Pete Tucker was one of the very first stars as stock car racing took a hold in fifties Britain. He recalls the lifestyle with Richard Barnett
In 1954 Juan Manuel Fangio was thrilling grand prix-goers on his way to another world championship, but in race stadiums around the United Kingdom another form of motorsport was being established. That same year British stock car racing was born, and was very soon attracting crowds of up to 60,000 — on any night of the week.
The preferred mount for the stock car boys, the Ford V8, was nowhere near as sophisticated as a grand prix Mercedes or Lancia. But their rough and rumble V8s were tough, racing night in, night out in six or seven heats each evening.
They were dragged around the country behind other Fords, Mercurys and the occasional flatbed truck. Drivers didn’t stay in hotels: a bed and breakfast maybe, but sleeping in the car was more likely. Sophisticated Formula One this was not.
But for Pete Tucker, this new branch of motorsport became his overriding passion for nine years, and he in turn became one of its first stars. He took part in over 2500 races, and won literally hundreds of them as he rapidly became a leading light with the pioneering Barnstormers circus that toured the country’s stadiums.
Fast forward to 2003, and Tucker’s office from where he now deals in American cars. A spritely 73, he has stock car memorabilia going all the way back to that ’54 season, a host of photos and, most importantly, a memory that’ll instantly recall the colours of a driver’s overalls, and even the make of car they towed with.
The son of a Wembley scrapyard owner, Pete grew up surrounded by cars and loved them from an early age. He was going to become a speedway rider before chancing upon a meeting organised by ‘Digger’ Pugh, at Hammersmith Town Hall in January 1954, that would set the stock car ball rolling in Britain.
Pugh was a former boxer and motorcycle racer who had once appeared in a Royal Variety Command Performance. He’d seen some stock car racing in America, and that evening showed some films of the action to a captive new audience. The young Tucker was instantly hooked.
Pete already had a ’35 Ford ‘slantback’ sedan he was selling for £79. The ‘For Sale’ sign was promptly removed. In went a roll-cage, more for decoration than protection, and he was ready for Britain’s first-ever stock car race, on Good Friday at New Cross Stadium.
Experience gained from working on Ford V8 army trucks gave Tucker an advantage. He knew how to get more out of the flathead engine.
“I was working on the trucks at Dagenham Motors from the age of 14, so when stock car racing started I was ready. I knew how to make them run right; for example, we’d use desert-specification radiators for extra cooling,” he says.
That first event involved towing the Ford from Wembley to New Cross behind a Standard Flying 12. Racing was to start at quarter to eight, but by 4pm the stadium was heaving with a 30,000-strong crowd.
Such was the interest in the race that Pugh managed to entice some key motorsport figures to attend. Earl Howe was in the crowd, Stanley Sedgwick was lapscorer and John Bolster was commentator. Bill Boddy wrote a report in Motor Sport.
A later commentator at Haringey, James Tilling, would explain the racing etiquette by saying: “Let me tell you the rules — there aren’t any!” People were immediately turning up in their thousands to week-night meetings up and down the country.
Ringmaster Pugh knew he was onto something big. He signed an agreement with the Greyhound Racing Association to use its stadiums across the country for his new show. To ensure he had the hardware, he formed the 19-strong Barnstormers group, hiring the drivers to race for him professionally. He agreed to pay them start and travel money, as well as expenses. He told them: “It’ll be tough, but you will get all the excitement you can manage.”
So everyone racing came away with money in their pockets. “Digger ran things professionally,” Tucker says. “After all, he was a showman. Some weeks you’d be earning £300, when the average weekly wage was around £8.”
But Pugh also set high standards. They meant that Tucker had very nearly not even made it onto the track for that first race at New Cross. Pugh, keen to give his fledgling sport a responsible air, stopped Tucker going onto the track because he was not wearing a helmet.
“He told me I couldn’t go out unless I had one,” relates Tucker. “I said that I didn’t intend having any accidents, but Pugh was adamant. So I sent my brother down the Old Kent Road with five shillings, and he came back with a papier mache helmet and one-and-six change. I wore it for the rest of my career.”
