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Laughing around Le Mans with Tony Dron | Thank Frankel it's Friday

19th November 2021
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I was so saddened to learn earlier in the week that Tony Dron had died. I would urge all of you in celebration of his life to hunt out the video elsewhere on this website of his battle with Win Percy and eventual victory in the Sussex Trophy at the 2002 Revival. Because there you will see how motor racing ought to be. Two seasoned professionals duking it out, no quarter given, time and again inches away from each other at three-figure speeds but not so much as a flake of paint swapped between them. It is superb stuff.

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But it also provides a great insight into why Tony was such a sought-after driver, both in his professional years in the 1970s to his rebirth as a historic racer of other people’s incredibly valuable machinery. He was the entire package: a name with an illustrious list of races and wins to his name, a consummate professional who excelled in all conditions, one of the very fastest out there, yet one of the least likely to break the car. And when it was all done, he’d even go and write superbly crafted words about his experience and publish them in the specialist media. And owners wishing to make a name for their cars didn’t mind that either.

To me, however, he was more than all of the above. As a person, rather than a racing driver or motoring journalist, Tony was one of the best. It is a vanishingly rare occurrence in this business for one journalist to compliment another on a particular story he or she has written, but I’d often hear from Tony if I’d scribbled something that resonated with him. He’d send me a note, always kind, always thoughtful and I probably never told him how much I appreciated it.

He was a man of passion too. He wasn’t scared to write about what he saw as the iniquities within our sport and tell it as he saw it. We all had a lot to learn from Tony. But really I just enjoyed hanging out with him in paddocks, driver briefings or over a beer after the racing was done. He had an endless supply of good stories and a ready laugh but he was almost always more interested to hear about what you’d been up to than bang on about himself. That’s not common in any walk of life; among racing drivers, it’s almost unheard of.

My fondest memory of Tony was at the 2010 Le Mans Classic, where he and I were on the same grid. I was in a reasonably rapid vintage Bentley, he a 1923 Ford Model T which must surely be the slowest car ever to have raced at Le Mans. So after a while, I came up to lap him.

I caught him coming out of Tertre Rouge and drew alongside, watching him hunched over the wheel as if doing so would somehow have a material effect on the aero efficiency of a Model T doing 60mph at best. But when he saw me he sat up, looked across and event through his helmet and balaclava, I could see he was laughing his head off. And rightly so, for this was not a moment to be taken seriously. I wanted to enjoy it too so I lifted off and for quite a few magical seconds we raced side by side along the Mulsanne Straight, waving and pointing raised thumbs at each other.

And what I found so moving and instructive was that this was not just some amateur mate of mine who couldn’t believe his luck at having been able to compete in even a completely unimportant race at Le Mans, this was a man who’d raced at Le Mans in 1980 as a factory Porsche driver and won his class there in another Porsche two years later. Yet there he was, crawling towards the first chicane in this arthritic antique contraption, hooting with laughter, apparently having the best time in the world.

After the race, he came up to me and reminded me that those were moments to be savoured and cherished, moments in which to remember how lucky we were to do what we do and to never, ever take for granted. Like so many others I’ll miss Tony terribly, but far more than that I’ll be grateful forever simply that I knew the bloke. Our world is poorer by far without him.

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