The following article, by Rosalind
Nott, first appeared in Powerboat and Waterskiing magazine, 1984.
Tribute to Tom Percival
“Time Driveth Onward Fast”
Today in a tiny village churchyard in
Horning, Norfolk, over 250 wreaths line the path to the church. The messages of
love and condolences have been sent from all over the world, Holland, Belgium
and South Africa, from drivers, engine manufacturers and yachtsmen.
They paid to tribute to Tom Percival
Tom died in hospital in Liege, Belgium,
on August 20 and his loss to powerboat racing is devastating. But that was only
one facet of his life; his gentle nature touched his fellow yachtsmen, the
boating industry through Percival Boats, the small community of Horning and the
people of East Anglia.
His death followed an incident during
the Belgian Grand Prix on the infamous River Meuse. This stretch of water saw
Tom flip his first catamaran in 1969 when he broke two ribs.
On this particular outing, the Percival
Hodges motorhome and box measuring 54 feet had trundled from Norfolk to the OMC
factory in Bruges for testing. Tom’s V8 Evinrude had just been rebuilt and he
was told to do two runs down the river and come in for a ‘plug pull’. Five runs
later Tom’s beaming face came to the jetty. ‘It’s wonderful’ he said to his
partner and boat builder, Chris Hodges.
So it was a jubilant PHR Team who
parked in the pits in Liege. The event was renowned for being rough – and Tom
who revelled in these conditions was fairly glowing.
Lap times for pole slot were first on
the agenda. This season Renato Molinari set the seal on ‘funny laps’. Instead
of driving three standard circuits he threw one away and used the other laps to
position himself for maximum advantage with timing control. Tom was the only
driver to run three ‘standard’ laps and he was fourth fastest. There was no
doubt by the size of propeller that Tom was capable of travelling faster than
Race day dawned and the lights changed.
With a new set of plugs, Tom began as the back marker. Each lap he took another
boat – Jenkins then Velden and as the leaders began their fifth lap, Tom came
up to pass Fabricio Bocca. At a point on the course, renowned for the rough water, Bocca’s boat
hooked in front of Percival. As Bocca’s boat exploded into hundreds of pieces,
Tom’s boat went upwards through the spray levelling off at about 25 feet and
slid up the top of the grassy bank towards the road.
Suffice to say, Tom knew no more and
despite tremendous endeavours by the Belgian neurosurgeons, Tom’s heart stopped
beating at 10.50 on the Monday morning.
No-one, but no-one will forget the cries
from Tom’s children when they heard the worst in the pits. No-one could believe
that Tom Percival would not walk back into the pits as he had done for some
To say that Tom was a gentle man whose
determined racing defied his ‘harmless’ nature barely touches the surface.
There are so many memories by so many people over so many years. Many will
remember Tom, calculator and tape recorder in hand, sending endless messages to
his secretary, Barbara. Tom was a paperwork fanatic and every business contract
was fair to the last ‘enth’.
If the team went out on the town – the
calculations were always left to Tom. No-one ever questioned – because everyone
knew Tom was totally fair. Then there were the jokes. Tom was the greatest
‘worse’ joke teller in the world. He
could never get the joke right – or the punch-line together – but he had
everyone in hysterics trying.
Then there was Tom the mechanic. He
practiced on the motorhome and armed with the owner’s manual Tom would give it
his best shot – even if getting the cigar lighter to work meant fusing the
Then there was Tom the family man. The
loving husband to Gilly and ‘Daddy’ to Katie Jane and Guy. To say that Tom went
racing is really not quite correct – the Percival family went racing. Gilly has
always been with Tom, catering for those in the pits – always rushing to give
that ‘final’ embrace before the start of every heat. But during the racing
Gilly normally cleaned the bathroom, totally incapable of watching Tom on the
Like so many wives, Gilly accepted that
racing was part of Tom’s life and his character. She wanted him to retire but
never forced him to. She would have been the only reason for Tom’s retirement.
Then there was Tom the ‘racer’. So many
years, over two decades of always being there. He introduced sponsorship to the
sport – and until the last two seasons he had such names as Players No.6,
Players No.10, Long John, Colemans and John Player Special as backers.
He raced with Bob Spalding for so many
years – and these great friends and rivals shared those close moments known
only by drivers on the water. Tom has been British Champion more times than
anyone can remember, been European Champion during his best years in the late
‘70s. But the world title eluded him.
For those who remember Cardiff in 1975
when Tom so nearly beat Cees van der Velden but also gave a display of
‘all-out’ driving – you will be remembering one of the greatest races ever
seen. He won the Paris 6 hour event twice and then there was the victory in
Bristol when he triumphed over Billy Seebold. In 1981 in the German Grand Prix,
Tom was thrown out of his boat but scrambled back in to finish the race. His
dogged determination was almost legendary.
There was no doubt Tom loved driving
fast. The battle with himself to retire was a very real one but he only managed
to hang up his helmet for an hour or even a day. When radio communication was
first introduced Tom earned another nickname. As Gary Garbrecht switched to
Tom’s channel all he could hear was ‘tally ho, tally ho’. Tally Ho Tom stuck
for a long while.
Tom was happiest starting at the back
and fighting his way through the fleet to get the chequered flag. On those
occasions he almost ‘ate the steering wheel’, leaning further forward than any
other driver. Tom was also very safety conscious. He always wanted the best in lifejackets and
helmets – wrote so many letters and with the late Peter Inward, started the
Water Safety Research Project – which will now be used for cockpit development.
Then there was Tom the friend. And
friend he was to so many. Seven hundred people came to a beautiful service in
St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. They came because they were proud to call
this great man a friend. And his nature touched so many. He did not readily
lose his temper, was always surrounded by people, always ready for a party. To
avoid being caught up in the Percival ‘aura’ took a pretty cool customer.
In the Percival home there are almost
forty photo albums tracing Tom’s career all over the world, holidays with
fellow racers and press cuttings following his success. There are also videos
of some of Tom’s greatest hours. On the screen, Tom’s all familiar face comes
alive. For a few minutes he is back with us. That voice that has been heard
throughout the world promoting powerboat racing and Great Britain. That face –
so vibrant in victory, so tenacious in competition. The gloves, the overalls – so familiar around
Can it be that Tom is no longer with
us? It is so unreal – so hard to believe. He lived life to the full and has
left his indelible mark on all of us.
Dutchman Henry Scott (1847-1918) seems
to have been able to put into words what his thoughts must be…
‘Death is nothing at
all – I have only slipped into the next room…I am I, and you are you…whatever
we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by my old
familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no
difference into your time; wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always
laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together – play, smile, think of me,
pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it
be spoken without effect, without the ghost of a shadow on it.
Life means all that
it ever means. It is the same as it ever was; there is absolutely unbroken
continuity – what is this death but a negligible accident; why should I be out
of mind because I am out of sight?
I'm but waiting for
you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner…
All is well.’