Orville Kelly was one of Merrittville Speedway’s true pioneers, competing at Merrittville during opening day in 1952, becoming first track champion and later repeated in 1954. However, Orville’s main concern was not necessarily as a competitor, but he saw the need for improved safety measures and after the 1954 season, Orville became Merrittville’s fist true safety inspector in 1955. Why would a competitor quit his successful driving career and become a safety inspector? Let’s look at his life.
Orville, whose father Norman and mother Beatrice, started out in Toronto. Orville’s father was a truck driver for a transport company. As a result, Orville was raised in the Paris area by his grandparents on a farm along with his two sisters Florence and Norma. In 1936 Orville’s family moved to St. Catharines and Orville started working as an apprentice mechanic and tow truck driver for Well’s Garage, later to become Crew’s located beside the Welland House Hotel on Ontario Street. Over the years, Orville’s love for automobiles and machinery were apparent. He continued to work for Drinkwater Motors and lastly for Brian Cullen Motors to 1989. All during this time period, Orville not only worked on cars, but as a tow truck driver he saw many accidents off the race track, as well as on.
Safety became a true concern and his love of stock car racing made his focus on automobile safety. When Orville’s stock car career started he raced at Ancaster, Civic Stadium and Merrittville Speedway. If he hadn’t been focused on safety so much, he truly could have had his career ended at Ancaster one night when his racer plunged off the infamous 40' embankment. Instead of being injured, he crawled out of the Ford coupe and watched the rest of the races with his wife Dolly. Many people don’t know that Orville Kelley’s driving exploits started behind the #3 Ford coupe owned and sponsored by Murray Stricker’s father-I. Stricker and Sons -Lee Furniture Company, on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. It was that car that won the first points championship at Merrittville Speedway.
For 1953 and 1954 Orville continued to drive a tow truck by day, answering many accident calls and raced at Merrittville Speedway on weekends.
In 1954, Orville drove the Weller Park Garage-Niagara Tile Center-Flathead Fords owned by Al Aalto and “Butch” Bogusat #3 as team mate to Murray Stricker’s #32. If there was a dominant team during the early to late 1950's this was it. In 1955 Orville quit driving, after seeing the 1954 championship and became the head technical inspector, a job he took seriously and held for 18 years. Both Orville and fellow competitor Bruce Swartz became technical inspectors and safety men, being responsible for stock car safety and specifications under NARA rules. Orville was a strict task master on safety. Drivers such as Sandy MacPherson, Alex Gunn and Ivan Little have all had their cars heavily scrutinized and even parked for the evening, when Orville didn’t approve their cars. Don’t get me wrong, Orville was a gentle giant of a man, but “safety” was an occupation to him, according to his wife Dolly and brother in law Albert Wardell, who also worked the pits on the line-up board with Wally Arndt.
Every Saturday night Orville, Albert, Dolly and Alice would pull in to the Merrittville gates, while Orville and Albert would take to the pit gate, wives and sisters in law, would take their familiar spots in the grandstand. Dolly recently told me they always brought their blankets for those cold nights and they remembered sitting near the Hatt family who had their favourite seats near turn one, rooting for their local driver Bob Hatt. They remembered those cold May nights, being frozen in the grandstands, sipping on coffee while their husbands attended to the racers.
Friendships last a long time and while Orville is no longer with us, his wife Dolly still resides on Laird Drive in St. Catharines, the same address at which Orville used to keep his tow truck for those late nights on weekend accident calls. As well brother-in-law Albert and his wife Alice still reside in St. Catharines and the two families are still in daily contact today.
Orville was truly a gentle giant of our sport and a pioneer in promoting safety in stock car racing. I hope that if Orville was with us today, he would be pleased at not only how the sport has advanced in technology, but also how it has emphasized safety in the construction of the race cars. Orville Kelley was a true Champion and pioneer of the sport of stock car racing who helped bring it from the early days of the 1950's through the early 1970's.
At this past year’s banquet, I had the privilege of introducing Mrs. Dolly Kelley and Albert and Alice Wardell to the gathering along with their son Wayne. It was also my honour to present the Kelley-Winger Sportsmanship Award for the first time, to Don Turner.
May Orville Kelley not only be remembered for his 1952 and 1954 track championships, but also his pioneering efforts to bringing stricter safety rules to stock car racing at both Merrittville Speedway and Speedway Park for nearly 18 years.
Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh