Last November, Norco, California Sprint Car racing superstar Tony Jones shocked the racing community when he announced his retirement. Jones was just two months shy of his 39th birthday when he called it quits. If he had been a stick and ball athlete whose career was on the downside, it would have been understandable. That was not the case with Jones. Like fine wine, he was getting better with time and was seemingly at the top of his game. Jones is a second generation Sprint Car driver, the son of Sprint Car Hall of Famer Bubby Jones. This is his story.
In addition to his prowess behind the wheel, his talkative personality made him a hit with fans. Since Perris Auto Speedway opened its doors back in 1996, more than 1,000 drivers have taken to well maintained dirt oval. When it comes to popularity, no one can come close to Jones in the hearts of the fans. He was by far, the most popular driver to ever turn left at the track.
How and why could Tony Jones leave the sport he loved when he was at the top of his game? How could he walk away from adulation and cheers of his legion of adoring fans?
Then again, why did he end his retirement before the new season was two months old? Why did he decide to come back? We sent Perris announcer Scott Dalosio to talk to the recently “un-retired” Jones before the April USAC/CRA race at The PAS. Jones, who is built like a starting NFL middle linebacker, took the time to answer those questions and more. This is what he had to say.
JONES: “To spend time with the family. Plus, there is a lot of politics involved in this deal with USAC.. the point funds and all of that crap. Running the limited schedule I did in 2008 (Jones confined most of his racing in 2008 to Perris Auto Speedway) it was kind of nice. It kind of teased me a little bit. I got to spend some more time, and got to do more things with, my wife and kids. It is just something I wanted to change in my life and make myself happy. With the politics and crap like that, I cannot stand it. I just want to come out here and race. No, BS. Just leave me alone, let me have some fun and do my job.
I have been racing for over 15 years, so with the limited schedule, I’ve seen how the other half-lives. The limited schedule made the family a little more happy, and it made me happy. It was actually pretty nice. Towards the end of last year we sat down and talked about hanging it up. We were pretty damn serious about it, too. I guess I was not having the fun I used to have. The Alexander brothers are great, the whole team is great, the sponsors are great and the car is great. I love coming out here, and every time I strap in…. I end up drooling all over myself. So, believe me, it was a tough deal for me to do what I did (announce his retirement), but it was time. I needed to see how the other half lived.”
“At the time I was. You know, obviously everything hits you after, and you miss it when it is gone. When it came down to it, I was happy with the decision. I fulfilled what I had set out to do whether it be that I won one race in my career or 200 races in my career. I am out here to make a name for Tony Jones. I am not out here to step up and be my Dad (National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Bubby Jones) or to be Lealand McSpadden or any of those great racers of yesteryear. I just come out and run my ass off. If people like me… great. And if they don’t, there is not a heck of a lot I can do about it. I guess it just goes back to coming out and having fun doing it.”
OD: When you announced your retirement, most people said it would not be for good. Did you really think you were done for good?
JONES: “You know, as soon as I saw the schedule for the 2009 season, I had it in my mind 90% that I was coming back. If I would have seen that schedule before I retired, I probably would have never retired. I mean, one race a month! I get to spend time with the family. and I get to come out here and drool all over myself once a month. It kind of worked into my hands. That is what I guess you could say with the Cardey situation. (David Cardey was named to replace Jones in the Alexander #4, but they split up after the first three races)
I was the first one to tell the Alexanders, “Hire Cardey.” I thought it was going to be a pretty good team, which I am sure it would have been. I am sure it would have panned out, but with money problems and some other stuff that happened, it just did not work out. Now Cardey is in another good race car with Glenn Crossno, and he is doing very well in that. And, the Alexanders and myself are back together. Everybody is happy.”
OD: I heard a story that on the night of The PAS season opener, you were going down the freeway and you saw the Alexander car headed in the opposite direction towards the race track. I was told when you saw that your heart sank down to your heels. Is that true?
JONES: “That is funny! Yeah, we were headed westbound on the 91, and the Alexander truck and trailer with the race car was headed eastbound going to Perris for that first race. I looked over. That was a hard thing to bite right there. Obviously my wife could not see my eyes, or my heart, and she kind of looked at me and said, “You miss it don’t you?” I have been doing this with my Dad for 38 years! Honestly, when I was born, I was at a racetrack. Retiring was going to be a tough deal. I see the trailer going down there and I am not going to be there. Yeah, it sucks, but then I looked in my rear view mirror and I saw my little boy in the back seat smiling ear to ear at me and that kind of soothed my feelings a little bit.”
