Backmarker: Tony Thacker

October 6, 2011
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Thacker today  with a couple of flat trackers on display at the Wally Parks Museum. Its only a couple minutes walk from the Pomona flat track to the museum.
Tony Thacker is director of the NHRA Motorsports Museum and has shared a passion for motorcycles since childhood.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to chat with Tony Thacker. He’s the director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum out in Pomona. The museum, which displays 50 or more motorcycles at any time, is planning a busy October; the AMA Pro Racing Flat Track ‘World Finals’ go on the 15th, and the Pomona Fairplex track is right there. That’s the same weekend the museum will hold its biennial ‘Indian Days’ gathering.

“We always get about 150 Indians out for the day,” Thacker told me. “We fire up ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ and show the movie.” It was funny that a movie about a foreigner with a funny accent, who grew up obsessed with a uniquely American branch of motorsport came up in conversation. Because as we chatted, Thacker’s accent was a dead giveaway that wasn’t born here. I learned that he was English.

So how did a Brit end up being the director of the most American of museums? Thacker was born in Northampton in the industrial British Midlands in 1949, and grew up in Kent, southeast of London.

“I had a paper route,” he told me. “And one guy on my route took Hot Rod magazine. I never really talked to him, but I used to sit on the curb in a grey country with grey skies, and read Hot Rod, looking at pictures of red and yellow cars and blue skies and thinking, Oh man, that would be cool.”

Down in Kent, Thacker joined a youth club where he fell in with a bunch of kids two or three years older than he was, who were into bikes. “My father hated motorcycles,” Tony recalled, “and he always said, ‘if you don’t buy a motorcycle when you’re 16, I’ll buy you a car when you’re 17,’ but I loved motorcycles.”

His dad may have hated bikes, but he fueled his son’s interest in drag racing by taking him to the Brighton Speed Trials in 1964, when Dean Moon and Mickey Thompson brought their American-style dragsters. (The Brighton event dates to the very early 1900’s, so it long pre-dates organized drag racing in the U.S. The Brighton races, which still take place every year, are ‘sprints’; cars and bikes run one by one down a public road, along Brighton’s waterfront.)

“In ’65, another big contingent of Americans came over and my dad took me to watch them drag race a Blackbush Airport, and we watched drag racers run in the pouring rain,” Tony told me. “I was in the museum the other day with a guy named Chuck Griffith, who I watched at that event when I was a kid. Now he’s a friend; it’s amazing.”

Those demonstrations of American ‘elimination’ style racing led to the creation of the first British drag strip in 1966. The strip occupied a disused Royal Air Force airport at Podington, and it was christened Santa Pod, in a nod to the first U.S. drag strip at Santa Ana.

“The Hondas were coming on the scene then,” he told me, “and nobody wanted a sprung-hub Triumph with a rigid frame. I bought my first one for less than five quid.”

Tony built this chopper in his parents basement in 1969. He paid about five bucks for the sprung-hub Triumph donor bike.
Tony built this chopper in his parent’s basement in 1969. He paid about five bucks for the sprung-hub Triumph donor bike.

With a friend, Robin Ditcher, he pored over Ed Roth’s drawings in Hot Rod, and they started an impromptu business they called RAT Motors – the ‘RAT’ stood for Robin and Tony. They started sourcing, and building, extended forks and high-rise bars.

Tony laughs at the memory of just how ill-prepared they were. Robin was gas-fitter with no real engineering training; he was in charge of fabrication. Tony worked for the post office and had no business training; he was the marketing genius. They built a Vincent drag bike they called Warbird. “Robin rode it,” Tony said, adding “I was the mechanic, for want of a better word.”

Until I talked with Tony about his experiences, I didn’t really grasp how much cross-fertilization there was between the drag world and the chopper culture, and between hot rodding in the U.S. and the U.K. By the early ‘70s, he’d sort of become pen pals with Chris Bunch, the editor of Choppers, and Ed McMullen, the editor of Street Chopper. They came to visit him in England and in 1973, he made his first trip to the U.S. “We rode from L.A. to Grant’s Pass, Oregon,” he recalled in his cheerfully profane manner of speech. “It was a f@$k of a long way on a hard-tailed chopper!”

Tony toured the U.S. again the next year for an extended honeymoon with his new wife. He financed it, in part, freelancing for then-new Bike magazine. For the next ten years or more, he wrote for magazines and worked for Osprey, the U.K. ‘motor’ publisher. He also ran a shop in London called Big Bike.

