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Looking back on Tony Sugden`s amazing 34 season career in special saloon racing it`s easy to overlook his first 37 years of life which included 10 years of Motorbike racing before turning to 4-wheels. Such was Tony`s longevity in motorsport we had alot to reflect on when I got the chance to have a very informal chat and some afternoon tea with him.
The CSCC ( Classic Sports Car Club ) made a bit of a fuss over his 85th birthday recently. Tony having come out of retirement last year to accept the opportunity to do some pace car duty for the club at Silverstone. On that occasion and again on his birthday at Thruxton having changed back into his civvies after driving the pace car again we got him up in front of the collective of drivers and family members at the after race presentation and gave him him a hearty and well deserved round of applause ( and some birthday cake ! )...
'Were you suprised when you got dragged up in front of everyone' I asked ,knowing that Tony doesnt do things like fuss or adulation...
'Yes I was. I just amble along as everyone else does and was really suprised when things like that happen'.
The affection and respect held by the drivers comes from a career that has spanned so many eras for special saloons and Tony has seemingly always been there ,moving with the times when needed but always there. In few cars too ,his trusty mark 1 Escort from 1969 to 1977 during the golden age of supersaloons when Tony had to compete against bigger cars ,bigger budgets and bigger personalities which he did so well. A year in his old friend Alan Minshaw`s Daf V8 was followed by his first Skoda ,Chevron-based and that coincided with the Donington GT revolution. The AET Esprit GT hybrid served him next well through the 80s until morfing into his second Skoda as he moved back to saloons. That was replaced by his most fearsome car ,the John Leek-built turbo Skoda in 1991 which kept Tony ahead of the game during difficult times for modified racing. The turbo Skoda served him very well until at the end of the 2003 season at the age of 71 Tony finally decided to hang up his helmet ,well from racing anyway. A last race at Silverstone was the Tony Sugden Trophy race ,won by Tony fittingly and i`m sure his opposition didnt let him without some fight.
Still in the same unassuming home in a quite cul-de-sac in Doncaster Tony is very down to earth. Born in Bradford in 1932 he is a typical Yorkshire man. Calls a spade a spade and no interesting in anything false or flashey.
He`d raced on the Manx TT course in the '50s and '60s . His b/w photos of Mallory motorbike races slightly wasted on me until we get onto the 4-wheel talk. Moving to cars in the mid-60's he had his first of remarkably few crashes,in his Lotus-Cortina whilst on a sprint event ,'Had a Lotus Cortina ,a beautiful car, had her upside down on the roof at 100 miles an hour thinking what a bugger ive made of this !' he recalled.
Circuit racing beckoned and like many others the new Ford Escort twin-cam looked a good bet and he made his Saloon debut at Croft 1969. A late season win at Oulton Park would in time count towards him being able to claim outright wins at the Cheshire circuit in 5 different decades.
With Doncaster as his base Tony would tend to race at the northern circuits from Mallory,Silverstone ,Oulton and up to Croft. 'Mick Hill in the Janglia and me in the Escort ,we were good mates' he reflects. 11 class wins in 1970 established Tony as one of the top special saloon men. The Escort was as reliable as its driver and gained an 1840cc BDE unit along with some much needed sponsorship from Brook Hire. 1973 was a good season with 9 wins from his 37 races winning the MCD Championship outright plus keeping his sponsor happy with the Aintree-based Brook Hire championship and only 1 DNF. Along with the national club and regional championships to race in 1974 saw the addition of the Super Saloon series bringing all the biggest names and extreme saloons together. 3rd at the Mallory round a good finish indeed given the opposition. A particular close rival in the BRSCC Simoniz championship was Nick Whiting in his Escort and in both 1975 and 76 Tony had to give second best in the class to the man from Kent. The schedule of races was intense back then but the rewards for winning made things worthwhile. Easter 1976 Tony won at Oulton and then Silverstone the next day for example.
When asked about the rivalry in light of the prize money. 'Brodie was keen .Gerry Marshall was always keen but had to be if your employer is Vauxhall.They were keener in them days more than they are now'. And toughest opponent ? 'Nick Whiting . Another one was Tony Dickinson.'
8 wins in 1976 was reward for a season fully committed against exoctic machinery like Hawker`s DFVW, Marshall's Baby Bertha ,Hill`s Beetle ,Minshaw's Daf ,Whiting and the rest.
The Escort was remarkably reliable but Tony had his biggest accident in it at a race at Outlon Park. 'Probably the worse was at Oulton when we`d fitted new brake pads and thought they had bedded in. I went down to Lodge corner and they didnt work. I can remember to this day the pain in my head when I hit the barrier and it bounced me back onto the track. The passenger side wheel was at the side of me , it had come through into the cockpit'.
That was thankfully a rare set back as the Escort proved otherwise reliable and signed off with giving Tony class wins in both the BRDC ESSO Uniflo and BARC Forward Trust championships in 1977. The old girl was sold less engine to Jim Price.
'I`d been friends with Alan Minshaw for a long time and he`d been having trouble with the V8 in the Daf ( the former Tony Hazelwood car ) and it ended up standing idle. So I did a deal with him to put my BDE in it and race the car for 1978.
'Was the Daf more drivable after they've changed the engine ?'I ask. 'Yeah the BD's were a good engine but still twitchy compared to others. After a well sorted Escort you may not have been quite so confident in it ( the Daf )...you tended to move about in it'. With a lick of new Red paint all over and a name change to keep it sounding more current the Daf ,or Volvo 66 with Tony`s 2-litre BDX took him to a class win in the BRSCC Rivet Supply championship. Again it was consistency not outright win-or-bust speed that was Tony`s strength. Only 1 pole position all season in 1978 but 24 podium placings gain points. 4 wins ,9 seconds and 11 thirds for the record.
Around this time Tony also had a few outings in a Chevron B23 sports car in Libre races. And it was in a Libre race that Tony had his other scary crash ,this time at Cadwell when dicing with a F5000 car their wheels touched ,spinning Tony round at over 100 mph and he cleared a bank landing in a spectator area just missing a pole.
1979 was a year of change for the whole modified scene with the birth of the Donington GT Championship opened up the chance for saloons ,Modsports and hybrid GTs to all mix. Tony explained 'We put a BD in it' ( the Chevron ) and fitted a Skoda body.'One of these cars where it would go round a corner that your brain didnt want to go that quick. You've got to get programmed in where eventually you got the hang of the sports car and what it was being that quick. Well master the cornering speeds he did as the Chevron Skoda won 20 times in 1979 taking Tony to a class win in the new Donington GT and winning the BARC-Y 'Bedale Garage' championship. The 1980 season was probably Tony`s busiest with a staggering 42 races ,winning 32 of them and only 2 retirements ! The Skoda was one of two in the team as Jim Price had a steel-bodied version and sponsored both cars with his Haulage bulk tippers company. The cars prepared by Colin Bennet racing. Tony winning both the BARC-Y and BRSCC-N championships such was his dominance at the northern tracks he knew so well.