and Bill Russell
From the Formidable Fifties to the Sensational Seventies
As many of you may know, John Marino and George Cullen built Merrittville Speedway in 1951 and 1952 and opened the track July 1, 1952. These two pioneers of southern Ontario dirt track racing continued holding stock car races every Saturday night until the end of 1955, when after many trials and tribulations and success, they decided to sell the facility to two young businessmen from St. Catharines.
At the time, Ken Kavanagh would attend many race nights at Merrittville along with my mother Doreen. At the time, Ken Kavanagh was a young salesman at Zenith Electric on St. Paul Street West and for some reason he had developed an interest in stock car racing with his friend Bruce Swartz.
As you know, Bruce along with Ralph Taylor were a couple of the original fellows to race stock cars at Stamford Park from the St. Catharines area. Bruce would race his pumpkin and white #127 along with friend Ray Stevens, while Mom and Dad would sit in the grandstands, my brother and I must have been left at home, while they watched the races.
Somehow Bruce had heard that Merrittville was for sale, and he happened to mention it to Dad. Well it didn't take long for Dad to contact his best friend on the east side of the Burgoyne Bridge, Bill Russell, who owned and operated Lincoln Battery, on One Ontario Lane. The two men pooled their life savings and made John and George an offer, thus the Kavanagh Family and the Russell Family were now in the stock car business.
How do you run a speedway? My belief is that they did it with a lot trial and error and a lot of common sense management. With it being a relatively new sport, it was both popular and risky. Would the appeal last? When I say all of the families became involved, it was everyone. My mother Doreen and Dawn Russell would work the concessions at night, along with my grandmother Dorothy and grandfather Lawrence. Mark Russell would tend to the fences and security with his cane in hand, until a stock car hit a pole.
With all of his experience at Ontario Hydro, he would don his spurs, cigar in mouth and climb the pole, fix the lights so the races could continue. Even my uncle Bill Chapman would help in the ticket booth, until one night an errant wheel and tire came off of turn three and four, and knocked the wooden building clear off its footings with him inside. According to Dad, he took off like a bullet. So as our families worked a race night, they found out quickly that there were weekly chores. Picking up garbage on Sundays, repairing broken poles and lights on Monday through to Thursday. Wally Arndt mastered the grader to prepare the track, then paint, cut grass and get ready to do it allover again on Saturdays.
Within a few years, we kids, Rick, Ron, Nick, Tony and Mike, would do our jobs by day, get muddy and then work at night. Anything from cutting grass, painting posts, during the day to handing out kiddie ride tickets, selling programs, seat cushions or popcorn, by night. In later years we could even make sure that we sold out of popcorn, so we could watch the features. We finally would graduate to firemen and we could actually watch the races. During the late 1950's Ken and Bill continued to develop stock car racing and in 1957 introduced the jalopy division with Bill Binning being its first points champion. This was the entry level division.
In 1961 they purchased land in Stoney Creek at Mud Street and Highway #20 and constructed Speedway Park, a 1/3 mile clay oval with the most modem facilities and grandstands available. Their partners in this venture would be Merrittville's founders, John Marino and George Cullen. Opening day would be June 19, 1962.
The Kavanaghs, Russells, Cullens and Marinos were back in racing and now a minimum of two nights per week. Speedway Park would establish a Friday night tradition, while Merrittville would race Saturdays and holiday Mondays. Our jobs were doubled and many of us would keep up our summer jobs by working days and race nights at both tracks. For us as kids, it was a great way to grow up, especially if you were a motor-head. A small part of Merrittville Speedway's heritage became Speedway Park. It was discovered that some of the best clay for racing on was in Thorold, not in Stoney Creek, so the top six inches of Speedway Park's surface was actually hauled from Merrittville Speedway's land.
During the early 1960's, Merrittvi1le and Speedway Park became Friday and Saturday night traditions for dirt track racing fans. Drivers such as Eric Bradt, Bill Rafter, Cam Gagliardi, Alex Gunn, Jeno Begolo, Fred Hurst, would all compete strongly in the sportsmen modifieds, while drivers such as Frank Fields, Don Turner, Jack Hollis, Mike Zajac, Don Deagle and others, would break into racing in the new-late model division. all of which later would move on to the modified careers. During the mid 1960's, the mini stocks were introduced and the Mini- Coopers and Volkswagen "bugs" would battle it out, drivers such as Denny and Larry Deagle, Bob 0 'Hara, and Bill Dominey would have fun with these little racers.
I believe the pressure and time of running two speedways took their toll, and both Bill Russell and Ken Kavanagh developed other interests. With the families growing up, the Russell Family was deeply involved in rowing, Bill Russell had been deeply involved in the St. Catharines rowing club for years, but now both Nick and Mike were rowing while their Dad was maintaining and fixing rowing shells. They were in racing, but now on water. This coupled with the fact that Bill Russell was also heavily committed to his music. He played multiple instruments in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment as well as donating his time as needed to the various folk arts clubs around St. Catharines, when a band member was needed.
As for my father Ken, he was already racing standard bred horses, while owning the speedways and working at Zenith Electric. I believe his competitive spirit shifted to the horse racing business, especially with Garden City Raceway opening. As a result, Merrittville Speedway and Speedway Park were both sold in 1971 to new owners, Stan Friesen and Kurt Uhl at Merrittville and a group of Hamilton investors at Speedway Park.
What about the kids? The Russell's were rowing, the Marino's were rowing and the Cullen's rowing as well and the Kavanagh's were into horse racing- except for one motor head who kept the interest going all these years. I am proof that racing not only gets in your blood, but stays there. Now some 43 years since buying Merrittville Speedway, my father Ken is coming back and racing a go-kart at Merrittville Speedway on Tuesday nights with my nephew Mike. So as my father Ken has now slowed down racing horses, he is developing an interest some 43 years later with a go-kart number 43. I believe if the Kavanagh's and Russell's wanted to thank anyone for their support through the years, it would firstly be all the family and friends who contributed their time and worked for Merrittville Speedway.
People such as Wally Arndt who kept the tracks in great shape, Jack Munn who ran NARA, Hugo Furney the statistician and magician, Jack Gatecliff from the Standard, Orville Kelley the head safety man, Eric Thomas and Howell Roberts at the ticket office. There are too many to mention, you have to love the sport to be in it and not count the hours of work.
Unfortunately Bill Russell passed away a few years ago, after a short illness and Merrittville Speedway paid tribute to a gentleman. He is sorely missed, but will not be forgotten as his imprint is on this racing facility.
Finally, I believe all of us as Merrittville Speedway's owners, past or present, are proof that stock car racing is a family sport and those families must be dedicated to putting on the best show possible for the race fans.
From the Cullen's, Marino's, Kavanagh's
and Russell's, to the present owners the Bicknell's,
Williamson's, and Friesen's, we thank all the competitors,
past and present, for their support, but most of all, the
fans, for their continued 47 years of carrying on this
Saturday night tradition.