OD: How did you end up getting back together with the Alexanders?
JONES: “Going back to the Cardey thing once again. Things did not work out. It was almost a month ago. Two days before the second race at Perris, Mark Alexander called me up and said, “Hey, I don’t have a driver. What are you doing?” It came down to Tammy and I talking about it, and really contemplating the situation. We checked out schedule and all of that kind of stuff and we had nothing going on. So, I called Mark back and he kind of hem-hawed around and said, “Let me check on the money thing.” The money thing to run these cars is a big deal.
Don’t get wrong, we have great sponsors, but the first four races were pretty tough for the team and they kind of spent what they had doing that. Going to that fifth race was going to be tough. We called Narcie Ferreira at Zanzabuku Sports Lounge, and a couple other sponsors, and they stepped up and bought the tires and some stuff we needed. VP Fuels is all over this deal with the fuel. It got to where Mark did not have to spend a lot of money and we made that decision to race on Friday night. Really Saturday morning…the day of the race. It came down to the last minute and I was like, ‘OK, I will clean my helmet and dust off my uniform.’
OD: I heard one of the happiest people to hear you were back was your father.
JONES: “Yeah! It is funny. He always says great things for me to remember. After I told him I was retiring he said, “Do what you want to do, but it took you 20 years to learn how to drive them sumbitches and now you are retiring. It just does not make much sense to me.”
OD: You won the 2000 Budweiser Oval Nationals and the 2007 USAC/CRA championship. Which was bigger?
JONES: I look back at everything I have done. You always look at the first win back in Terre Haute, Indiana. I had my friends and family. Everybody was there. And, then my last race when I retired, the Glenn Howard Memorial. That was a big race to me, too. You know, my retirement, it honored Glenn Howard, his son Steve was there, the money, bonuses and all of that stuff. That was a big deal for me. The Oval Nationals obviously was big. The USAC championship was big. I really cannot say one thing was bigger than another. Anytime you go out to a racetrack and you beat everybody at that track, you have done your best.
OD: Looking back on your career, what is your most memorable race?
JONES: “In 2001, Bud Kaeding and I were running for the win in the Oval Nationals. I am setting this guy up for a last lap, last turn slide job and gonna’ make it spectacular for everybody. Then the yellow flag comes out. We fought for the lead for damn near 20 laps. One of my favorite and most memorable races. It was a fun deal. When you can run side by side with people like that, it makes it fun for everybody. Hopefully we can have some more.”
OD: Tony, describe the feeling you get when you win.
JONES: “You go home, sleep good and smile and giggle and all of that good stuff. When you walk in your pits after being on that podium or when you are on top of the podium and you are looking down at your crew, friends, family and all of these people are smiling and cheering. That makes it for me. You know, my Dad is proud of me. My kids are proud of me. My wife is proud of me.”
OD: Here is a question for you regarding the Oval Nationals. When you won in 2000 that was the last time a Southern California based team won the race. Despite the fact that a majority of the Oval Nationals field is from Southern California, no team from here has won since then. It has almost been a decade. Why?
JONES: “That is funny because me and a buddy of mine were just talking about that last night. I don’t know. I really do not know. We pretty much have a shot on the Thursday and Friday, the preliminary nights. When it comes down the final night, I do not know what the hell it is! These guys from the Midwest run for money. They run over 100 races a year, and I think that is what comes in to play. It is experience. I don’t think they want it more than we do. We just had to win that race last year, but Jesse Hockett did.
You know, he came through throwing slide jobs, and whether he took you out, or did not take you out, he won that race. He came up to me after that race, and asked if I was mad at him. I told him, I was not mad, and you did what you had to do to win that damn race. I guess it comes down to wanting it more. I have respect for my team. I am not going to make Mark Alexander repair a race car, because I knew I was going to throw a slide job on somebody if they did not get out of the gas and destroy his stuff. Now, if we had a million-dollar man come down to me during a red flag and say, “Hey Jones, you do what you got to do to win this race,” I may destroy a race car or two.”
OD: You keep mentioning your team. This is not a team which is super well funded. So, why does it run so good year after year?
“Heart. There is a lot of heart, lot of hard work and a lot of effort. Mark Alexander, the owner of this race car, virtually sleeps in it. His brother Steve Alexander helps him take care of it. They love their racing. These guys have so much heart in that little two-car garage they work out of. They twist bolts, and fire the motors up a week ahead of time. These guys do their homework. When I come out here and sit in their race cars, I know they are dialed in. I know nothing is going to fall off of it and nothing stupid is going to happen.”
