22 Jul Catching up with CMHF Class of 2007 Inductee Tony Novotny
By Bryce Turner
Tony Novotny is best known for his ownership of Delaware Speedway and the creation and management of the CASCAR stock car racing series. But his career actually began in another form of automobile competition, and more recently involved work on cars for the movie Ford v. Ferrari.
Novotny first started racing before he even had a driver’s license, when he took part in drag racing events in St. Thomas, Ont. As his drag racing participation continued, he opened his own speed shop, TNM Performance (since sold and re-named Performance Improvements).
He sold parts and radiator sealant to dirt race teams and eventually ended up manufacturing parts, including wheels, springs and roll cage kits in Kitchener, Ont., which led to his involvement just down the highway at Delaware Speedway.
In 1978, the London, Ont. area short track was having trouble and Novotny knew that it would affect his business if the track shut down. He went to the owner, who was planning to step away, and made a deal to take over the lease, while the owner would maintain control of the concessions.
“I wound up selling everything I owned to keep that track going,” said Novotny. “When I took full control of concessions and everything else that pertained to the racing side of it, it started to pay dividends, but we had quite a job bringing it up to a viable business.”
One event that helped Delaware stay alive was the ‘Duel of the Decade’ between Junior Hanley and Don Biederman, in 1979. During a local auto show prior to the season, Novotny noticed that fans were throwing the track’s schedule in the trash and knew that he needed to find a way to attract people to the track.
“I took over a track with a very negative attitude, right from the general fans to the community itself,” he said. “That was a lot of work, getting people convinced to believe that we were going to turn this place around and make it work.”
The Duel of the Decade featured a best-of-three 10-lap heats, advertised as $1,000 to win, though Novotny told both drivers in advance that they’d actually be paid the same, as the event was meant to be a “promotional stunt.”
“(The event) brought people to Delaware,” he said. “Fortunately, it was a great day, weather wise, and we put on a stellar show for the fans, with the divisions that we had racing. That really helped.”
Hanley won the event and, despite the cost to pay both drivers, it helped in the long run, as crowds increased for the remainder of the season.
Besides Delaware, the other well-known side of Novotny’s career is CASCAR, which started with a vision to be like NASCAR and NHRA. Novotny noticed that stock cars had less rules than drag racing and the look of the cars were negligible. He wanted CASCAR to take on a stock look, like the old adage ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday,’ but those types of cars weren’t available on the market.
As a result, he got involved in the fiberglass industry, starting his own business to build bodies, while dealing with metal part suppliers from North Carolina. The first parts he got were for the Oldsmobile and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which he used to build fiberglass cars with bodies that were self-designed.
The appearance of CASCAR stock cars was not lost on the competition, which Novotny noticed during an event at Cayuga Motor Speedway (now Jukasa Motor Speedway), where CASCAR was a support series to ASA.
“I was standing there listening to (ASA founder) Rex Robbins talking to his team guys,” he said. “And (Robbins) said ‘I want you guys to go back and clean up your cars as much as you can.’ (He) says ‘this other class that’s here, this CASCAR class that’s here, their cars look really, really good.’”
As CASCAR looked at marketing, the need for growth became apparent. Many sponsors were receptive, but said that their national budgets had more money, while CASCAR was seen as a regional series.
This growth started with a three-year deal for CASCAR to take part in Daytona Speedweeks at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, from 1989 to 1991. Novotny noted that Canadian promoters would attend workshops in the area and that the series put on good shows. The trip south of the border kickstarted CASCAR’s national program here in Canada.
Another element of growth was road racing, where CASCAR offered Mosport Raceway (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) the first event for free. But, the hopes of a strong road course debut were dampened by Mother Nature.
“The weather was so bad, and we had everybody there and everybody pumped up,” said Novotny. “I talked to my tech director, Louie Bennett, and I said ‘Louie, we’re going to go out and we’re going to go around the race track, but we’re not going to let them race, we’re just going to go around.’”
As other races at the track were being cancelled, they decided this was the best way to go.
“We just did one or two laps,” said Novotny. “That cost me a lot of money too, because I paid all the drivers for going and we really never did anything…but we were able to say that we were at Mosport and we drove around. That was our first foray into the road racing thing.”
Then-president and GM of Mosport, Harvey Hudes, was impressed about the number of cars and how they looked, so a relationship between CASCAR and the legendary track was formed. Deals with major road racing events followed, including the Molson Indy in Toronto, and open-wheel and NASCAR events in Vancouver and Montreal.
Novotny said he was fortunate that NASCAR took a serious look at CASCAR over time.
“It was very gratifying when my wife and I went to visit (then-NASCAR president) Bill France (Jr.),” he said. “We got an invite to see him in his office in Daytona… and I started telling him what we have accomplished over a period of time and he said to me, ‘Tony, I know everything you’ve been doing in Canada for a long time,’ and I really felt good about that.”
NASCAR eventually took over CASCAR, with the NASCAR Pinty’s Series running its inaugural season in 2007.
With Delaware and CASCAR in his rear-view mirror, Novotny remained involved in the fiberglass industry, with Performance Fiberglass. One of their clients, Fran Hall, from Race Car Replicas (RCR) in Michigan, landed a contract in spring 2018 for the movie Ford v Ferrari.
Given his longstanding relationship with Novotny and Performance Fiberglass, Hall came to them for help in building the Ford GT40s over a short period of time.
Novotny’s team built the bodies for 22 of the 26 GT40s featured in the film, while also building a few of the Ferraris. The cars were transported to Detroit, where RCR mounted them and completed everything except for the painting on some of them.
“We worked very hard on that project,” said Novotny. “Knowing that it looked like we were going to get the job, we started to kind of prepare ourselves in February (2018) and we had all the cars done by August of that year.”
Novotny really enjoyed the movie, which he saw at a movie theatre in London, Ont., as soon as it came out. When the movie finished showing, he was able to get the posters from the theatre, mounting them in his man cave.
Another collectible, courtesy of Hall and RCR, provides a glimpse into a key change that happened to the movie before it premiered.
“RCR gave all my employees, and myself, a 1:18 scale replica car,” said Novotny. “They personalized all of them with, and I’m looking at it right now, ‘hand built by Tony,’ and the name of the movie, ‘Le Mans 66.’ That was before they put a different name on the movie. He was just as surprised as I was when, all of the sudden, the movie comes out and it’s got a different title.”
Novotny was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (CMHF) in the class of 2007.
“It’s something that comes along with hard work and I’m delighted to be a part of the CMHF,” he said. “I built a man cave last year… and I’ve got one whole wall with awards on it and I call it my ‘Wall of Shame.’”
He says the CMHF plaque is a highlight out of his many awards and that the honour is something he’ll never forget.
While an outsider may consider success to be a constant from Novotny’s career, things weren’t always as certain as they seemed.
“If it wasn’t for the passion for doing the racing end of it and being a racer myself and in that thinking mode, I might’ve made pretty good money at it,” he said. “But because I loved it so much, I kept putting everything back in.”
Thinking outside of the box helped create his success, but so did taking chances.
“Some (chances were) not so successful, but a lot of them were successful,” he said. “It just seemed like my whole career in stock car racing was ‘spend money that you haven’t got and hopefully you’re going to get it back,’ and a lot of times I did, but a lot of times I didn’t. It was a gamble.”
“In the end, I enjoyed doing it and (my) years go by quick and now I’m retired, but I would do it again,” he continued. “I’d likely do it differently. You learn from your mistakes, but I’d do it again. I have no regrets being involved in motorsport.”
For stock car fans in southern Ontario and across the country, it’s a good thing that he did get involved.