Merrittville's First 3 Time Champion
(all articles created by Rick Kavanagh)
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with Mike and Joannie Zajac at their home beside the family fruit farm near Lake Ontario at Beamsville, Ontario. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the daily rat race, Mike had recently retired from the bakery distribution business at age 60, having been with Dempsters for 39 years, a very long and loyal association.
He had time to sit down with me and his wife Joannie to share some thoughts and memories on his career and his passion for auto racing. In order to understand the commitment it takes to race and win, one must understand that in Mike's case, it was a conviction, even against his parents' wishes. A very young Mike came to Canada in 1948 with his parents Nick and Tekla to start a new life, emigrating from the Ukraine and settling briefly in Jordan.
Unable to speak the language, the local barber Orv Merry would cut Mike's hair and help teach him English. It was apparent that Mike was quick to learn and within two years his parents moved to Cherry Avenue and settled on a fruit farm. As a student, while his parents worked hard at farming, Mike attended nearby Rittenhouse School. On his way to and from school, he had to walk by a nearby Shell Station, where young stock car driver Murray Stricker operated his garage and Ken Troup and Junior High hung out. Mike's first taste of speed was when one day, Murray Stricker gave him a ride in his shiny new 1955 Thunderbird. Mike Zajac was bitten and speed was to become part of his life.
While attending Beamsville High School, he met his wife Joan Lampman in grade 9, and together they attended high school and also local dances on Friday nights. Now if you know anything about the rural area of Beamsville, it was common place for street drag racing to occur, and so again, lured by the speed bug, Mike and his buddies would drag race and in those days, the police left them alone. Ray Fields, Jack McKinney and a few other characters raced their big engined cars to their hearts content on the back roads. 1970
In 1958-59, Mike had a Studebaker that he drag raced, but after a while he was bored by the straight line speed. So while attending a race in 1959 at Merrittville, he said to Joannie, "I can do that." Quickly he approached my father Ken Kavanagh for a set of rules and registration, they couldn't believe that he was of driving age, since Mike always appeared youthful for his years. After some persuasion, he was registered. He went home and took the Studebaker and transformed it into his first race car. Without his parents' knowledge or consent, Mike's racing career started. He and his friend Billy Mathews spent time assembling, painting the race car at an off farm location. The white #88 Studebaker late model appeared at Merrittville and Speedway Park, and the learning experience began.
As part of Mike's learning curve, he was lined up against a fellow driver Ken Aspen from Hamilton, also in a Studebaker, when Mike noticed his fellow competitor had no helmet on his head. A slightly inebriated Aspen thought Mike was insulting him, when Mike looked at him and pointed to his head, and rammed his car putting it into the starter's stand. Mike said to him later, "what's going on?" and Aspen finally said sorry "little buddy" when he found out that Mike was trying to remind him of his helmet. If anyone could remember Ken Aspen, he was a huge driver, with a tough temper and hands as big as melons. One night at Speedway Park, Aspen pulled his rig on to the track, ripped out the ignition on his tow truck and no one would go near him. He was an all around tough guy in the late model division and his brother Roy, was no better, but Mike pitted beside him when he competed in late models. Mike remembers that the late models were a tough division, when as many as 50 cars would check into Merrittville or Speedway Park on a race night.
In 1964, Mike built a beautiful 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air late model #88, only to have it banned for unapproved speed equipment. A frustrated Mike sold the car to fellow competitor Lyndon Wood, who changed the car to conform to specs and relabeled it #38. Lyndon went on to become a late model champion at Merrittville. Mike had another plan, he contacted Tom Mallory and Bob St. Amand and they built their first sportsman coupe. It was a learning experience and the white #8 was tough to handle, but Mike was determined to succeed, so in the following season, he asked car builder Wimpy Nicholls to build a chassis for him. This time, the white Chevrolet small block coupe handled much better and with the new set up under him, he was able to adapt to the sportsman division quickly. He remembers racing in a feature one night, leading for 24 laps, the #88 of Bruce Van Dyke passed him on the inside for the win, with that big 1966 Ford.
After that, Mike's strategy was to get the car handling on the bottom of the track. By now, Mike was assembling the race cars in his parents' barn, with the help of Billy Matthews. Mike was on a budget and would take some of the used engine parts from Neil Sharp, when Stan Friesen drove, and once in a while, Mike would beat them with these used parts. It was a low budget effort, but fun.
By 1967, Mike had refined the Wimpy Nicholls car and re-skinned it with a new Camaro Body in the fledgling Super Stock Division racing against the coupes. If you had a current body on your car, it paid $50.00 more at the payout window.
By 1968-69, Mike was pretty much alone and some nights he and Joannie would tow to the track, until Billy Matthews suggested that Harvey Hainer wasn't busy. