by Scott Pacich
Picture a light blue dirt modified, number 17 on the side, drifting sideways through the turns throwing clods of tacky clay into and over the walls of Reading Fairgrounds. Hear the roar of the fuel-injected engine as the driver gets hard on the throttle and rockets down the straightaway, passing cars on the way to another feature win.
Picture this in your
mind, over and over again.
"Toby" Tobias was a race car driver, an innovator, a fabricator
and a remarkable human being. His career spanned 25 years, ending
tragically with his death in a USAC sprint car race in 1978. His lifetime
win total of over 300 races might seem small by some comparisons, but he
earned those victories in several different varieties of open wheel
racecars. He became nationally known for his exploits on the USAC sprint
car circuit, including their 1972 "Rookie of the Year" title,
and was even seen racing in the Tony Hulman classic at Terre Haute that
was televised on ABC (back in the days when racing on TV was rare). But he
is known best to me, and many others in the northeast as one of the
greatest modified pilots to ever grace any
As I said, I'm not that familiar with his earlier career, when he was racing early modifieds, and then "bugs" central Pennsylvania beyond what I have read simply because I was too young. I seemed to first take notice of him in 1971, as my life seemed to begin to revolve around racing in that time frame. Plus, I did actually watch those USAC races on TV and remember rooting for him simply because of his modified, and northeastern roots. I know that some his early statistics in the early years are quite impressive, including dominating performances at tracks such as Port Royal, Williams Grove and Selinsgrove. But once again, I wasn't aware of what was happening there. When these tracks converted to sprint cars in 1965, Toby stayed with the modifieds, moving his racing activities to the Reading Fairgrounds where I did begin to hear of him.
The first thing I
remember Toby for is those funky looking blue modifieds. The "Super
Dogs". With a coupe body that resembled no car I could ever recall it
really looked totally uncompetitive. I know he had better looking rides,
such as the Consoli 54's, but this is the first car that I remember. High
backed with no small side windows, no window posts and dented all over I
could not imagine that a driver of Toby's stature would drive it. Of
course appearances weren't everything, as the car was a proven winner.
The second thing about Toby that stands out in my mind is that I believe that he was the one person responsible for changing of the face of dirt modified racing. As we all know, or at least a lot of us know, prior to 1972 dirt modifieds were still based on production chassis, and heavily modified parts that might be obtainable at any junkyard. 1955 to 1957 Chevrolet frames, Buick brakes, old Ford front axles and springs and just about anything you needed, you had to first find, and then second make race ready. It was hard and it was time consuming as the parts that you needed to put a car together were becoming harder and harder to find.
Toby changed this by producing the first modified based on a non-production chassis. Constructed from 2x4 inch rectangular tubing, his chassis was strong, relatively inexpensive and you didn't even have to weld it up yourself if you didn't want to. It was narrow, with a configuration closer to a sprint car that the existing modifieds of the early 70's. It effectively was the start of the end of the "home-built" modified. Funny thing about this was, Toby wasn't even racing modifieds at the time. He was off with USAC, running full time on their sprint circuit. I can't begin to tell you how many models of Tobias framed cars I built, but it's definitely more than 50. Starting with the Dave Kelly number 17 Grandview sportsman, through the late 70's versions I did a bunch. In fact, in 1973 Tony Matta wanted a "dream" modified model built to take back to Australia with him. It was a Tobias chassis that I chose to be the base for the car.
Another Toby memory I cherish, and the one that is imbedded the furthest in my mind is the 1973 racing season. Toby was still off running USAC, but he built a little rocket of a car for the Anthony Furniture team to race at Reading. With a small block, fuel injected engine and journeyman driver Donnie Varner at the helm; this car was fast right out of the box, and Varner took it to a couple of early season wins over the big block cars and stars at Reading. When Varner's arm was broken in a freak accident, Toby returned from the USAC wars to take over the seat of the Anthony car. I know that as an impressionable kid (I WAS young once) I was in awe of actually being able to get near Toby. To hear him talk about set ups, to see him help customers and to see this mild looking man fight a modified through the clay at Reading was, and is something I will always remember.
Toby finished out the year with the Anthony team, racking up 16 feature wins including the prestigious Daniel Boone 200. He was again in the car for the 1974 season and continued his winning ways in the car. Come 1975 Toby had returned to his own team culminating in a win in the Schaefer 100 at Syracuse. He continued to race locally on the modified scene into 1978. In 1978 however, Reading was doomed to the horror of urban re-development...the shopping mall! With Reading's days numbered, Toby returned to the series that seemed to give him the most satisfaction, USAC sprint cars.
This decision would cost him his life.
Toby was the winner of the prestigious Tony Hulman classic at Terre Haute, Indiana (another race I saw live on ABC TV). He again won on the mile at Springfield, Illinois. Then would come the end.
Flemington Speedway had
scheduled a USAC sprint car race for June 23, 1978, and that race was
greeting with much enthusiasm. It was thought that the local northeastern
sprint car drivers would come out in droves to race with USAC, and quite
possibly beat them. But, advance entries were low, and only 17 or 18 cars
showing up to race. The race itself was essentially meaningless, but Toby,
being the racer he was kept his word and showed up ready to race, and
ready to put on a show for the fans. During the feature, he clipped the
inside wall in turn one, and the car started to flip towards the outside
wall between turns one and two. During this series of flips the car landed
cage down on the outer guardrail, and in an instant Toby was gone.
I was supposed to attend that race that night with Tony Matta, but he never showed up to get me. At the time, I was about as mad as I could have been because I was looking forward to seeing the USAC hotshots at one of my favorite tracks. The next day the word of Toby's passing began to filter through the racing community, and reached me at home. At first, I refused to believe it was true. Just another bad racing rumor that come the weekend would prove to be false. But, I still had to know and called Flemington. When they confirmed the worst, I simply sat down and cried. Here I was, a 21-year-old man crying over a driver that I only knew in passing, but for whom I had the ultimate respect. And now he was gone. When this paper ran a tribute on him the next week, I could barely bring myself to read it.
Toby's kids carried on his racing tradition. Daughter Diane was an outstanding Micro-Sprint driver. Son Ronnie carried on the number and colors for some years, until he tragically died of a heart attack. Son Scott's career ended with severe head injuries in a sprint car crash. Only son Toby, Jr. remains active in racing, but can count among his successes the 1992 Syracuse 300 win to match his fathers 1975 triumph.
I still get chills when I drive through Lebanon, Pennsylvania and pass the Tobias Speed Equipment shops. I half expect to see this quiet, bespectacled man constructing another state of the art sprint car or modified or just waving to admirers as they pass by.
Instead, I get just a twinge of a tear, and a very empty feeling.
This article originally appeared in Area Auto Racing News in October 2002
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