Since the inception of Stock Car Racing at Merrittville Speedway in 1952, many competitors came through the pit area, but few left a lasting impression on the sport.
Tommy Cook of St. Catharines was one of those competitors who competed on the 1/4 mile oval from 1953 to 1964 and left a lasting impression. Tom's career started in 1953 when he prepared his own cars - mostly flathead Fords. His 1937 Ford Coupe would be painted bright yellow with the red fireball #24 emblazoned on the doors. At this time Tom worked at Valley Motors on Hartzel Road - the local Volkswagen dealer and they always sponsored his racer.
Tom raced at a few area ovals such as Stamford, occasionally at Humberstone and even a couple of times when Speedway Park opened but his home track was Merrittville Speedway.
In all of his racing career he only missed two nights of racing at Merrittville Speedway in twelve seasons of competition - very few racers can match that record. No matter what happened the week before, Tom and his crew would rebuild the 24 then flat-tow it through Merrittville's gates the following Saturday.
Whether it be a bent fender or a total rebuild the #24 Valley Motors Special was always present. During a recent conversation Tom told me that one of his first racers was a '37 Ford which were built like tanks. They were fast sturdy race cars that could take a beating. Tom proved this many times
Originally Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval was surrounded by a five foot high tin fence supported by posts and then in order to provide adequate lighting - the infield was full of many wooden light poles so that the track would be adequately lit - primitive to today's standards.
In the heat of competition many coupes and coaches tested the wall as well as the strength of their bumpers against the light poles. Tommy Cook was, as many others were, no stranger to this plight and his high grooved racing line seemed to attract him to this wall.
Tommy Cook truly loved the sport and the camaraderie of his competitors, amongst one of those that stood out in his mind for his clean driving style was young Jerry Winger who was so talented he didn't need a bumper to get through traffic - he was a quiet polite pilot who raced and passed cleanly in the heat of competition - the #10 ball was a nemesis to many.
He loved the sport so much that when his sponsor and employer Valley Motors wanted him to work Saturday evenings, he declined since he wished to race at Merrittville on Saturday nights. Tom took employment with Simpson's Towing Service. Tom continued to race and win many heats, consi's and the occasional feature, but one of his funniest, most memorable moments was in 1954, when John Marino then founding owner, pleaded with Tom in jest, "Stay away from the poles." Tom tried to comply but as with many others - the poles seemed to always get in the way.
The story of "Cook's Corner's" centers on Tom's ability to ride high in the turns - no driver wished to be on the high side of Tom going into turn 4. Quite often Tom would get too high and slide and/or roll the top heavy coupes off of turn 4, in the heat of competition. He was a strong competitor who didn't let his impairment interfere with the sport. Did I mention impairment - it was only minor as Tom had sight in only one eye. This was not a handicap as he loved driving at Merrittville Speedway.
As time went on Tom gained employment at Burnstein Brick in St. Catharines and continued to race his #24 coupe. One of the scariest moments for Tom occurred one Saturday night when the bright yellow coupe tangled in turn two and started to flip end over end, and roll down the back chute landing upside down in turn three. At this point the car burst into flames at the rear and Tom couldn't get out, his foot was stuck under the pedals. finally the safety crew freed him and put the fire out. Tom was fine, the car a mess, but by the following Saturday night, a rebuilt #24 was ready to roll. Another of Tom's memorable moments was when driving in the early 1960's for Ray Stevens, at the Stateline Speedway in Pennsylvania. It was an exciting race, starting 75 cars three wide, however Tom got taken out by a rival US driver who T-boned Tom. Another was while leading a 100 lap race at Humberstone, it started to rain at lap 75. Tom Cook was leading and instead of calling the race, since the majority of the laps were run, they rescheduled the race to be run over again, snatching victory away from Tom.
Don't get me wrong, Tom enjoyed the sport and continued to compete at Merrittville. Tom stayed with the tried & true Flathead Fords while others would go to overhead valve engines. According to Tom, the "good speed equipment" was hard to come by in Ontario while many US competitors had the latest new speed equipment, he continued to race on good used parts. Tom drove for Ray Stevens the last couple of seasons of his career and actually did some successful asphalt racing at Lancaster Speedway.
Tom's career came to an end when the rules actually banned the flathead Ford, the sport was actually becoming too expensive even then. tom continued working for Burnstein Brick for 33 years finally retiring some years ago. Today at age 74 he still has fond memories of the sport and continues to attend occasionally.
Here's to you Tom, truly a loyal competitor for many years at Merrittville Speedway, who didn't let an impairment become a handicap May turn four at Merrittville be fondly named "Cook's Corners" as a remembrance to the man who drove the Fireball #24 Coupe on Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval. My father Ken Kavanagh, former track owner, said to me that a fellow like Tom Cook should be named to the Wall of Fame for his outstanding weekly racing attendance at Merrittville Speedway, and the spirit in which he competed.
So here's to you Tom, welcome back to Merrittville Speedway.