A Tribute from Darren West
In most cases in Drag Racing the idea usually is to start small, and move up the classes as race craft improves and desire for speed becomes too difficult to resist. In Tony's case it was Nitro or nothing, going straight in at the deep end with a double A fueler!
Tony was an out an out showman with a larger than life personality, just the sort of ambassador we needed to take Drag racing to the masses, always happy to travel the continent to perform wild demos, and always putting on a great show.
Hailing from Wincanton in Somerset, Tony didn't have far to travel to find the UKs most successful fuel dragster builder and racer, Yeovil's Dennis Priddle. Dennis just so happened to have a fuel dragster for sale in the form of his sleek black 'Mr 6' dragster. The car had been very successful straight off the trailer, so was a proven combination for Tony to join the nitro ranks in. The car had been so successful, that Dennis had built an identical car originally intended for Mickey Naylor to campaign as the new rear engined 'Medicine Man'. When that project didn't materialize the car was sold to Graham Hawes who planned to run the car in his 'Black Magic' colours, that too failed to happen and eventually the car appeared as the Frontline Video dragster and was campaigned very successfully by Andy Craddock and team.
Tonys first taste of nitro power came at Long Marston whilst under the supervision of Dennis. Tony completed his first burnout, some easy shakedown runs followed and he had a license. The dragster was repainted and renamed 'Hit Man' Tony debuted the car in the NDRC Gauloises Pro Fuel championship in 1981 and won the championship in his 'Rookie' season, narrowly beating Trevor Young to the title.
November 1981 at Long Marston and, for the first time, Tony would run against 'the Master' Dennis Priddle in his new 'Mr 5' machine on it's UK debut (the car had run at Paul Ricard in France the month earlier over the eighth). Dennis holeshot The Hit Man in the race only to see Tony come past as the clutch came in,...Dennis kept his foot in though and crossed the line first.
During 1981 the ambitious Mr Boden imported a funny car to create a two car team, the idea being to share a motor between cars. Mid way through 81 the ex-'Centurion' 80 Dodge Omni built by East Coast chassis constructor Lenny Imbrogno arrived in the UK. The car was repainted by Ronnie Picardo and Steve Davis who handled most of the paintwork for the funny car ranks. Tony debuted the car at a RWYB at Santa Pod on April 4th 1982, the car running a typical Boden 'high Nitro load' but had the misfortune of a jammed throttle on the teams only attempt.
At the May 82 meet at Long Marston Tony was back in Pro Fuel with the dragster, qualifying last with engine trouble before beating the Page's 'Panic' in a TF-FC match up 7.83/189 to 9.10/156. He then went on to beat Tony Pearson in the final 8.56/179 to a way off 11.18. Tony had adjusted quickly to fuel racing, but the strains of running two cars, and the greater buzz of driving the funny car meant 82 was the last season for the fueler.
Tony became a regular at the Santa Pod Cannonball event, 82 was the first year he entered still getting used to the short wheel based car, Tony beat Anders Hasselstrom losing the chute at the top end, then losing to Chris Filsell in the 'Satan's Sledge' car 7.04/194 to 7.62/194.
In September 82 Tony made his second appearance of the year at York Raceway, his first being earlier with the fueler. This time he brought the flopper to the Grand Finals meeting to match race Ronnie Picardo, in the 'Blue Way' Pro Comp Datsun, and the Nitro Houndog Challenger driven by Owen Hayward. The cars put on a great show which made for a truly memorable meeting.
Easter 83 brought the 'Drag Race of Champions' at Santa Pod, transmission problems sidelining the 'Hit Man' funny car.
Always eager to entertain the crowds Tony took the funny down to the Street Machine magazine Rod Run and surfing event at the Skewjack complex in Cornwall and may hold claim to the title of the only man ever to attempt a burnout on grass!
Tony made it to the Cannonball event in 83, laying down runs of 7.60, 7.39 and 7.15/202. The consistency got him to the final, where he would have faced Gary Page, only to be penalised for excessive lateness for the third round call. This let Harlan Thompson back in but then real drama, as The Budweiser Omni sheared the blower pulley on the burnout. The 'Hit Man' funny, sitting ready to go in case of such an incident, was fired in haste but Tony could only select forward gear and frustratingly had to watch as Gary Page soloed to a 6.63/210 victory.