Harnesses were also a grey area. Pugh expected them to be worn, but it wasn’t unusual for drivers to instead tie a tow-rope around their waist when they were in the car. Other drivers used old aircraft harnesses, but Tucker never bothered. “I just had two black stripes on my overalls, which made it look like I was wearing belts.”
Pugh held a vice-like grip over racing from the beginning: “You had to wear clean overalls,” says Tucker, “and the cars had to be well presented — there was no room for any old rubbish out on the tracks. He wanted to give people a good show and keep the sport respectable.”
That first race at New Cross had been such a success that the sport spread quickly. The Barnstormers were mainly from the South, but the Bradford track opened up to entice them north, and soon they were going all over the UK.
“Sometimes we were racing five nights a week,” says Tucker, “and that meant sleeping in the car. At Newcastle they really didn’t like us, and there would be fights all the time. After one race there was a fight, and we then went to the railway station café for something to eat. Within minutes there was another fight.”
There were up to six races a night, finishing anytime between l0pm and, at the newly-opened Staines stadium one night in 1955, 1am. Eamonn Andrews commentated there, while local starlet Diana Dors, who would come from Maidenhead in her Cadillac, was often in the crowd.
While V8 Fords proved popular with drivers, plenty of other cars, particularly American models, were raced. “You’d get all sorts out there: Auburns, Cords, Packards, De Sotos and Durants, but in those days they really were just old cars.”
Tucker is also very complimentary about the other drivers. “You could trust those boys, even when you were running three abreast into the first bend. You knew they wouldn’t put you in the fence.”
In 1955 the first purpose-built stadium at Neath, near Swansea, opened. Car battery magnate Derek Walker had developed the track, but in racing there, Tucker fell foul of Pugh, who wanted his Barnstormers to race exclusively at the GRA circuits.
That second year also included a six-month tour of Britain by some NASCAR drivers, which Pugh had arranged. Even NASCAR’s first real superstar, Fireball Roberts, was scheduled to make the Atlantic crossing, but had to pull out.
The Americans had the hottest tuning parts around, including triple carburettor set-ups, Offenhauser or Edelbrock heads, hydraulic brakes and quick-change rear ends, which allowed them to set the final drive to suit individual circuits. At Haringey more than 43,000 spectators turned up. “Some of us thought we were fast but we’d never seen anything like this,” Tucker recalls. “Sometimes they won by over a lap from us.”
Tucker’s highly successful career continued until midway through 1963, when a controversial race at Southampton persuaded him it was time to quit. He was driving a Ford Model-Y in the recently-created Formula Two class, but track staff watered the track and created large puddles on a surface already wet from a heavy downpour. Tucker’s disgust prompted him to drive a complete circuit while knocking over all the marker barrels. He then shoved his papier mache helmet under his arm and walked away from the sport he had done so much to help establish.
A colourful supporting cast
While Pete Tucker was tearing around the tracks with the Barnstormers, a host of others were having a go at stock car racing. Bernie Ecclestone, Graham Hill, Les Leston, Johnny Brise (Tony’s father) and Cliff Davis all had a go, while Stirling Moss had a tryout at the Haringey track in 1954, taking to the wheel of a Ford V8 sedan. “I enjoyed driving it as it was a different car, and I wanted to see what you could do with one. It was very educational, but as I was racing so much it wasn’t really a viable proposition,” Moss says.
Ecclestone, who had already tried his hand at circuit racing, had a few drives in Brise’s car in 1955, but as he liked his cars to remain well turned out, his stock car career was short. “I took it seriously, but was upset with the damage,” he says. “It didn’t last long, but it was good fun.”
Several women made their names on the stock car circuits. Tanya Crouch took part in the first meeting, and got her Ford V8 sedan sponsored by Bandbox shampoo.
Other women drivers in the earliest days included Jean Forrest, who drove with an artificial leg following a motorcycle crash, Kit Marais and Ness Hodgkins, the first driver to be killed in a British stock car race.