Merrittville Speedway’s 60th Anniversary

“So what’s so special about this year’s celebration?”  After all it is 50 + 10 more years and we truly have something to brag about, since we are the oldest continuous running dirt track in Canada.  But let’s put it in perspective. 


During this year of 2011, it is not only Merrittville Speedway’s celebration of 60 years of stock car racing, but as we connect our anniversary to that of the rest of the automotive world, 2011 marks some significant milestones:

 1.  THE 60th consecutive season of Saturday night stock car racing at Merrittville Speedway, the oldest, continuous Saturday night dirt oval in Canada. 

2.  THE 53rd consecutive Daytona 500.  The Great American Race-starts every NASCAR season’s point race, during the modern era.  If you count the “Beach” stock car races, it marks 76 years.  If you go back even further to the era of Ormond Beach – Daytona area speed trials that started in 1903, that totals 108 years that automobiles have been racing during the winter, in Florida.

Pic from Back in Day


3.  THE 63rd consecutive season at NASCAR’s oldest continuous half-mile oval- Martinsville Speedway, Virginia. Clay Earles was one of the founding independent track owners of NASCAR.   

4.  THE 72nd consecutive season of racing every Friday night, at probably the oldest dirt track in the U.S.- Williams’ Grove Speedway, home of the Pennsylvania Posse, sprint car style.  A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti as well as Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell have raced here.

5.  THE  year 2011 bookends a 3 year 2009-2011, 100th Anniversary Celebration at the granddaddy of all big tracks.   Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrates 100 years of automobile racing, known as the “Centennial Era”.  Even though Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909, it wasn’t until 1911 that it hosted a 500 mile automobile race.  The first event in 1909 was actually a balloon race, followed by a motorcycle exhibition. This year the Indy 500 will be one for the ages, since 100 years only comes once, while the brickyard will amass all 27 of the surviving race champions, all of the brickyard’s tradition will reach a pinnacle when the 2011 Centennial Champion of the Indy 500 pulls in to victory lane, for the presentation of the Borg Warner Trophy and the traditional drink of milk. It is a little known fact, that the idea for building ndianapolis, was patterned after the now defunct Brooklands high banked track in England. 


One other track, that should be mentioned, is Syracuse, N.Y.  This historical “fairgrounds race track”, has survived the decades & is still hosting special events .From 1924 when Phil Shafer driving a Duesenberg, won the first 150mile AAA race up to 2010 when the  Grandson  of a former Merrittville Speedway track owner, Stewart Friesen, would become the” first Canadian” to win the Syracuse 200, in a DIRT Modified.  Syracuse is still an important event some 87 years later. Large 1 mile fairground ovals replaced the high speed board tracks that dotted the U.S. during the early years of the 20th century. There are other centennial celebrations, which may not garner the same notoriety as the Indy 500, but are as, or more important. 


Chevrolet will celebrate its 100th anniversary especially in light of the recession and how it impacted the automotive manufacturing business, it is a significant milestone.  While I am not personally a Chevrolet fan, as my following is of the Dodge Brothers legacy, that will not occur until 2014. It is significant and only fitting that a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro will pace the field of 33 race cars for the start of the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Indianapolis 500.  By the way, there is a monument dedicated to race driver Louis Chevrolet, in front of the entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.  THE other no less significant, celebration is the 100th Anniversary of the Ford Motor Company in Europe, specifically in the British Isles-United Kingdom.  It is hard to believe the rapid growth and popularity of Henry Ford’s creations, especially with his Model T. While I am not an expert on Ford products, there are certain Ford automobiles that resonate with me, especially when it comes to automobile racing.  


Whether it was Henry Ford’s infamous #999 racer of the early 1900’s driven by the great Barney Oldfield, or Jimmy Clark winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, in the first rear engined winning, Colin Chapman created Lotus-powered by Ford.  NASCAR 2011 Hall of Fame Inductee, David Pearson winning the 1968 and 1969 NASCAR championship at the wheel of the Holman-Moody owned #17, Ford Torino Talladega, probably the most aerodynamic highest horsepower stock car that Ford ever developed.   It even caused Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises to switch to these race cars, for one season, until the radical Plymouth Superbird emerged.  Chrysler would not allow the Petty’s to drive a Dodge Daytona factory race car, back in 1969. As an a side ,David Pearson won his first NASCAR championship in 1966 driving one of my personal favourite cars, a 1966 Dodge Charger but that’s a story for another time. 


My most favourite race car of the Ford brand, has to be the 1937 Ford, flathead powered coupe.  Why, you might ask, it was not sophisticated but it held a special place in automobile history.  This car was responsible for the development of a cheap competitive race car.   After World War 11, automobile production started with 1946 models, many of which were hold overs from 1941-42 models.  There seemed to be an abundance of 1930’s model cars and Fords seemed to be popular as they were light, reliable, and fast with the flat head V8 engine. 


 The 1937 Ford was also the first year that Ford offered an all steel roof structure, that made it a safer car.  The 1930’s Fords were also cheap to buy and with the advent of either AAA Stock Car racing or loosely organized southern based stock car racers driving moonshine cars, it would lead to the organization of a Stock Car circuit to be named NASCAR founded by Big Bill France, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach Florida in 1948.  From 1948 on, NASCAR has tried to organize and control the spectacle of stock car racing in fact, NASCAR even made a venture into Canada, in 1952, holding an event at Niagara Falls, Ontario.  How does this all relate to our 60th Anniversary at Merrittville Speedway?  For what its worth, the first NASCAR race in Canada, was held at Stamford Park horse track and won by Buddy Shuman, on July 1, 1952.  This was also the opening day of stock car racing on the 1/4 mile dusty dirt oval known as Merrittville Speedway at Thorold, Ontario.  The first feature winner was  Jerry Swisher from Buffalo, N.Y. in a 1937 Ford.   As a matter of fact, from 1952 to 1958 all of Merrittville Speedway’s champions drove Henry Ford’s creations in 1933 to 1937 Ford powered coupes.

Car from Back in Day 2

Greg Panunte 2010

So what’s in an Anniversary?  It stands not only as a testament to our sport, but also becomes a documented biography of our grassroots, family style automobile racing. 


While the development of the automobile is hastened by racing, the adage “Win on Sunday sell on Monday” may still hold some truth.  Our sport is more about the people and families who have become the fabric of our sport and its history.  Whether you are NASCAR’s first champion Robert “Red” Byron who drove a flathead Ford coupe, or Merrittville Speedway’s first champion Orville Kelley who also drove a flathead Ford coupe, this sport is about the people and their dedication.  Back in the day, when there were no large purses, just the win, the trophy and the family of supporters and friends, who worked as a team. 


So if 60 years of a little dirt track in southern Ontario means anything, it is to rekindle the memories of the past linked to the present.  We will be celebrating our legacy every Saturday night this year leading up to our 60th Anniversary Race Reunion on July 16, 2011.  We invite you all to join us and enjoy the 2011 racing season. 


Whether it is our 60th celebration at our small dirt track in southern Ontario, Canada, or the greatest spectacle in auto racing, the 100th anniversary of the   Indianapolis 500, they are both significant in their own way, as they stand as testaments to both amateur and professional automobile racing families that have endured the decades and have remained popular with today’s race fans.


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