the management of Merrittville Speedway asked me to
write an article about the very early years of the
sport. This is very difficult for me for in 1952
when Merrittville Speedway was built, I wasn't born
yet, that happened in 1953.
I recently had a visit
with John Marino and his wife Pauline at their
lovely home on Lakeshore Road. My wife Michelle
admired one of John's hobbies, rose gardens, while I
admired the other, old cars, a 1930 Durant coupe to
be exact. You see, even though John Marino and
George Cullen sold Merrittville Speedway in 1955 to
my father Ken Kavanagh and his close friend Bill
Russell, he has always maintained an interest in the
According to John, the
idea of Merrittville Speedway came to mind after a
few trips with friends to Buffalo's Civic Stadium,
where in turn he would meet many friends from St.
Catharines. After a while the idea of building a
speedway in southern Ontario came to min, he said,
"why the hell drive to Buffalo when we can drive to
St. Catharines." Yes, I said St. Catharines.
was nearly built on a tract of land in Louth
Township near where Kala's Hardware presently
stands. John along with his partner and friend,
George Cullen had even bought the material for the
bleachers. However, there were problems as St.
Catharines was primarily a "stick & ball" town and
stock car racing was a "fad" being opposed by
several city councilors.
The search went on and
John and George heard of a 20 acre parcel of land in
Thorold Township, south of St. Catharines, were a
farmer owed the township for nine yeas back taxes. A
deal was struck on the price of the property and the
present location was secured.
During 1951 the 1/4 mile
clay oval was carved out of the farmer's field,
wooden bleachers were erected and racing was
officially started on July 1, 1952 during the
We've all heard how
dusty that day was and the racing have was new to
John and George and so they learned, and learned,
trips to Ancaster during 1952 with their friends
Orvil and Dolly Kelly, Merrittville's first point
champion, they moved their racing to the coolness of
the evening and treated the racing surface with many
tons of calcium.
The city of St.
Catharines was heavily involved in both baseball,
hockey and lacrosse and hardly gave a wink to the
now sport of stock car racing. Friday nights were
traditionally lacrosse nights at Haig Bowl and so
John and George picked Saturday nights to run, and
established a tradition which continues today. It
was hard to get an announcer who could report on the
races and get space in the newspaper.
The lacrosse boys were worried as many fans of
lacrosse became stock car fans. This became apparent
when lacrosse switched to Saturday, and attendance
dropped, while attendance increased at Thorold's
Merrittville Speedway, in spite of poor media
coverage, except for the Welland Tribune.
If anyone tells you it's easy running a speedway,
it comes with many actions of trial and error both
to entertain the fans, keep the drivers happy, and
offer "fast family fun."
While John Marino and
his family, with George and Joan Cullen and their
family, worked hard at establishing the start of
Merrittville Speedway, they sold their "baby" to my
father Ken and Bill Russell for the 1956 season. At
this time, Dad and Bill continued to work hard at
improving the facility by adding more seats, better
lighting, and securing an announcer who seemed to
like the sport. His name was Rex Stimers, known by
many as the "lung."
Rex's announcing, I'm
told, was memorable and his sports show "The Spice
of Sorts" was widely listened to. A kid traveling to
the track we would hear Rex, go through the list of
drivers and his pronunciation on one driver, Cam
Gag-li-ar-di was memorable.
When Rex retired as
announcer, Jack Gatecliff was a school mate of Bill
Russell's assumed the role as track announcer. For
many years as well Jack wrote his column "Through
the Sports Gate" in the St. Catharines Standard.
During 1960 and 1961 Ken
Kavanagh, Bill Russell, John Marino and George
Cullen ventured into a new facility and after
building their "dream" - Speedway Park - Stoney
Creek, opened its gate on June 19, 1962. This 1/3
mile wide, high banked facility, with it's modern
steel and concrete grandstand was modern than many
of the existing NASCAR tracks of it's day.
Our families worked hard
and long, both kids and adults as we all had jobs
both during the day and night from cutting grass, to
selling popcorn we all did it. Butch, Len and Jim
Marino, Rick, Ron, and Marilyn Kavanagh, Nick, Tony,
Mike and Lai Russell, Bob and Wendy Cullen.
All of us as kids,
didn't have to look for summer jobs on Fridays and
Saturdays for many years up to 1970. We all worked
at stock car racing, grew up with stock car racing
and some of us today continue to follow the sport.
Even though after many
years, we've all gone off to our own careers, there
is still a bond and it happens to be those years
from 1952 to 1970 at both Merrittville Speedway and
I know we never say it,
but on behalf of the "Kids", thanks for the
memories, John, George, Ken and Bill.
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