OD: The fight for the 2007 USAC/CRA championship was a tough one. It got tougher late in the season when you flipped at Perris and broke your collarbone. When that first happened, did you think your championship hopes were done?
JONES: “If they didn’t do surgery on me, I knew it was done. Without surgery, there would have been no possible way, as I probably would have missed four races. We had a race at Ventura the next week, then Perris the next week, and then a doubleheader at Tucson and Phoenix the following week. If I would have missed those three races, Mike Spencer would have overtaken me in the championship points. As soon as I walked out of the emergency room, I asked my team to call Cory Kruseman to run Ventura for them. Even if I missed some races, these guys would be the championship team if they put someone else in the car. That was my goal. For me to win the championship was just a bonus. For these guys to win the championship was my goal. As soon as they told me they could do surgery, I knew we were going to win that championship.”
OD: How long did the broken collarbone keep you out of action?
JONES: “I broke my collarbone on a Saturday. They scheduled the surgery for the next Thursday. If they had not given me the drugs to overcome the pain, I probably would have been at Ventura the next Saturday. But, I knew if I would have strapped in at Ventura, it would have been a pretty painful situation. So, ten days after the surgery we came to Perris with football pads and a lot of duct tape. We strapped in, and we ran third or fourth. I knew that first race back, we would be OK.”
OD: You told hilarious story at the 2007 USAC banquet about early in your career destroying a couple cars. Next time out your car owner told you, “If you pass one car, you are fired.” What a classic story telling a race driver he cannot pass anyone. Is that a true story?
JONES: (Laughing) “Oh yeah, that is true. Very true. It was my Dad’s longtime buddy from elementary school, Larry Henry. They had cars when they were kids. My Dad ran for him in the early 90s. I was back in Indiana cutting my teeth and doing the best I could. Henry told me to come out to Southern California. I came out twice and destroyed two of his race cars. He told me, “OK, I will bring you out one more time, but you pass one race car, you are fired.” It was probably the worst thing I have ever had to go through in my life! Running a race and not being allowed to pass a car. But, he taught me how to slow down to go a little faster. He also taught me to get my head together, get my stuff together and start running a line. I had just been bull doggin’ that thing. I was gassing it up. It was a good fast race car and I wanted to use it.”
OD: There is no doubt about it, your Dad is one of the greatest Sprint Car drivers of all time and is in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Was being the son of Bubby Jones a help or a hindrance in your development? Did people expect too much of you and put pressure on you?
JONES: “Yeah, I think so. When I first started I think people expected a lot more. You can’t put more pressure on me than I put on myself. If I go out and hit a hole two laps in a row, I am cussing myself out like you would not believe. I am glad we do not have radios in these things. When it comes down to being Bubby Jones son, honest to god I never think about that until somebody brings it up. He is my Dad, and I talk to him two or three times a week. He lives back in Indianapolis now. He is just a cool freaking guy. I am glad he is my Dad and I am very fortunate. You look back on his career and people talk about it and it puts into perspective just how good he was. You look at the races he has run and won and the championships. He ran the Indy 500. On my garage wall right now, I have 97 pictures and he is probably in 40 of them.
OD: Looking back to when you were a kid (Tony will be 40 next January), back then, did you realize just how good of a race car driver your father was or did that come later?
JONES: It was later in life. I looked at my Dad as just that, my Dad. He was never Bubby Jones. He was my Dad. He won some races here and there and some people cheered for him and other people booed him (roaring with laughter). In my early and mid teenage years when he was winning at Ascot, that is really when it started hitting, ‘Man, he is pretty damn good.”
OD: Recently your Dad had some serious health issues, but I hear he is doing much better. Is that correct?
JONES: Yeah, he is doing pretty good. He had an abdominal aneurysm and they did some surgery. They cut him about three-quarter of the way in half. He has had a hard time getting settled back in. Just feeling terrible. I keep telling everybody that doctors are like bad crew chiefs. Crew chiefs? They are going to keep throwing shit at you until they actually find a combination that will finally get that thing around the racetrack. That is just like a doctor. They are going to keep throwing crap at you until you feel better. That is what they were doing.
It is funny cause Dad could sit there and tell everyone, ‘I feel like hell, I feel like hell, I feel like hell.’ They started to basically tell him, ‘It is in your head.’ That drives you crazy. I wanted to go back there and start smacking some people and I guarantee you my Dad wanted to. He is meaner than I am. When it came down to it, they changed some antibiotics, pain medication and stuff and the past couple of weeks he has been getting up at 5:00 AM, going to bed at 11:00 PM, going to the race tracks. Wholly balls, lookey there! I guess he was hurtin’.”
