapped and the hundreds of guests filtered out of the building, my eyes locked on T.E. as he approached and, like Franchitti’s pre-race ritual, I damn near lifted McHale off the ground with a hug that went on forever. In those arms, a safe, warm, and happy place I’d been missing for years was found.
What we didn’t know was that T.E. was battling cancer at the time, and with the recent loss of Miller, he didn’t want to burden his circle of friends with more bad news.
I can recall just one terse exchange between us, and it came at Long Beach five or six years ago where T.E. was displeased with an interview I’d done with one of HPD’s senior staff. Unlike others who aired their frustrations in louder and more demonstrative ways, T.E. expressed his disappointment in a respectful, but impassioned tone.
And while I didn’t necessarily agree with his take on the situation, that didn’t matter. I’d disappointed T.E. McHale. The shame I felt was reminiscent to the times my father said he was disappointed by my actions. Of the 10 or 15 people I’ve spoken with today about T.E.’s passing, one word has been used repeatedly to express the loss: Heartbroken.
“I’m really thankful I was with Scott and Emma Dixon and my wife Ellie when I got the news about T.E.,” Franchitti said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I was by myself. He was always there, making sure I was OK. When I had my crash in Houston (in 2013), he was there for me. Talking about my daughters. My wife. He was that man.
“And I think that was the kind of relationship he had with a lot of us. We would all congregate around him. ‘Make sure you hug your girls.’ That was the last text I got from him. He was a giant.”