BROWNSBURG, Ind. — During the day, Ellsworth native Tom Patsis works at his dream job as a fabricator at Don Schumacher Racing, a professional drag racing team. At home, Patsis pursues his other dream job, creating automobile art at his business, Cold Hard Art in Danville, Ind., near Indianapolis.
Patsis gained national recognition for his works of art after a two-page spread appeared in the February 2013 issue of Hot Rod magazine, which has hit the newsstands.
Patsis, son of Ann and Michael Patsis, grew up in Ellsworth and graduated from Ellsworth High School in 2000. While in high school Patsis, along with friends Clifford Burton, Brandon Tupper and Chris Tooley, decided to take the automotive program at Hancock County Technical Center. One element of the automotive program, taught by Rick Thomas, included an internship at local automotive facilities.
K&B Automotive, run by the Alexander family, was where Patsis did his internship and gained some of the skills that would eventually give him the confidence and desire to pursue higher education at the University of Northern Ohio in Lima.
“Tom had raw talent. He was like a sponge, a good learner,” said K&B’s Bob Alexander. “He did a little of everything in the shop. I remember that he showed me a NASCAR replica made of brake line tubing that he had soldered together. That may have been his first automotive art.”
Patsis credits the Alexander family for putting up with him and patiently nurturing the skills that were developing as he performed the hard work needed to have a career in the auto repair industry.
Patsis also credits his auto instructor, Rick Thomas, who stressed professionalism in the work routine as an automotive technician. Patsis believes that helped him land a job at Don Schumacher Racing.
The Tom Patsis story goes back further than high school, however, as he recalled his elementary school days.
“My mom was an artist, a tole artist. My dad is a ‘MacGyver’-type of guy,” Patsis said. “I always drew stock cars and race cars on my papers at school. All of my art since age 10 is race car-related.”
After graduating from Ellsworth High, Patsis spent the next 3½ years at UNOH. While there, he earned his commercial driver’s license and his degree in automotive and high performance motorsports.
After graduating in June 2003, Patsis worked at a variety of jobs until he landed that November at Don Schumacher Racing as a mechanic/truck driver for the Suzuki Pro Stock motorcycle team. Over the course of five-plus years he worked with drivers Angelle Sampey, Antron Brown, Chip Ellis, Matt Smith and Craig Trevle.
In December 2009 Patsis began working full-time as a master fabricator at the shop. He builds chassis, brackets, steering and the parts that need to be built by hand for their world-class top fuel dragsters and funny cars. Typical of many young men, he wanted to be a race driver.
“I liked race cars so much,” Patsis said. “At first I wanted to drive, but now I build cars during the day and work on my art at night. I have the best jobs in the world!”
Entering the art world
Scrap parts from DSR became works of art as Patsis made iridium spark plug balls and Hemi spyders, as he calls them, from the throwaway barrels at the race shop. Soon people on Facebook began to pay attention to the young artist. Speedway Center for the Arts displayed his work, particularly around the time of the Indy 500, as well as the Brickyard 400.
Patsis began attending Wednesday meetings at the Museum on Main Street, located about 100 yards from the main entrance to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It is fun to go to the Wednesday meetings where I meet nonracing ‘normal’ people who are artists,” he said. “That is where I displayed my IndyCar model of the Dallara DW12.”
That piece was later donated to the Indy 500 Children’s Charity, where it sold for $5,000.
It was at one of these meetings at the Speedway Center for the Arts that he met one of motorsports’ most celebrated painters, David Lord, a fellow Mainer who grew up in Brewer. They immediately became friends.
Lord, who spent two years in art studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, was able to begin training at the renowned Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. After a couple of semesters, Lord was granted a full-tuition scholarship by General Motors.
Following graduation in 1965, Lord worked a three-year stint at Uniroyal and another three years with a South Bend, Ind., industrial design firm. Lord decided to start his own company, David Lord Auto Art. He went on to become one of the founders of the Automotive Fine Arts Society.
“He is a dynamic personality. He is one of those people you like immediately,” Lord said of the aspiring Patsis. “The first tour he gave me of Don Schumacher Racing and his home studio I could see that he loves what he is doing. I have a lot of respect for him. His wife, Amanda, is the perfect match for him. She allows him to do what he does best.”
Patsis met Amanda while at UNOH. They were married in Indiana on May 5, 2010. She works as a supervisor at Vance and Hines, which builds high-performance motorcycle exhausts.
Vance and Hines is located adjacent to the DSR Shop on Northfield Drive in Brownsburg. The street is nicknamed “Nitro Alley” because of all the top fuel dragster and funny car teams that once were located in that one-mile stretch of road.
Hitting the national stage
The Miller Welding Showdown in 2010 helped springboard Patsis to national prominence. He and five other contestants were invited to company headquarters in Appleton, Wis., to display their welding talents in a contest which tested their skills in fabricating a specific project in a short time frame. Patsis placed second in the contest.
Miller Electric invited Patsis to be a part of its display at the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association Show in Las Vegas last fall. Patsis exhibited some of his work and built what he calls the “Trashformer,” which is made from actual scrap Miller welders and two welder’s helmets. It sold for $1,700 to support the SEMA Cares Foundation.
To bring a project from concept to completion, Patsis said he needs lots of pictures of the car from a variety of angles. He starts sketching on the welding table with a permanent marker. He then surrounds his sketch with photos of the car to match their location with the sketch. No measurements are made; everything must fit together and be proportional.
“I always start with the wheels,” said Patsis. “Wheels are important. Up to 25 pieces are used in one wheel. I then build from the ground up, chassis first, then hang the sheet metal.
“I do not cover any of my work with paint. I hate paint; it covers up what I do. I Scotch-Brite the heat marks and clear-coat the raw metal to prevent oxidation.”
Finished projects have been bought by Tom Busch for his sons Kurt and Kyle. IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand and the Wheldon Foundation also have purchased some of Patsis’ work.
His art, which can be seen on his website, coldhardart.com, and on Facebook, has found homes in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. The most popular piece is the Hemi spyder.
“I enjoy this art, it is 100 percent me,” said the young artist.