OD: Your Dad was big around here in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was your Dad, Dean Thompson, and Jimmy Oskie, and it was a great show. Today we have you, Mike Spencer, Cory Kruseman and a lot of the other top guys. Is the racing out here today as good as it was back then?
JONES: That is funny, because I think about that quite a bit. I think it is. When you have the Oval Nationals out here, you have the best of the best today. The cream does rise to the top and you get these guys out here for the Glenn Howard Memorial. Back in those days when you had the Pacific Coast Nationals with Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang, Ron Shuman, Lealand McSpadden and Rick Ferkel. Those guys are legends!
I look back on the history of these guys, and I get chills when I watch videos and see what these guys used to do. I really do. Thing of it is, that was in that generation. Now you look at our generation and you have Rip Williams, Cory Kruseman, and Dave Darland. I could sit here and name a hundred guys off from today that are great race car drivers. I guess in reality, we will never know if it is as good, though. I used to follow Ron Shuman, Richard Griffin, Rip Williams, and Cory Kruseman. They were my teachers. Whether I learned something or not. And, yeah, I bounced off a couple of fences trying to follow them, but they were my teachers.”
OD: Besides your Dad, who was your all-time favorite driver?
JONES: “Oh man! I have so many. I look back at Steve Kinser, Rick Ferkel, Jan Opperman and guys like them. That was really before my time. I have guys who I like these days… like Cory Kruseman. I look up to Rip Williams and Damion Gardner. Don’t tell Damion that, because I don’t want him to think I even like him. Damion, when he is out here, he runs the hell out of them things. Back in the Midwest, Dave Darland and Tracy Hines. Those guys are good on pavement and dirt. Jerry Coons Jr.!
I could name off so many guys, but the guys I am naming off, they come with attitudes, too. To be a great race car driver, you have to have the attitude that goes with it. If you do not have the attitude that goes with it, and you are a big old dickhead, I will not give you a second glance. I raced with a lot of good guys. Cory Kruseman is a class act. He taught me a lot. Watching his attitude and his cool demeanor around the racetrack. A lot of people should look at him and be thankful that he is even around and racing with us. Like I said, there are so many guys, but the ones I named realty hit home with me and put an impression on me.”
OD: A majority of the guys you just mentioned are full time racers. Did you ever have the ambition to be a full time racer?
“You know, you deal your own cards. I dealt my own cards and I am living with it. I can sit here and beat myself up and say, ‘man, I could have been one of the greatest, went to NASCAR, coulda’ coulda’ coulda.’’ I had kids, and I have had fun. I am a family man, and I am having a good time. I am sure I could have done it. I am sure I could have been a Bubby Jones, Rick Ferkel, Jan Opperman or a Ron Shuman. Those guys lived, ate and breathed racing. That is their life.
I had a good childhood. My Dad was doing what he wanted to do. I do not regret it, and do not regret what he has done or what I have done. I have done this for a long time. I dedicated my life to 42, 44, 45, 52 races a year and going on tours (back east). To tell you the truth, I did what I needed to do and we had some more kids. So, I dealt some more cards out to myself. I am happy. Right now we are coming out here and running once a month. Heck, you never know. I may move back to Indiana in the next couple years. Me and Tammy and the kids may go full time racing. Who knows what is going to happen? Hell, Mark may fire me tonight. You just never know. Do I regret not doing it full time? You can’t! I don’t regret it at all.”
OD: You are someone who has never hidden an opinion. You always say what is on your mind no matter who gets pleased or who gets ticked off. This is the last question. What do you think can make Sprint Car racing a better sport than it is today?
JONES: “That is a good question. With the economy, politics in the sport and B.S. that goes on, that is a good question. If we could come out here, strap in and just have fun. No crap, no B.S., no mandated slide jobs, no head and neck restraints, no, ‘you need to buy this, you need to buy that, you have to run these stickers.’ Motor restrictions, tire restrictions, carbon fiber restrictions – they need to throw that stuff out the window. Man, lets just race! No more politics. Races are over, walk away. Turn your head. Let us do our thing. Choking somebody out, or shaking somebody’s hand. Sometimes that is what needs to be done.”
Clearly Tony Jones is back in racing, on and off the track. He calls it like he sees it, candid and unbiased. Onedirt welcomes the “Cowboy” back to the track with best wishes for continued success and popularity.