and Bill Russell
From the Formidable Fifties to the Sensational
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.
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
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
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
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.