Bryant Irvine and
the Bee 99 and Beyond
Back in 1955-56 when Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell owned Merrittville Speedway, having purchased it from founders George Cullen and John Marino, a young fellow by the name of Bryant Irvine took to the track along with his friend Dave Boese to try the relatively new sport of Stock Car Racing.
Bryant’s first car was fairly conventional and a winning car, the ex Murray Stricker 1933 Ford Coupe powered by a flathead Ford V8, was the ticket. Bryant re-lettered the car #99 with help and sponsorship from his father-in-law C. H. “Shorty” York at York Electro Plating, the only thing was to decide which colour.
Wife, Marilyn wanted blue, but Bryant did not like the shade and opted for black. So off went Bryant and Dave in their respective #99 and #98 coupes to conquer Merrittville’s 1/4 mile clay.
Well week after week, they cut their teeth in the stock cars, all the time thinking, what to do next. During the learning process Bryant started to wonder how to improve his cars. The first car he built was a 1934 Chevrolet Coupe again with the #99 painted on it, but this time painted white. This car was the first stock car to have centre steering. My guess is that it gave the driver more safety, but centred the driver’s weight in the car. While achieving some success, this car in Bryant’s words, was the first car to have an overhead valved Chevy V8. This definitely was not low budget, for those days, and without the help from “Shorty” York it wouldn’t have been possible. Bryant’s next season, again brought a new car, this time an all steel body and roof, a 1937 Chevrolet Coupe. This car not only featured the same layout of the previous car, but the engine was set back, for weight distribution. It was a beautiful coupe with its full fenders and white paint job, with bright red #99 on the side and a cartoon of a bee.
Bryant Irvine became known as Bee 99, winning races against the likes of Jerry Winger, Jeno Begolo and Murray Stricker. The main race car was still the Ford with its Thunderbird engines vs. the Chevrolet coupes with V8 or 6 cylinder power. Bryant Irvine learned early that the Canadian competitors lacked a source for speed equipment, so he set out to secure engine parts, as well as machining and boring from his Ormond Street shop in Thorold.
Ted Kesslers’ in Buffalo was probably the only true source for speed equipment, but Bryant Irvine opened his Sontario Speed Shop to offer availability of parts and services from California, being his specialty.
During the 1960's, Bryant and Marilyn Irvine continued to stay interested in racing, but now were responsible for operating York Electro Plating in Thorold. Bryant remained involved in the sport more and more as a spectator and in the 1960's and 70's, he attended races at Watkin’s Glen, Mosport, Indianapolis, especially where road racing was concerned.
Bryant also has an interest in the same hobby I love, that being antique cars. He still owns his original Camaro convertible, as well as a 1940 Chevrolet pickup that he has tucked away in a garage. During the late 70's and early 1980's, Bryant’s interest in local dirt track racing circled, and he became involved on the sponsor side with Ray Stevens on Brian Stevens’ #44 modified. Ray and Brian travelled the dirt tracks of Ontario and the U. S. with primary sponsorship from Groff Tire and York Electro Plating. C. H. “Shorty” York had been a strong advertiser at Merrittville Speedway during the 1950's and Bryant returned as a sponsor during the 1980's. At this point, he had came full circle, and during the 1987 season, he had an opportunity to purchase Merrittville Speedway solely and did. It is hard to believe that he is celebrating his 15th year of ownership.
While Bryant leaves the office duties to his wife Marilyn, Jim and Kathy, their two children, he loves to spend his time working on Merrittville’s clay surface. Questions like, “how can I keep the moisture in and the dust down? Why are there nights when the track appears to be pumping water?” Making sure there are no ruts or rocks to bother the competitors. Bryant will experiment, from adding organic matter, to wood chips to gypsum. He routinely takes soil samples to test the PH and composition of the track all without the use of chemicals, which would hurt the environment and irritate the drivers. Merrittville Speedway’s oval has gone through many transformations, but its surface is under the care and direction of Merrittville’s master care-taker, Bryant Irvine.
