In 2010, we had the pleasure of interviewing a retiring driver, Tony “Cowboy” Jones, who stunned the racing community by announcing his retirement out of the blue. The “unfiltered” interview can be viewed by clicking here. During our recent trip to Bakersfield Speedway to catch the USAC/CRA Sprint Cars do battle at the fast 1/3-mile clay oval, we made it a point to seek out former 410 Sprint Car racer Tony Jones.
We wanted to get his first thoughts on his new role as Race Director for the series. With only a handful of races into the 2019 schedule, we chatted with the 49-year-old from Orange, California, to hear his early impression of how working with the racers and track promoters has been going so far. This time, the interview was less . . . unfiltered.
Just as friendly as he was with his fans during his racing career, the former 2000 Oval Nationals Champion and 2007 USAC/CRA Series Champion was gracious enough to give us a few minutes of his time. Little did any of us know, but some of his words were foreshadowing for a dramatic night filled with emotions and good old-fashioned rivalry. We caught up with Tony just moments before what turned out to be a heated driver’s meeting. The night’s feature event was also action-packed and filled with controversy and attrition.
OneDirt: Tony, we appreciate you spending some time with us at Bakersfield Speedway today. You are quite a legend in the Sprint Car series, and actively racing not too long ago. As the son of a Sprint Car legend, you also have a deep family heritage in this sport. Tell us more about your ties to racing.
Tony Jones: Yeah, when I first came out to California, Larry Henry put me in his Sprint Car. I was also fortunate enough to have both my dad [Norman “Bubby” Jones] and my brother [Davey Jones] there for me back then. They were working on my Sprint Car when I first started racing on the West Coast, and they steered me in the right direction.
After a few years they decided to pack up and move to Indiana. I really miss them. I’ve always looked up to my dad and brother because of their knowledge and wisdom in racing. They’ve made quite an impact on the Sprint Car world in the midwest. When they were out here, they really helped me with my learning curves. Through some bumps and bruises we got it figured out and got me straight. I owe them a lot.
OD: Speaking of Bubby, how is he doing? We know he’s had a bit of a bumpy road lately.
TJ: Yeah, he’s had his share of ups and downs. Right now, he’s struggling a little bit, but he’s ornery, you know. He’s gonna outlive us all though. He’s definitely optimistic and hoping the doctors are doing their jobs so he can stick around for many years.
OD: The family tree continues from there and branches out even further. There’s a connection to the Williams family racing USAC/CRA Sprint Cars, as well as others. Tell us about that connection.
TJ: Yeah. Through marriage there’s a tie to Rip Williams. I got three cousins [Cody, Austin, and Logan Williams] and an uncle [Rip] out of those ties. It’s been pretty cool to have them out here.
“The Ripper” is a legend and a Hall of Famer in Sprint Cars. My nephew, Clayton Ruston started racing quarter midgets with his dad Rich, and then he advanced to full midgets out here on the West Coast. He has a full-time job now, so getting out to the racetrack is a lot harder for him. At one time I even had my niece Britney Ingles racing quarter midgets, with Mike Ruston on the wrenches.
OD: Your dad was known as “Stormin’ Norman” during his racing career, and later he was affectionately known as “Ole Bub”. Where did you get your nickname “Cowboy”?
TJ: I think from my driving style. I believe it was Ken Wagner who gave me the name during the years they started putting nicknames on everybody. The nickname just stuck, especially with my driving style. You know, there wasn’t a lot of finesse, but it sold shirts!
OD: You were always known as a hard charger, a serious competitor, and on any given night – part of the highlight reel. You also took some heavy hits during your racing career. Did you suffer any serious injuries?
TJ: Well, I woke up to a CT scan only twice, broke my collarbone, and chipped a couple of teeth (smiles). This was the year we won the championship. We got my collarbone all buttoned-up and came back out two weeks later. Cory Kruseman drove the Alexander’s car for me the Saturday after the crash, so I only missed one weekend. Otherwise, not much. I’m still feeling the effects a little bit, but it’s all good. Every now and then I forget how to tie my shoes.
OD: We figured you had to have some brain damage from the crash. Seriously, why else would someone agree to take on the role of Race Director for the USAC/CRA series?
TJ: You know, it’s funny. I keep hearing the same thing from a lot of people. The guys who had been doing the race directing in the past, they all did a really good job. I just came on board to fill a piece of the puzzle.
We’ve moved some pieces around on the USAC team and it’s been really good so far. We all work really well together. Just like Sprint Car racing, it’s a learning curve and I think the more we do it, the better we’re gonna get at it. We’re trying to build up the car count, put on a show for the fans…and not screw up a whole lot.
OD: You were the USAC/CRA Champion in 2007. Up until 2004, the series was under the SCRA banner. What is your opinion of how things changed once the series gained support from the national organization?
TJ: It’s changed a little bit. To be honest, I’m just focused on what I’m doing right now.