At the 83 August Bank holiday meeting Tony was to appear in a best of three match race alongside Allan 'Bootsie' Herridge in the 'Gladiator' Trans Am. On the slick track Tony ran 7.64/184 to Allans 7.82/181 followed by 'Bootsie's' 6.75/195 to 7.46/191 and finally a spun main bearing for the 'Hit Man' meant a solo win for the 'Gladiator'.
Tony was a busy racer and during this period was making regular trips to Europe to run the car. An appearance at the 83 World Finals followed. Tony's love of Drag racing was such that he drove wherever and whenever he could. It all came together for the team at the 84 Easter meeting at Santa Pod, for the first time sponsorship was on board for the previously self financed operation. Automatic Transmissions came on board and the car was repainted in a scheme not unsimilar to Gene Snow's Arrow. Skewjack also sponsored the car. Reports in numerous publications have Tony's first run somewhere between 6.2 and 6.4! Unusually, this quick run was not in doubt by those in the know and stands as Tony's quickest run. All the hard work had paid off and the run the team knew was in the car had finally happened. In attempt to back it up Tony got very sideways but still managed 7.04/181, at an event which saw the tragic death of Alan Ritmeister.
May 84 at the Pod and Tony clicked off a strong 6.79/210 on a pass which very nearly saw the demise of the new 'Houndog' Corvette funny car alongside. Nobby Hill's car came away with only cosmetic damage after what was looking to be a big impact with the barrier!
A series of low seven second runs at the 84 Cannonball resulted with a stint for 'Super Bode' as he was often called in the Commentary box! Tony made it to the Fireworks meeting in 84 and organised sponsorship for a Leukemia charity with drivers earning money from supporting companies based on top speeds.
May 86 and Tony was back for what would tragically turn out to be his last year. The car had been repainted for the new season by Stu French who also backed the car. A 6.27/207 qualifier was deemed dubious due to gremlins in the Pod timing gear, a solid 6.55/215 second run though put Andy Craddock back on the trailer in a Pro Fuel match up, Andy running a losing 6.92.
Summer 96 and the Hit man team were back on the road again this time to Hockenheim. The rebuilt engine had been run prior to the trip to Germany, the first pass was meant to be a check out run for the 'Hit Man', tragically it was to be Tonys last.
The terrible fire which resulted was caused by many things, human error playing a major part. At Hockenheim it seems some of the more basic rules were totally neglected. When Tony made the decision to run, he also made the decision to leave his Nomex underwear in the tow car because it was so hot. If he had not slipped up and worn his full race gear, things could have been different. But there are no if's and but's in a fuel coupe. The motor sounded sick but typically 'Bode' kept his boot in, hoping perhaps that it would clear and he'd come charging through the smoke and give the fans a show. About three quarter track the motor fireballed, it seems that Tony knowing he had a bend to take misjudged things and turned too early, careering across the grass with the flame filled car airborne. It landed on solid track before taking off again and nose diving into the solid retaining wall. The fuel tank exploded showering the car in fuel. Tony was strapped and trapped inside the car upside down.
The teams tow car arrived before anyone else but because of the tremendous heat nobody could get within fifteen feet of the blazing wreck, the suited fire fighter still on the start line.
Tony was cared for by track Paramedics before being helicoptered to Hockenheim hospital, the hospital had never treated anyone with such bad internal burns....and could only hope. Tony died almost a week later.
Since getting involved with Drag racing, Tony became one of UK Drag Racing's most colourful figures. The records suggest that Tony had more downs than ups but such was his love for the sport he'd get a buzz from any kind of run. He was always a showman and for those spectators who love a driver who never lifts, here was your man!
Missed by the Drag racing fraternity, the European scene has not had anybody spread the gospel according to horsepower with quite the same enthusiasm since.
(With acknowledgements to Mike Collins 1986 article in Street Machine for the Hockenheim info)