In the high-octane, high-speed world of motorsport, a win-at-all-costs mentality is quite commonplace. That is no less the case than the British Touring Car Championship – “rubbing’s racing” after all – where more often than not, the nice guys finish last.
Tony Hughes’ emergence on the grid was a breath of fresh air to the series, which is why his retirement was greeted with genuine sadness by the BTCC paddock. He was a genuine gentleman racer – with no criticism attached to the label at all.
A driver as old as the series itself, Hughes began racing just five years ago at aged 49, and with a best finish of 12th overall and ending this year 25th in the standings, you may think the old adage was pretty appropriate for the situation.
However, that does not do Hughes justice. He admits he did not arrive with high expectations, and he admits he was not a championship hopeful. Simply being on the grid and taking on the toughest championship in the country takes some doing – but it was something he was very committed to doing, and doing properly.
Satisfied with his displays, he says it was easy to walk away from the driving seat.
“To be honest it was,” he reflects. “I started on the basis that I decided to do two seasons and that’s exactly what I did. I knew I would have a few problems and I was right – though I didn’t expect so many. I expected the car to be more tested.
“At the end of the day, I said right from the start I’m one of you guys watching – a spectator, who has gone out and done it. I’m not a super-duper, up-and-coming young driver, but when you start racing and you’re older than the oldest driver you are racing against, it’s a challenge.
“When I came in I had never raced a front wheel drive car in my life, I didn’t know if I would be able to cut it. This season, especially the last two-thirds of this season, I have proved I may not be the fastest driver on the grid, but I can keep up and they are not running off in front of me. [I’ve proven] you’re never too old to try – you can do anything if you put your mind to it. It’s been a heck of a challenge. I can’t believe how fast you have to drive just to keep up with them! It gives you more drive and you learn more about yourself. I got stuck in and I have done my best.”
More than just a good-natured driver, fans of the championship – indeed, the series as a whole – owe a lot to Hughes – the first to commit to the new NGTC regulations when he purchased the prototype Toyota Avensis alongside the team who Hughes’ spent his entire – if short – motorsport career with to this point, Speedworks Motorsport.
After purchasing the car, with just a few seasons of Ginetta racing under his belt, Hughes was in for the long haul. Despite his inexperience, Speedworks boss Christian Dick says it came as no surprise to see Hughes join the BTCC grid – and his performances proved he was no slouch.
“Tony is the most enthusiastic gentleman racer I have ever come across,” he explained. “He has worked tirelessly to improve his understanding of motorsport and to improve himself as a driver. It is typical of the type of person that Tony is that he would throw himself in at the deep end with motorsport and pitch himself against the very best in UK motorsport and join the BTCC!”
“I think over his two year stint in the championship, it’s plain to see that his pace was ever improving and he was a great asset to both Speedworks and the BTCC. He always had time to talk to the fans in great detail and loved every minute of that side of the job, something that cannot be said for a lot of other drivers.”
Interaction with the fans is something Hughes himself admits was a personal highlight, and played a major part in making his experience what it was.
“That’s what it’s all about to be honest,” he said. “The more you put in the more you get out of it. The people are really nice and friendly, they’re interested and we’ve got to give them that much time. I’m there to enjoy myself and I think the people are part of the enjoyment.
“It’s an opportunity not many people have. I’m the same age as British Touring Cars and I have been watching it all my life. What a wonderful thing to have been able to get involved, full of wonderful people.”
The relationship with Speedworks is also much more than simply a team and driver. Dick praised Hughes for his role as a “great ambassador for the team”, and said he’d learned much from the man about how to run his business – Hughes later joked: “He’s a fantastic driver – I should be team boss and he should have been driving!”
Owing to his inexperience, there was inevitably a lot for Hughes to learn – and he is very thankful to Dick and the Speedworks team for their patience, and just how much they have helped him.
He said: “I got on great with the guys and have a huge amount of respect for Christian Dick. He’s a good bloke and a great team principal, he’s great for the team. Christian has encouraged me all the way down the line. I developed a lot [during my time there] and I put a lot of that down to him.”
What next for a man who has fallen for a sport and a series he has been in for a short time? Well, he makes that very clear – he wants the man who stepped into his seat twice this season to drive the car full-time in 2013.
“It’s common knowledge I’d like to be the main sponsor for Paul O’Neill next season,” says Hughes, “and I want to be trackside. What’s the point in paying out all that money if you’re not enjoying the benefits? When you’re racing a car you can’t go out and have a few drinks!
“Paul’s a very good driver, is very popular and has done very well on ITV – he’s just like you and me with a microphone. He’s not a born interviewer but he comes across as perfectly normal – well, maybe not normal – but a very nice chap and he’s been entertaining.”
The popular Scouser is a driver many fans are desperate to see on the grid, and Hughes is working tirelessly to make it happen. Those efforts, says O’Neill, are typical of him:
“He’s one of those guys you just don’t want to see anyone take advantage of, he’s so genuine. If he got me in the car, with what him and Speedworks have done, I’d give it my all next season, and it’s something I’d definitely do.”
Though Hughes may not be remembered for prodigious on-track talent, he brought a lot to the series. From playing his part in the shift in regulations, to his character on and off the track, his impact on the championship and those who knew him will be a long-lasting one.
“Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have Tony as a customer,” recalls Dick. “Our relationship has changed massively. I now consider him a friend above all else.”