OD: Do you think the national guys view the USAC/CRA series competitors as just a club racing group, or do they consider you guys serious competition when they tow to the West Coast?
TJ: I definitely think they see our guys as part time racers . . . because we are. We still put the time and money in, but we don’t have as many races as we did in the past. It seems as if back in the day, when we were running 54 times a year, we had more guys willing to travel.
Now we’re only running 24 races a year and there are less people traveling. This may be due to a lack of sponsorship, or it might be because there is so much to do in Southern California. It’s more expensive to go on the road these days, and without big sponsors it makes it really tough.
OD: We’re only two months into the 2019 championship and you guys have already visited Peoria, Arizona; you’ve been to Perris, California; the series ran last weekend in Ventura, California and now we’re in Bakersfield, California. It’s kind of like you’re going back to an “old-school” schedule. Do you like having more races? Do you think the promoters want to see more races on the schedule?
TJ: Like you mentioned, these days it’s hard to get people in the stands with so much to do in Southern California. Because attendance is down at the front gate, the promoters have to bring in four divisions through the back pit-gate just to pay the purses. I totally get it.
As Race Director, I now have a better understanding of why we need more divisions. As a driver I was biased towards Sprint Cars as a standalone show. It’s just not possible to do it now because of the purses. If we can get 20 to 22 cars to commit to running our schedule full-time, we might be able to expand it next year. But it’s almost impossible get racers to commit to anything these days (laughs).
OD: Racing officials don’t have a glamorous job. They take a lot of flak, and it’s tough to remain impartial and assertive. How receptive are the drivers to you, knowing your background as a racer?
TJ: I think they have a little bit of respect for me because of my roots. But, I still have my problems with the drivers as well. I mean, I’ve tried some things this year to try to help the teams out. I’ve added a couple of gray areas to the rules. For example, with the 2-spin rule or the stop-to-avoid rule. I’ve tried not to park them early. It has kinda bit me in the butt already.
As a racer, I want to put leniency in. But as a Race Director, I want to take out all of the gray areas and make it black-and-white. I’m also trying to help the racer . . . whether it’s getting to the next event or getting some more laps under his belt. I’m just trying to keep and run an organized show where, throughout the night things happen like “boom, boom, boom” and at the end of the night everyone goes home “happy, happy, happy.”
OD: You’ve had a little bit of exposure to the other side of the fence now. You’ve seen more of the business side of the racing program. What would you tell someone who says to you: “These guys don’t know how to promote a race?”
TJ: Well, once again you go back to the fact there’s so much to do in Southern California. You know back in the ’40s and ’50s you had 30,000 fans in the stands. Back at Ascot [Ascot Park in Gardena, California], you had like 6,000 people in the stands. When we had our first race at Perris, we had over 3,000 fans through the front gate. For the World of Outlaws show at Perris this year, we had maybe 2,000 people. At the last USAC/CRA show at Perris there wasn’t a whole lot of people up there.
No one knows why, but I think it comes down to the fact it’s the fan’s money and it’s their choice how to spend their dollars. They have so many choices out here. The promoters are trying, but it’s a tough market. You’ve got guys like Don Kazarian [promoter at Perris Auto Speedway]. He’s paid for the commercials, he’s done the TV deals, he’s run the ads and done all kinds of advertising to get fans to the races. It really didn’t benefit too much. So, I always tell the racers it is our job to promote our sport. We have to get our race cars out to the car shows, bring them to events, or anywhere we can get people interested.
OD: Since you retired from the cockpit, you spent the last few years working on race cars yourself. Your new role as Race Director keeps you heavily involved in the sport, but how much do you miss driving Sprint Cars?
TJ: I miss it. Every time I’m around it, I miss it. I also know what’s good for me though. If I want to be around for a while and be able to think with half of a brain, then I’d better quit driving and do what I’m doing. You know, quit while I’m ahead. I think it would be fun to get back in one though…maybe for a year, to see how competitive I could be. I’m sure anyone who has retired always has that thought in the back of their mind.
OD: Going back to our discussion about how Sprint Car racing was in the past – with the rivalries and nicknames – do you have thoughts about bringing back some of the old-school vibe? Do you think building up some characters in this series would help?
TJ: There’s too many bullfrogs these days. Too many guys with no personality. You know, they want to get on the podium, thank their sponsors and the fans and then get off the front straightaway. You don’t have guys like a Danny Sheridan or a Rickie Gaunt anymore. Sure, we had some bullfrogs back in my day too, but the guys I just named made for good entertainment. The different personalities we had back in the day brought the fans out to the track. Although, our latest rivalry may spark up some new interest and put some butts in the seats.
OD: We clearly remember the heroes from back in the day. They were fearless, tough on the track, and just as tough off the track. If they couldn’t beat you on the track, they’d beat you in the pits . . . psychologically and sometimes physically too!
TJ: Yeah, it was definitely a different generation back then. However, we have a strong group of young racers I believe could really help develop this organization and make it stronger than ever.