Celebrating our 55th Season
It’s hard to believe that 55 seasons of dirt track stock car racing has come and gone for this Saturday night racing tradition that started out from humble beginnings as a ¼ mile dusty oval on July 1, 1952.
While it is interesting to trace the history of tracks such as CNE, Pinecrest, Oakwood, Speedway Park, Mohawk, Bridgeport and many others, they have all gone the way of the dinosaur, while this now 3/8 mile dirt oval not only celebrates its history, but continues to add to it and that’s exactly what we did on July 15, 2006.
The Merrittville Speedway Reunion Committee with Rick Kavanagh, (chairman) Terry Huffman, Erica Bicknell, Jeno Begolo, Jim Irvine, Mark and Bruce Swartz and Ted Renshaw, planned another alumni reunion and with over 260 guests for a barbeque dinner, under beautiful sunny skies, we all got to visit with many racing friends, check out the many years of memorabilia, and vintage race cars, all before the night’s six racing divisions took to the track.
The display of vintage race cars dated from the 1940’s and highlighted with John Smith and Daryl Bray’s Desoto powered “Big Car” and their Chrysler powered 1936 Plymouth Coupe that was driven at Merrittville by Doug Ryder, in 1954-55 and both beautifully restored. Having these two cars on display along with our other alumni’s collection of coupes and coaches (tudors) really created a “time machine” especially when compared to the modern Bicknell chassied modifieds of today. A real surprise was the phone call that Erica Bicknell received, that the History Channel would like to be present and film, both the Reunion and evening’s racing event for one of their upcoming programs, this fall. We will all be looking forward to seeing the finished product.
When we fired up the vintage race cars for “hot laps” we all knew that it was time to head for the grandstand for an evening of racing. This evening would serve up a real variety of classes, from late model “Hoosier Stocks” to dwarf cars, mini-stocks, vintage, sportsman and modifieds, which would be our feature event, for the Jerry Winger Memorial 55 lap Lucas Oil Shootout.
While there were many facets to the evening, some highlights included the following events: The vintage heats and feature were a joy to watch as many of our Alumni racers, graciously raced their pieces of racing history in front of a packed grandstand, but when compared to the modern technology of the modern dirt modified, with their performance on the track, proved just how far this sport has evolved
The modern modifieds put on a special Dash for Cash event sponsored by long time Alumni supporters Sandy MacPherson and Tim Tallman and won by Rich Vinson of Sanborn, New York. Intermission, however, was our focal point for the celebration, as we inducted three more of Merrittville’s Alumni to our Merrittville Speedway Alumni Wall of Fame, sponsored by Bob and Pat St. Amand of L. St. Amand Enterprises. Bob is our present pit steward and also a past modified champion and Wall of Fame inductee, and all of us at Merrittville Speedway thank them for their continuing sponsorship.
Erik Tomas, from Raceline Radio was our emcee on stage. Our first inductee was presented by Reunion Committee members Jeno Begolo, past champion and Wall of Famer and Mark Swartz, to the Richardson Family in memory of their father Charles “Chuck” Richardson, who competed at Merrittville when it was a ¼ mile oval from 1953 to 1968 and was a racing pioneer of our sport during that era, when we evolved from flat head Fords to overhead valved Chevrolets.
The second inductee was real treat for us as we inducted a racer who was not only our modified champion in 1980, but competed at Merrittville Speedway for 41 years. Don Turner from Binbrook, Ontario goes back to the early 1960’s at Speedway Park (Stoney Creek) and Merrittville Speedway when he started out in the late model division and moved up to the sportsman-modified division during the mid 60’s. Don and his brother-in-law Roy Hammill, purchased one of the first factory race cars, a Tobias chassied Gremlin bodied modified and went on to win the 1980 modified Championship. Probably one of the things that was respected the most about Don’s career, was the fact that in 41 years of competition, he and Roy competed without any major sponsorship, just his familiar #39 and a Canadian flag painted on his metallic blue modified.
It was a pleasure for myself, Jim Irvine and Erica Bicknell to present Don with his plaque.
Our final inductee was presented by Terry Huffman and Bruce Swartz Jr. Mike Gratton had a colourful career as a modified competitor, starting out with car owner Ray Stevens, himself a “Wall of Famer” and along with friend Billy Matthews, competed from their home track at Merrittville Speedway up and down the D.I.R.T. circuit. Mike went on to work in NASCAR, Winston Cup circles, as a fabricator and tire changer with brother in law, Mike Hillman, first for Jimmy Horton and then Dick Trickle.
Along the way, Mike learned many skills and has returned to his roots, at Merrittville, now as a car owner, where he has fabricated a very successful Camaro #777, where former go-karter Tyler McPherson won the Merrittville and Humberstone Championships in 2005 and Mike was awarded Crew Chief of the year for their Hoosier Stock.
For 2006, he has constructed another #20 Camaro for former late model and modified competitor Terry St. Amand and also Cody McPherson, a former go-karter, is behind the wheel of the 777. Mike’s plan is not only as a car owner, but as a mentor, to give an up and coming go-karter a chance to race at the next level, in good equipment.
With the inductions complete, it was time for both the sportsman and modified features. For our finale, we asked John Smith and Daryl Bray to pace the modern modifieds with their beautiful vintage race cars. After a hard fought battle between Scott Wood #38 and Peter Bicknell #42, Bicknell’s modified held off the Thorold racers, late race challenges to win the 55 lap Jerry Winger Memorial- Lucas Oil Shootout and was presented with the winner’s trophies, with the Winger Family present.
While this brought an end to our 55th Anniversary celebration, by the time you read this, we will have crowned our Champions in each division. The points chase is too close to call in each one, but by Labour Day weekend our 55th season will be complete for the modifieds and sportsman. As the longest continuous operating dirt track, not only in Niagara, but in Canada, we welcome you to join us next year, as we celebrate 56 seasons.
For more information on Merrittville Speedway, contact us online at www.merrittvillespeedway.com and for more in depth racing history and area tracks of the past, search under Merrittville Memories.
The Merrittville Speedway Reunion Committee would like to thank event sponsors, TRW (Canada), L. St. Amand Enterprises, CAA Niagara, and the Fonthill Kinsmen for their support.
Text by Rick Kavanagh
Photos by Julie Davidson & Bruce Bonham