When Bartlesville native Anatoly “Toly” Arutunoff was a toddler, his parents, like many, bet each other whether the youngster’s first word would be “mama” or “dada.”
Instead Toly’s first word was “car.”
Toly knows he isn’t the first person in the world to have uttered that as his first word, but he certainly remembers that his fascination with automobiles began early.
“I remember fondling cars at the age of 4,” Toly says. “I was fascinated by them. They were like these little spaces you got into that took you places.”
Over the next 60-plus years, that not entirely uncommon fascination evolved into a decidedly distinct life and career revolving around cars and old school street racing.
But much about Anatoly Arutunoff was unique from the very beginning.
Toly’s father was Armenian, his mother Ukrainian. They met, married and began their family in Czarist Russia. There, Toly’s enterprising father invented an innovative in-ground oil pump that made him a significant figure in the oil industry. Fleeing Russia, the family made its way to Istanbul, then to Germany. The crash of the German economy drove the family to the United States – to Bartlesville, Okla., of all places.
“That’s where the oil was,” Toly says. “My father had some connections in the oil industry and that’s where we ended up. I was the first person (in my family) born in the United States.”
Toly’s older sister had found her own path to exceptionalism, inventing a holographic art medium that was prized by the likes of Salvador Dali.
For Toly, though, it was neither oil nor art that captured his attention – it was cars. Or, rather, at first it was motorbikes.
“I wasn’t really old enough to have a license in school in Bartlesville, but I remember that I wasn’t the only one with a motorbike,” he says. “There would be 43 motorbikes in the parking lot at school. Well, there were maybe 15 people with actual licenses.”
Toly says he remembers cruising around the then-small town along with many of his friends and neighbors.
“We would ride around and occasionally get caught by one cop, Preacher John,” Toly says. “He would stop us and tell us to go home carefully and to tell our parents we shouldn’t be out driving. No one ever got a ticket and no one got hurt. It was amazingly innocent.”
Unlike his peers, though, Toly was acquainted early on with a very different lifestyle. His family had friends and contacts in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles and spent half of their time on the West Coast.
“We rented Harold Lloyd’s beach house and we had a house in Los Angeles that Vincent Price later bought from us. He actually found a secret room in it that we had never known about,” he recalls.
Toly’s family was close with Russian and European expatriate filmmakers and celebrities, including famed Austrian-born director Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd.). His brother-in-law was friends with Robert Mitchum.
“There was a real contrast living half the time in L.A. and half the time in Bartlesville,” Toly says. “I’d be hanging out by the swimming pool in California one day and then in Bartlesville all bundled up against the cold a day or two later. But my friends in California were miles and miles away from me, so I would only see them every once in a while. In Bartlesville my friends were only 100 yards away. Both places had their pluses and minuses.”
Toly’s interest in cars only increased in his teens, and his parents were supportive – even helping him get a license when he was still underage. His parents got him a manual transmission ’51 Bel Air hardtop in California, and had Price not purchased their home, prompting a return to Oklahoma, a Jaguar was next in line. Instead, Toly got a more Oklahoma-friendly Lincoln. However, he tricked the Lincoln out with headers and dual exhausts, a supercharger and alcohol injection.
While the seed was planted as far back as early childhood, the real impetus to take to the streets to race was Toly’s purchase of a Porsche in Tulsa.
“When I bought the Porsche, there was this little form to fill out that made you a member of the Sports Car Club of America,” Toly remembers. “I figured, sure, I would do that – and then, okay, I’ll go race it. At the time all you had to do was take a little test on paper. You got a novice license and if they liked you, you could go race with the big boys.”
Toly’s racing career in earnest began in 1957, aboard his Porsche. He has been doing it ever since.
However, the speed enthusiast began in an era when the sport was very different. Rules, regulations and practice made the sport more amenable to actual, honest-to-goodness road cars, as opposed to the highly specialized, universal sameness of most cars in the major racing circuits today.
Toly’s entire relationship with the sport was and remains different than that found in many drivers in today’s widely known circuits such as Formula One and NASCAR.
“It was for fun,” Toly says. “People didn’t make money from it and it wasn’t a career for people. It was something you did in spare time because you enjoyed taking a real street car and seeing what it could do on the open roads.”
The young racer had intended to become an astronomer, then later flirted with the idea of working in public relations. But instead, he eventually opened a Ferrari dealership in Tulsa. Later he was approached to launch the region’s first Honda dealership. He did. Today Joe Marina Honda still has the old corporate name that Toly established almost 40 years ago. Toly also had Ford, Saab, Saturn, BMW, Volvo, Mazda and Sterling shops at one time or another.
One labor of love for the quintessential gear head was the building of his own road course, Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, not far from Tulsa.
But through his many business successes, it was road racing and automobiles that have been Toly’s real passion. In the 1970s he drove in two Cannonball Baker races. He competed in countless races in the United States and in Europe – races on real streets and without the generic sophistication of most modern circuits. In 1981, he also won the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) national championship, the President’s Cup – after starting in the 11th position on a rainy day, and received a letter from President Ronald Reagan. He raced against well-known figures in the sport such as Bob Bondurant, Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney and Ak Miller, along with many others.
“After winning the President’s Cup and the national championship, I didn’t have to ever prove anything again,” Toly says.
From the very beginning, Toly has also collected unique and distinctive cars – including one-of-a-kind and ultra-tiny production vehicles, many of which are unknown except to motorist insiders. He still has many today. He and his wife Karen divide their time between Oklahoma and California.
Toly decries much of the bland sameness of auto racing today and the fact that part of the glamour of the sport is that it requires a great deal of money to even get a start in the sport.
“Even way back, I had a t-shirt printed that said, ‘Wide tires ruin racing,’” he says.
It’s a different landscape than when Toly started – back when sports car enthusiasts simply took to real roads, in real cars, just for the fun, camaraderie and experience.
Still, Toly says that a component of the sport called “High Speed Touring” has been bringing back the original essence of racing since it began in California approximately 15 years ago.
“I wish more people knew about it,” Toly says. “It has been spreading to many places. And car clubs have similar things. There are no trophies and they don’t keep official times – because it’s about fun. I would love to see more of it.”
It was that fun that had drawn a young Anatoly Arutunoff to automobiles in the first place. It’s his experiences in it that have made him one unique Oklahoman.