One of the iconic Sprintcars throughout the 1980s was the Pizza Hut-sponsored Sprintcar driven by South Australian racer Tom Tomlinson. We recently tracked down the Canadian-born Tomlinson for this week’s ‘Where Are They Now’ piece.
Firstly, you are a Canadian, how did you end up in Australia?
I moved to Australia in 1969 at the age of 27 with my wife, Sue, and three kids. I was offered a position to manage and promote the KFC brand in Australia. I thought it was a great opportunity, so my family and I came over. I spent the first couple of months in Sydney (NSW), before moving to Adelaide in South Australia, where I helped grow the KFC brand there. The first franchise in South Australia was at Prospect, near Adelaide.
How did you get into speedway?
I had followed speedway as a kid back in Canada when my dad would take me along to watch. I had always had a fascination with the sport. When I arrived in Australia, part of my role with KFC was networking with influential figures in South Australia. In the early 1970s, speedway in South Australia was popular through Rowley Park Speedway, so it was only natural to get involved via sponsorship. Our first sponsored driver was Bill Wigzell when he was driving the Kevin Fischer-owned Super Modified. Following Wigzell, we supported Mount Gambier-based Super Modified racer Bill Barrows. Speedway played a major part in the growth of the KFC brand and then later the Pizza Hut brand in those early stages.
In the late 1970s, KFC was bought out and you moved to working for Pizza Hut, can you tell us about that?
What a lot people forget is that back in the early days of KFC, both KFC and Pizza Hut were run from the same block of land because they were owned by the same person. In the late 1970s, my boss had an offer from an organisation to purchase KFC, so he took it. From there, I was only dealing solely with Pizza Hut.
After 10 years involved with speedway behind the scenes as a sponsor and working with the Racing Drivers Association (RDA), you got behind the wheel of a Sprintcar. How did that happen?
It was all through Bill Barrows. It was the 1982 season opener at Speedway Park, which had just been built to replace the old Rowley Park Speedway, where Barrows gave me his car to drive for the night. I was a late starter in the racing game at the age of 40. From that moment, I was hooked and went out and got my own car. Throughout my Sprintcar career, I would always buy cars from Barrows. He had the best equipment, so running his older gear suited me fine. Barrows was fantastic in providing all manner of help to me.
You raced Sprintcars for 10 years – from 1982 through to 1992 – but you are best remembered for your Pizza Hut-sponsored cars.
Yes, I sure was. I loved racing, but I also loved the socialising part after the race meetings. I always enjoyed chatting with the fans and putting the kids in my race car. There is no question that our team was always one of the most popular because we always had the best catering. After a race meeting, we would have pizza, chicken and beverages available for everyone. It was enjoyable to be able to give something back to the fans and fellow teams through my business activities.
Over your 10 years of Sprintcar racing, what was the highlight?
I won a few local feature races, but never any major ones. One night, I was running inside the top five of a World Series round at Mount Gambier (Borderline Speedway) up until I burned a piston in my engine in the closing laps and was forced to retire (he had passed American Bobby Allen – who had just won the Knoxville Nationals – in the process). Another night, I was battling with Steve Kinser at Speedway Park when he came out with the Commodore cars and passed him for a moment, so that was a bit of a thrill. I think one of my favourite moments was winning my final ever race. It was a heat race during the third and final round of the 1992 Easter Trail at Warrnambool’s Premier Speedway in Victoria. I was up against the likes of Max Dumesny and Garry Rush, but I was able to take the win. Later that night, I think the feature race was cancelled due to rain. Another highlight at Premier Speedway came where I won a B main by defeating Max Dumesny. During my 10 years of racing, I raced throughout South Australia and Victoria, and I also made one trip to NSW to race at Wagga International Speedway.
After 10 years of racing Sprintcars you retired, why was that?
I had a lot of fun over my 10 years, but at the age of 50, I thought enough was enough. Speedway was becoming more of a young man’s sport, and a lot of them were more willing to do things out on the track that I wasn’t. Speedway is a very selfish sport that consumes your life, and I felt that it was time to step away and spend some time with my wife. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing – it was a blast!
One final question, what are you up to these days?
I’m happily retired. Now at the age of 77, I’m enjoying life with my wife living in the country town of Goolwa in South Australia. I watch speedway occasionally when it’s on television, but I don’t go out to the track very often. I think the last time I did attend a race meeting was nearly 10 years ago at Murray Bridge Speedway. I enjoyed my time in speedway and was fortunate to be able to get behind the wheel of a Sprintcar, but it is a chapter of my life that is now closed.