“We built and sold a lot of Rickman-Kawasakis and brought in turbo kits by American Turbo-Pak, Barnett clutches; we were an early K&N dealer,” he said. “I guess I was always interested in bringing that good stuff from America to Europe, and now I’m sort of bringing some of Europe to the U.S.”

“In 1988, my marriage came to an end,” he told me. “I thought, I’ll move to the epicenter of what I like, hot rods and drag racing, so I came to California.” Within a few days, his buddy and noted hot-rodder, Pete Chapouris, arranged for him to take on a job as the editor of the SEMA [American aftermarket] newsletter.

“Pete said, ‘come down to SEMA and have lunch and start networking’. I thought, what the f@#k is networking? But I went down for lunch and they said, ‘Would you like a job?’ I said, ‘well, I don’t have a Green Card.’ They said, ‘we’ll take care of it.’ Within three days of getting on the plane I had a job – I was the first editor of the magazine that became SEMA News.”

Through Chapouris, Tony got to know Wally Parks, who controlled the NHRA. In 2006, Parks asked Tony to take over the struggling museum. Once again, Tony threw himself into a business that he knew nothing about.

Thanks to Tony, there’s probably a bit more emphasis on bikes in the museum than there is at a typical NHRA National. Although drag racing is still the only major motorsport where cars and bikes appear at the same events, it’s no longer like it was in the early days of drag racing, when cars and bikes raced against each other.

“We’ve got an amazing photo in the museum, of the Top Eliminator finals at very first NHRA race,” Tony told me. “It’s Lloyd Krantz on his Harley-Davidson and he’s racing the Bean Bandits, and Lloyd set the fastest speed of the day at something like 132 and the Bean Bandits set fastest time. Krantz is in slip-on shoes, a t-shirt, and he’s cranked down on his Harley, and he’s racing this car. That was what it was like back then; it was just a bunch of guys having fun and racing whatever they’d got. That was what appealed to me.”

As Wally Parks developed the sport of drag racing, he realized that to attract middle-class suburban families and mainstream sponsorship, he had to make the sport resemble, well, a sport; not an outlaw street race with better rules and timing equipment.

London  1972. There were the Mods  there were the Rockers  and then there were these guys... Thacker flashes the peace sign with local chopper-builders Guy Carter  on left  and Chris Boyle.
There were the Mods, there were the Rockers and then there were these guys… Thacker flashes the peace sign with local chopper-builders Guy Carter (on left) and Chris Boyle.

Races between cars and bikes seemed a little too sketchy for the mainstream acceptance Parks craved for the NHRA; in those years before Honda’s famous “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ads, the presence of bikes at all was probably a negative for most sponsors.

In those early days, most drag bikes were based on Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads and Panheads. There was some ingenious hot-rodding done to those hogs. One of the coolest bikes in the NHRA museum is an overhead cam ‘Panhead’ built and raced in the 1950s by Stan Dishong. But as impressive as those first-generation drag bikes were, the first Chrysler hemis also came onto the scene in the ‘50s. Once the car guys figured out how to supercharge those Mopar hemis, the bikes would never again be competitive against cars; they’d just race against other bikes.

The museum’s not exclusively reserved for the history of drag racing. It currently displays two of Cordy and Jack Milne’s speedway bikes from the late ‘30s. Cordy was leading the world championship points when WWII broke out; he was probably denied the chance to become the first American world champion in any form of motorsport. And next May, they’re hosting an Ascot reunion that will bring out dozens of the bikes and hard men who raced on the gone-but-not-forgotten L.A. half-mile.

Overseeing a museum filled with both cars and bikes fulfills two lifetime interests, but does Thacker play favorites? “In life, sometimes you get pushed a little further down one road, and sometimes a little further down the other,” Tony concluded. “I love both cars and bikes.” He’s found a job where he can split his time between them. But he just bought a ‘70s Honda 550 cafe racer, so he can partake of L.A.’s burgeoning cafe scene. So it’s bikes then; you never forget your first love.

I’m going to stick with the ‘life’s a drag’ theme next month, when I’ll get into the next ‘golden era’ of motorcycle drag racing — the multi-engined bikes — with uber-fan-turned-historian John Stein. He’s just putting the finishing touches on the definitive book about motorcycle drag racing.