Paying tribute to the late Tony Lentino, founder of the Super Black Racing Team
It was September 2014 and a group of Auckland-based movers and shakers as well as New Zealand's motorsport elite awkwardly crammed themselves into a SkyCity bar. The front door was flanked by go-go dancers, and in one corner of the room was a covered-up race car.
Soon came the moment they had all been waiting for: the covers were whipped off the car to reveal the proud, bold "Super Black Racing" text on the bonnet, prompting oohs and aahs from the crowd. AC/DC's Thunderstruck cranked into life over the speakers, and four scantily clad women leapt out of the car and began dancing to Brian Johnson's raspy screams and yelps.
A cynical person in the champagne-soaked room would've been quick to roll their eyes at the whole thing; quick to label Super Black Racing a bit of a motorsport relic; their caricature-rendition of the sport sticking out like a sore thumb next to the finite professionalism displayed by their rivals.
But it's easy to be cynical. Cynicism can be healthy, but sometimes it prompts one to overcomplicate the world around them.
Super Black Racing isn't a cartoon or a gimmick -- it is one of the most passionate groups of people on the Supercars Championship grid. And so much of that was, is, fuelled by Tony Lentino.
The Ice Break Coffee Super Black Racing Falcon. Photo / James Smith
I was lucky enough to meet Tony a couple of times, but I wouldn't consider ever going far enough to say that I knew the man. I didn't know his favourite colour or his darkest secrets -- I was just another journo for him to shake hands and make small talk with.
But even in those fleeting meetings, it was clear to see the 42-year-old's passion for the sport and his team. Far from a cynic, Tony was someone who saw the absolute best in people. It's something that got him into a few regretful relationships, but it was probably also a key ingredient behind the decision to start the only Kiwi race team on the Supercars grid.
He was also in tune with the fans and the people; probably because he was the team's biggest fan. In my brief conversations with Tony, not once did anything ever come up that reminded me of his wealth or stature. It was like talking to the local dairy owner or a favourite uncle. Within seconds, you would be on the same level as one another-- knowing exactly where you stood.
Everyone is searching for the authentic and the real. Just about everything drivers and officials say to cameras and recorders these days is scripted in some way shape or form; smoothed out by a system that massages sponsors at the cost of the punter. Tony was one of the few who would bypass that system to give people that authenticity.
On Monday afternoon it was confirmed that Tony had lost his 15-month fight with cancer. Though the battle was one that was well-publicised, it had been circulated through industry circles that his time was potentially running out -- though that proved to be anything but comfort.
The sport needs more Tony Lentinos, but ultimately this week it lost a piece of the spirit that keeps those in the grandstands pumped with passion.