47TH Anniversary Reunion- "Racing to our 50th"
year older and another year closer to our "golden
anniversary". Saturday July 25, 1998 turned out to be a
glorious day weather wise, and also a very fulfilling day
racing wise. Our reunion committee made up of myself, Bruce
Swartz, Ted Renshaw, both former drivers, Mark Lovell,
vice-president of the Canadian Motor Racing Historical
Society and Jim Irvine General Manager at Merrittville
Speedway, was up to the challenge by preparing a reception
for 392 dinner guests. As 5:00 p.m. approached, the guests
started to arrive, and it was a who's who of both Canadian
and U.S. racing pioneers. Merrittville Speedway may be a
grass roots dirt track, but its roots go back to July 1,
1952. Drivers such as Jeno Begolo, Bill Rafter, Ken Meahl,
Hughie Tripp, Bruce Van Dyke, Cam Gagliardi, as well as many
other notables made their way through the gates to attend
It was particularly gratifying to see people who once competed against each other sit down, over dinner and trade racing stories of years gone by. Our aim as a reunion committee is to honour those individuals who contributed greatly to Merrittville's history, whether as a competitor, car owner, official or track owner. Unfortunately, a couple of our pioneers such as Wilfred "Wimpy" Nicholls, a very innovative car builder from Hamilton, had passed away and also legendary Indy car racer Jim Hurtubise, was also inducted posthumously into the 1998 DIRT Hall of Fame. It is our aim to try and honour the individuals on our Wall of Fame while they are still with us. So after a chicken barbeque and after looking through the volumes of memorabilia supplied by Bruce Swartz and Rick Kavanagh, it was time to inspect the antique race cars provided by the members of the C.M.R.H.S. After a brief but thorough drivers' meeting, it was time for the vintage racers to take to the track for warm ups. There was a broad array of racers ranging from Jim Young's vintage midget, to Hughie Tripp's 1936 Chevrolet Coach modified powered by a 454 Chevrolet making it's debut.
As the sounds of the racing engines were heard, it was time to take our seats in the grandstands for the evening. We still feel that part of the evenings most important fact is not only honoring the past, but also having our racing alumni experience the sights and sounds of the present. For example, many of our alumni have 3rd or 4th generation drivers competing in the various divisions. Whether it was Brian Stevens, Jimmy Begolo, Tammy Willard, Bobby Davidson, Brian Halliwell, Don Spiece, the sons and daughters of the racing alumni put on a memorable show for all. It was especially fitting that Tammy Willard in her #77 Sportsman won the feature, with her grandmother Anne present, and sharing victory lane. Racing is about family and dedication, and after our parade lap with my Dart Sport pacing the field of vintage racers along with the St. John's fire department's 1925 Reo fire truck, it was time to announce our 1998 inductees on to our Wall of Fame. The first honoree were presented by Mel Swart and Welland-Thorold M.P.P. Peter Kormos to former track owners Ken Kavanagh and posthumously to Bill Russell, his wife Dawn accepting. Track owners who laid the racing foundation by owning both Merrittville Speedway and also Speedway Park in Hamilton, from the formative 50's to the sensational 70's.
Our second inductee was Cam Gagliardi a pioneer driver of the Lazy 8 stock cars, who along with partner Gil Cramer competed and built cars raced at both race tracks in Ontario and the U.S. from Daytona to Merrittville Speedway, with a career spanning over 40 years from Lockport New York. Drivers such as Larry Frank and Lee Roy Yarbrough drove their cars at Daytona. Wilfred "Wimpy" Nicholls was honored posthumously as a pioneer car builder, who built Chevrolet-G.M.C. powered stock cars, in the era of the flathead Ford. Drivers such as John Bezanson, Alex Gunn, Bob Davidson as well as long time friend Jimmy Howard all respected this man's achievements winning as Merrittville's stock car points champion in 1959, 1960, 1962 and 1963. Our final Wall of Fame inductee is a legend in the sport of stock car racing. Bill Rafter originally of Clarence Center New York, now of Daytona Beach, Florida attended to the delight of us all. Now near 70 years of age, he appeared fit still wearing his brush cut. The gentleman raced midgets at Civic Stadium in Buffalo, in the 1940's and stock cars on the beaches of Daytona in 1950's and has won numerous track championships in and out of NASCAR. Bill who along with brother in law Gil Bruss, accomplished much in racing became 1964 Sportsman champion at Merrittville Speedway, but was also 1959 Sportsman Champion for New York State in NASCAR, as well as winning 1959, 1960, 1962 and 1964, 100 mile Sportsman events at Syracuse, competing against the likes of Ned Jarrett. It was especially fitting to have Bill don a driving suit donated by Ted Renshaw and have Bill take a few laps in heat action in Dave Armstrong's replica 1937 Chevrolet #22 coupe with its familiar blue and white colours. Bill Rafter's career was truly looked up to by many of his competitors and his career spanning four decades reflects that image as the Champion's Champion.