It’s hard to believe that some of the improvements are all due to one person’s foresight to improve the facilities for the spectators. The tower with it’s novel, for the time, suites, tower for officials and scorers, and down below track office and concessions is now 10 years old, having been unveiled for the 40th Reunion.
The overhead lighting was improved when Eric Tomas and Raceline telecast the Trevor Wilkens Qualifier. The go-kart track where many a young racer, can dream of becoming the next Pete Bicknell. The latest addition of trialing the scoring transponders, to aid officials with scoring and line-up can only be a plus for the sport.
So next time you are walking around Merrittville and you spot a tanned fellow watching the action in his soiled shirt and jeans, quietly taking in the evening, either from turn four, or the infield, say “Thanks”.
Bryant Irvine is carrying on the tradition of family involvement and dedication in trying to bring fast family fun to the residents of Niagara, first started by John Marino and George Cullen and family, to Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell and family, on to Stan Friesen and Kurt Uhl and family.
The next 50 years of Merrittville Speedway’s Saturday Night Racing Tradition is in good hands.
“2003 and Beyond”
Stock car racing is not only a business but becomes a lifetime passion, that involves commitment. At the end of 2002, Bryant, Marilyn and Family had nothing left to prove and the pressure of track ownership and balancing the business commitments of York Electro Plating in Thorold were high. In order to own and operate a dirt speedway, with the reputation and Saturday night tradition of Merrittville Speedway, coupling that with the growing go-kart racing on Tuesday nights required an immense commitment of time and money. So for only the fifth time in its long history Merrittville Speedway was put up for sale.
During the fall/winter of 2002-2003, there was a lot of speculation, as to what would happen and without getting into details, the Irvine Family sold to the Bicknell/Williamson/Freisen families, quickly to become Peter and Nancy Bicknell and Randy and Tracey Williamson, but Bryant and Marilyn and Jim Irvine were still in the picture.
Anyone who knows Bryant as I have, knew that even though he had spent a lot of money improving the facilities, including new concessions, the new tower complex for the 40th, building a go-kart track, with new lighting, that his passion was chasing the ever elusive solution to give the competitors a dust free, fast, multi-grooved racing surface.
Even though the Bicknell/Williamson families have taken Merrittville Speedway to the next level, where are the Irvine Family members?
Since 2003, Bryant Irvine can still be found tirelessly working on track preparation, Jim can be found working along side Erica Bicknell, in the office and performing daily chores and duties on the premises. Marilyn can be found working alongside Tracey Williamson on race nights in the ticket office.
Merrittville Speedway’s success story,today, is due to a combined effort by all of these families, to make the facilities both for the fans and competitors, the best on the D.I.R.T. circuit. My involvement in coming back to Merrittville where many memories exist for me personally, resumed just after the 40th anniversary reunion and I thank Bryant for allowing Jim Irvine, Bruce Swartz, Ted Renshaw and myself to organize and form the “Reunion Committee.” It’s hard to believe that we have just completed the 60th season.
In the last 9 seasons, I have been very fortunate to get to know and become friends with the Bicknells, Williamsons and Irvines, as well as current committee members Terry and Wendy Huffman, Jeno and Shirley Begolo and Mark Swartz.
Through all of the changes that we have seen evolve in the sport and especially at Merrittville Speedway, as the Oldest continuous running dirt track in Canada, there is one constant, for Bryant Irvine that is his passion for track preparation. So next time you look across the track, from dawn until dusk, and spot a gentleman doing laps on the tractor, grooming and watering the track, along with Sarge and Howard, it’ll be Bryant Irvine trying to give the competitors the best racing surface possible, just wave or tip your hat and say “Thanks.”
The hours are long, the commitment is huge, but we all do our part, because we love the sport and the tradition of Merrittville Speedway. While Peter Bicknell is known as” Mr.Smallblock”, Bryant Irvine is the true” Dr. of Dirt”.
“Happy 60th Birthday Merrittville” and Thanks Peter, Nancy and Erica, and Randy, Tracey and Bryant and Marilyn and Jim for allowing me to come along for the ride, for the past 20 years..
Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh