Tony Martin & Backdraft Cobra

We have so many legendary local drivers who have made their mark internationally. One of the likable and genuine drivers is Tony Martin, who is probably best known these days for building his immaculate Backdraft Cobra cars.

Tony was born in Durban, where he still lives with his business dynamo wife, Lee. Tony had racing blood from the start – his Dad, Ian, was preparing racecars since before Tony could walk. His Dad started out in the days when the mechanic had to ride in the car with the driver during races, probably just after World War II, and he eventually built his motor business into one of the largest VW dealerships in the country.

Tony was in his element as a youngster – his passion was always cars, and the highlight of his week was going to work with his Dad on a Saturday morning. From as far back as he can remember, Tony was crazy about cars. “Even in nappies, for me it was all about cars,” says Tony. “If my Dad left me behind when he went to work, you wouldn’t want to know!”

It didn’t take long for the motorsport bug to bite, and at 16 Tony was sneaking out to the Allen Ford hotrod stadium in Durban to race his 50cc buzz bike. He had a reasonable outing in his first race and promptly won his second race the next weekend. His parents were blissfully unaware of his racing expeditions and only found out when they saw the results in the newspaper…  Fortunately, they realised Tony had talent and eventually became his most enthusiastic supporters.

Tony went on to have a brilliant motorsport career, excelling in many different racing formats. Although he is best known for the epic win with Sarel van der Merwe and Graham Duxbury at Daytona in 1984, he has many SA titles to his name. I asked him to mention some of the highlights: “Up until this day, each and every event that I have competed in has been a highlight for me. There have been so many memorable events in my career that it is very difficult to single them out,” says Tony.

Some of the standout moments he does mention include:

  • Winning his SA titles, including the SA Drivers’ Championship, Gold Star Formula 2 Championship, and the SA Go-kart Enduro Championship;
  • His last race in Formula Vee, in the rain at Brandkop;
  • Racing in the 9 Hour and Wynns 1000 races;
  • The Retro 9 Hour in 2007;
  • Winning the Run & Gun Kit Car Challenge in the US, in his own car;
  • Winning the Daytona 24 Hour, of course!

Tony also recalls missing winning the SA Drivers’ Championship by one point: He needed to finish 6thin the final race of the season, but had a puncture..

Speaking of Daytona, I asked Tony to tell us more about winning this legendary event. Tony got to know Sarel van der Merwe and Arthur Abraham when he was working with Ford, assisting in setting up the Escort Challenge car with Sarel. He also raced with Sarel in one of the Wynns 1000 events.

Tony also happened to drive Dudley Smits’ Renault Gordini in a race around this time. The Gordini was sponsored by Danie Chauvier, who was the owner of Kreepy Krauly. Tony was by now something of an endurance race specialist, and when Danie bought the Kreepy Krauly March in the US, Arthur Abrahams called Tony up and offered him the drive. “The Kreepy deal was just wonderful for me, so I jumped at it!” recalls Tony.

The Kreepy Krauly car was originally built by March, and was raced to overall victory in the 1983 IMSA series by Al Hollbert. Danie Chauvier bought the whole team package, rebuilt the car and stationed the team in Atlanta led by the experienced Ken Howes.

The car was a March 83G, powered by a 3,2 litre Porsche motor. The car was boosted to around 650 / 700hp for qualifying, and ran at about 550hp during the race. Tony says the car was very fast, but quite difficult to drive with no power steering, no power assisted brakes, etc. But a good lap was awesome and extremely rewarding!

We always wonder what happened to the legendary cars of our memories… in this case, Tony believes that the car was destroyed in a fire. However, there are apparently at least two cars claiming to be the Daytona winning March, so who knows?

If Tony has any regrets, the main one may be not focussing more fully on an extended racing career in the States. Although the Kreepy Krauly team did not race the full season in the year they won Daytona, Tony did receive a number of offers to continue racing overseas. “I never really considered racing overseas, as my Dad’s team here in SA was a very tight team, where we all had a lot of success and camaraderie,” says Tony. “At the time, I did not believe that the guys overseas would be as much fun to be with as the South Africans. In hindsight, maybe I should have travelled?”

Motorsport always has its highs and lows, and Tony still feels the sadness of losing two very dear friends in motorsport accidents: Giles Villeneuve and Peter Haller. However, he has many enduring friendships that were made during his racing career, one of which was with Reg Dodd.

Reg Dodd had immigrated to the US during the 1990s, and on a trip back to South Africa, he mentioned to Tony that he was keen to market a Cobra type car in the States. “I asked him who would build the cars, and he replied that I was the man to build them for him! We shook hands, and we still abide by that agreement – a handshake is the only contract we have,” says Tony. “It has been a wonderful journey over the past decade.”

The late Rudy Malan from Kit Car Centre was the “father” of the Backdraft Cobras. He took the original concept, fitted a modern undercarriage to it, and modified the body substantially. The car was lengthened, widened, the waistline was changed and Rudy added his own tweaks to the design. The Backdraft cars remain true to Rudy’s modifications to this day.

What makes Backdraft Cobras different to most replicas is the phenomenal drivability of the cars. They handle as well as most modern cars and can outperform most. Cars can be specified with manual or auto gearboxes and can be supercharged. They weigh only 1,100 kgs and owners can specify the V8 engine to put out anything from 250hp to 1,000hp – entirely dependent on how brave the pilot is!

Although export cars are sold only in fully built up form, here in South Africa an aspirant Backdraft owner can still buy one in kit form, from body and chassis only to fully built up, or anywhere in between. The completed cars I have seen are beautifully finished, from stunning wheels right up to hand stitched upholstery. The cars are exhilarating to drive and it’s very, very easy to get the tail out if you want to.. my kind of car!

The Backdraft cars have also impressed on local and international racetracks for some time. Backdraft cars have won two Run & Gun events in the US and have had several good placings in the FARA endurance series in Miami. A Backdraft car also won the American Challenge race at Atlanta.

Locally, they are regular contenders in time attack and hill climb events, and were dominating in local historic events until politics stepped in. “We have an ongoing battle to race our cars in Historics,” fumes Tony. “We had one of the top series in the country, fantastic entries, and even better racing. Now, it has been degraded to almost a non-event!” His frustration echoes that of Willie Hepburn, who has also withdrawn his ever-popular Opel Rekord from Historic racing in 2018…

Tony is as passionate as ever about motorsport. Although he has taken a back seat from driving recently, in order to co-ordinate his racing team and support his racing customers, he has been training hard and should soon be seen pedalling a Cobra in the successful Mopar African Endurance series…

Tony is a good friend with a great sense of humour! I did ask him to share some of his more interesting motorsport stories with us, but he sadly declined.. If you are in Durban, though, do arrange a visit to the Backdraft factory in Prospecton and feast your eyes on some magnificent cars while talking motorsport to Tony and his team. You can also visit the website at www.backdraftracing.co.za