Jeno Begolo #16 and #123
Jeno Begolo - The Mayor of Thorold South
I was recently invited by Jeno and Shirley Begolo to spend some time at their home in Thorold South, so we could recount many of the racing memories associated both with Jeno’s career, Merrittville Speedway and now with his son Jim’s rejuvenated career.
Jeno’s career started out at the age of eighteen after watching drivers such as Bruce Swartz and Ralph Taylor race at Stamford. He said to himself, I’d like to give it a try and having worked at A & A Auto Body, owned by Alex Lomatof and Adam Scarowski on 123 Oakdale Avenue in Thorold, there was a “37 Ford coach out back.
From the beginning, Jeno was particular and liked the coupes so with his body shop experience he transformed the coach to a coupe over the winter. In the spring of 1952, the A & A auto body #123 emerged and was ready to race. Jeno’s first race was at Stamford Park, then Brantford at Mohawk Park.
Jeno found out early that what looked easy from the grandstand was something else on the track, especially with a race car with mechanical brakes and a true stock chassis.
During 1952 Jeno brought the race car to Merrittville’s ¼ mile oval on opening day as well as at Chippawa race track. Jeno learned his trade well and in 1955 he opened Begolo’s Body Service in Thorold South and married his wife of 43 years, Shirley and continued to race at Merrittville Speedway. Since he now operated his own body shop, he formed a partnership with Windy Whitwell from Allanburg, Ontario who raced under the #16. For 1956 and 1957 Jeno’s career continued to develop, but in 1958, he now raced his own cars sponsored by Nemeth Motors.
In 1958, Jeno experimented with an extremely light Ford model A racer, built by Harry Ross. It was so fast, nothing could touch it. As a result, the NDSCRA drivers associated voted and banned the car. Jeno was both angry and disheartened but he finished 1958 out with a conventional coupe that Jeno believed showed up at his shop donated by former track owners Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell. The 1958 season was memorable for Jeno in many ways, but especially since he won Merrittville’s points championship.
Many people assisted Jeno in the early years, but none more than Harry Ross who built the cars and Jack McKinney who worked at Sadler’s Auto Electric and let Jeno bring his care to the shop, set it up and use the dynamometer. Jack McKinney would also help set the car up at the track, since had vast mechanical knowledge, but also driving experience with his own #5 Grantham Packers Ford coupe. From 1959 to 1961, Jeno left Merrittville over the Model A experience and competed in a bug dirt super modified built by Harry Ross.
Jeno and his crew won the first championship on Lancaster dirt and also raced at the original Ransomville Speedway, Perry and Olean, winning over 13 features and beating local stars such as Jim Smolinski Sr., Ron Smoker’s father. Jeno returned to Merrittville in 1962 and also raced at Speedway Park’s opening night June 19, 1962.
Through all his racing exploits, Jeno always has had his brother Albert “Iber” Begolo at his side as a crew member and supporter. In 1963 Jeno started building his own cars with the help of his crew Larry Cienik, Robert “Mouse” Young, and Wayne House at Begolo’s Body Service.
During the mid 1960’s with the support of Curly’s Auto Sales, Jeno was a strong competitor wherever he raced whether at Merrittville’s or Speedway Park’s dirt, or occasionally on Lancaster’s pavement. Somehow a cartoon character in the form of a rabbit started to appear on Jeno’s cars and this is the story. Apparently, June Whitwell, scorer at Merrittville used to say that Jeno would bug her after the races each week, suggesting in jest that her scoring might help Jeno out. To no avail, June called Jeno a Bug-the Bug developed into a Bugs and then to Bugs Bunny. So Jeno painted the Bugs Bunny on his car to “bug” June everytime she saw the car.
From thereafter the Bugs Bunny and the #16 were an inseparable item which followed Jeno for the rest of his life. During 1966 Jeno won the points championship at Speedway Park but 1968 was his year, capturing both Merrittville’s points championship as well as repeating as Speedway Park’s super Stock champion. The red and black Begolo coupes were a sight to behold and always reflected Jeno’s talent as a car builder and also as a body man. In 1969 and 1970 Jeno finally campaigned a beautiful purple and gold trimmed coach remaining super competitive against the likes of George Treanor, Ivan Little and Mike Zajac.
One of Jeno’s memorable moments was being interviewed for Chuck Healey’s sports show on Buffalo T. V. and having his car featured. In 1974 Jeno and his crew built his last car a beautiful Gremlin bodied modified with a fully enclosed engine and torsion bar suspension. Again, Jeno retired as a driver at the peak of his career, hoping to keep his son Jim from getting too involved in racing. To no avail, Jim started racing enduro motorcycles then tried drag racing, then tried a Mini Minor on a homemade dirt track behind Begolo’s shop.
At age 18, young Jim started his career, behind the wheel of a limited sportsman and after two years he moved up to modifieds in 1983. With Jim and his dad Jeno, they first raced at Bismarck won the Humberstone points in 1983, but after much traveling, won “Dirt Rookie of the Year” points beating out Joe Plazek. Jim could now carry on the Begolo tradition by carrying the Bugs Bunny on his car. Jeno remained as car owner for Jim to the end of the 1995 season, in fact, Jim’s last race car is still parked in Jeno’s garage.
Jeno has no regrets and has enjoyed his career and was recently honoured by the Thorold Chamber of Commerce for his business dedication and his sports accomplishments in the community. Today, Jeno and Shirley live comfortably in their house beside their former shop. While Jeno drives his tow truck on call for the OPP and Niagara Region, he has time for golfing and camping. Jeno’s family support has always been there and he is also very proud of his daughters Cindy Dickson and Barbara Begolo, both very accomplished figure skaters.
He is kept busy not only with Jim’s son Brent, but Cindy’s children C.J. as well as twins Kelsey and Candace. It’s obvious that stock car racing is only one facet of the Begolo family but the family can be found at Merrittville Speedway supporting Jim’s rejuvenated career, behind the wheel of Terry St. Amand’s Swiss Chalet #16. In a career that spanned some 23 years as a car owner and driver, and since then, another 12 years as a car owner for son Jim.
The Begolo tradition continues in 1998 as Jim tries to follow in his father’s footsteps seeking another points championship, in the modified #16. I hope this family tradition continues on for many more years to come. So as Dizzy Dean Murray, the announcer at Speedway Park labeled Jeno “he truly is Mayor of Thorold South”.
Thanks for your hospitality and we hope to see you at many more reunions to come.