"Stevens Wins Feature"
Ray Stevens Tribute at Merrittville Speedway
Photos By Anita Armenti Photography
This week's Merrittville Memories deals with someone who most of us recognize as a pioneer car owner. However, the article from the St. Catharines Standard dated June 18, tells of the success Ray Stevens achieved on this date as a race driver, behind the wheel of the #44 1933 Ford Coupe. As you know, Ray is also one of the members on the Merrittville Speedway Reunion Committee's Wall of Fame. "Spectacular Crash at Merrittville Races" Tremendous action highlighted the races at Merrittville Speedway on Saturday evening as the feature race developed into a two car scramble with Ray Stevens of St. Catharines, barely edging out a fellow townsman, Murray Stricker, by a couple offeet while earlier in the evening the packed stands gazed in hushed silence as Pete Lorenzo of Niagara Falls, N.Y., demolished his car in a spectacular roll-over. Forty cars were on hand to enter the races and every event produced ample action for the 2,300 fans.
The Stevens-Stricker battle was waged after Stevens, leading the field from the sixth lap on, had Stricker break out of the pack into second spot on the 11th lap after being in the sixteenth position on the start. The daylight between the cars was gradually closed until they started the final lap with Stricker riding Steven's rear bumper. On the back stretch the former edged even momentarily but Stevens out-manoeuvred his rival on the comer for his narrow margin of victory. Lorenzo's crash in the first semi final stopped the race and resulted in a flying re-start. The Roartown speedster had his hood come loose as he entered the straightaway in front of the stands and suddenly as he reached the first turn his car, travelling at a tremendous speed, slid sideways and rolled over a couple of times, seemed to leap high in the air and come down on its nose and roll end over end. Lorenzo was uninjured while his car was a complete wreck.
Jerry Winger of Stevensville, Bill Mephan of Hamilton, John Bezanson of Hamilton and Jeno Begolo of St. Catharines won the various heats. The semifinals were captured by Don Ledingham of WeIland and Ray Stevens. In the consolation event a North Tonawanda driver, Jim Hurtubise, scored a popular victory. Five Buffalo area cars were in Saturday night's action and they intimated that later this month they would be accustomed to the track and capable of stopping the winning streak of the local drivers.
Postscript; This Feature was won by Ray Stevens, the driver, on June 18,1955, just a short time before his accident, but Ray Stevens the "Car owner", would start a new career mentoring deserving drivers & new local talent for decades to come.
Ray started out with his close friend Bruce Swartz #127, then in 1953 Ray started out driving the old #127, now #44. The two drivers travelled the local circuit, flat towing from Aylmer, Ancaster, to Merrittville, weekly competing & learning the new sport of stock car racing in Niagara.
It was during this time that my father Ken Kavanagh would help his friend, Bruce Swartz, & then learned from him that Merrittville Speedway was for sale. Little did we know, as a family, how that would change the rest of our lives, that was back in the fall of 1955. We all know that 1955 was a fateful year for Ray Stevens, but it opened a new chapter for the rest of his life as a car-owner, & through the decades, he mentored & gave a chance to many deserving drivers, both rookies & veterans alike.
The list is long, but here is a sample, Jimmy Jenkins, Dave Halliwell, Tommy Cook, Ted Renshaw, Lloyd Holt, Hugh Tripp, Mike Granton, Davey Moore, Stan Friesen, Harry Sittler, Brian Stevens, Martin Polhill, & Larry Lampman Jr.. Ray Stevens became a teacher & while fielding very competitive race cars, he became extremely observant of what his drivers & cars were doing on the track.
From the 1970's to the present Ray's star pupil became his son, Brian. After spending many seasons with Brian & I watching the features from the grandstand, he tried his hand at driving a street-stock #14s. After serving an apprenticeship, he moved up to the Gremlin style modifieds. There was the 14s of Brian Stevens & also Harry Sittler, campaigning at Merrittville & other tracks on the new DIRT circuit, under the Stevens racing banner. During the 1980's the Flyin' Brian Stevens racing team was gaining momentum at area race tracks with help from Ray & a loyal crew, solid sponsorship from Groff Tire &Bryant Irvine at York Electro plating, the blue #44A,(Amanda), won Merrittville's Championship in 1982. (Ray finally relented & let Brian carry his number.)
Stevens family racing team, was a top contender at area race tracks, against Davey Moore, Peter Bicknell, Harvey Hainer jr. & Jim Begolo as up &coming competitors versus the veteran's Ivan Little, Don Turner & Harry Sittler, during the mid 1980's. Ray Steven's, always the tough task master, assembled a new Bicknell car, the #4 bright orange modified & again the team was rewarded with a Merrittville points Championship in 1992.
From that last Championship, to the present day, there was one constant in Ray's life, the love for his Grandchildren & the passion that he held for dirt track racing, at it's top level. Ray Stevens went from being a young race driver, to a veteran "Professor" of the sport, who motivated anyone who would listen & earned the respect of everyone on both sides of the track.
In planning special events for the 60th season at Merrittville, we all knew that Ray was not in the pits & hoped he would be able to join us on July 16/11 for the Reunion. August 13/2011 ended up being an emotional evening for all of us & after speaking first with long time crewman, Dan Wurster, seeing Harry Sittler, & finally visiting with my oid friend Brian, it was as if Ray was directing the evening.
Everyone assembled, one last time, out of respect to have the #44 Modified lead the pack, piloted by son, Brian, crewed by his loyal "Flyin "Brian guys with friends & family watching" I truly believe, that this is how Ray Stevens wanted to be remembered, a good race driver, a good father & tough task-master, a good Grandfather & a "Professor" of the sport, whose life was dirt track racing, especially at Merrittville Speedway.
When you say the name Ray Stevens, three words come to mind, Commitment, Champion, & Respect. Sincerely Rick Kavanagh