In 1992 Bill was inducted into the DIRT Hall of Fame, and in 1998 we inducted him into our Wall of Fame. The night and honours were not over as when we announced both Jeno Begolo and Bill Rafter into the Canadian Motor Racing Historical Society's Hall of Fame a loud cheering went up from the 3,500 fans in attendance. Jeno Begolo nicknamed the "Mayor of Thorold South" by Wheelspin news' "Dizzy" Dean Murray won over 9 track championships during his career along with 2 at Merrittville Speedway and 2 at Speedway Park retiring at the end of 1974 at the peak of his career, now supporting his son Jim's career at the wheel of the Swiss Chalet modified. Again a surprised Bill Rafter was inducted into the CMRHS Hall of Fame, as well. Many of us in attendance will remember this night and especially the camaraderie that existed for this brief moment in time. I would personally like to thank each and every alumni guest for attending, since all of their racing contributions helped weave the fabric of our 47 years of racing history. But the night still had racing to perform. The vintage feature had seventeen cars in it, and the sounds of six cylinders Chevrolets and Dodges, Flathead Fords, as well as the open headers of the big block coupes put on an excellent show. The feature event was won by Pat Sonnenberg in his Will Cagle #24 coupe chased closely by Hughie Tripp's #3 Chevrolet Coach. The modified feature was won by Alan Johnson driving Mike Maroney's racer, his 7th feature win of the season, chased closely by Pete Bicknell.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my co-organizers of the reunion and also Rick Wales, Mark Lovell and all the members of the Canadian Motor Racing Historical Society and especially those that towed their cars to be part of our memories. They are: Garry Le Clair - 1933 Ford Coupe #303 Denny Lindberg- 1937 Chevrolet Coupe #88 Paul Lindberg- 1936 Chevrolet Coupe #15 Doug "Red" Ryder - 1936 Plymouth Coupe #101 Bill Mepham- 1940 Ford Flathead coupe #60 Dave Armstrong - 1936 Chevrolet #22 Pat Sonnenberg - 1937 Chevrolet Coupe #24 Keith Waters - 1932 Chevrolet Coach #70 Rob Konig - 1936 Chevrolet Coupe #78 Don Ledingham - 1936 Chevrolet Coupe #31 Al Patrick - 1932 Ford Victoria #02B Hughie Tripp - 1936 Chevrolet Coach #33 Ray Tremblay - Dirt Asphalt "Bug" #98 Elliott Boyuk - 1952 Flathead Ford #52 Bob Duell - 1949 Hudson Hornet #39 Jim Young - Vintage midget #51 Fred Starr - Vintage asphalt hobby cars #T-16 and #3 ½. We hope everyone had an enjoyable evening and our reunion committee will start planning our 48th anniversary soon. Before we know it, our golden anniversary will be here. We welcome all suggestions and comments so we can make our events even better.
We hope many of Old Autos readers who are interested in vintage racing history will attend our event next year. Picture #1 - 392 Reunion guests gathering and visiting at the Pavilion before the races. Picture #2 Doug Ryder's #101 1936 Plymouth Coupe dueling with Bob Duell's #39 Hudson Hornet. Heat #2 Picture #3 Gary Le Clair's #303, 1933 Ford Coupe leads, with Pat Sonnenberg's #24 and racing legend Bill Rafter driving Dave Armstrong #22 Chevrolet Coupe. Picture #4 Hughie Tripp's #3, 1936 Chevrolet Coach racing with Ray Tremblay's "Bug" supermodified #98. Picture #5 "Two Generations of Begolo's" from left to right- current racer Jim Begolo, along with present track owner Bryant Irvine, Reunion Chairman Rick Kavanagh and 1998 CMRHS inductee Jeno Begolo.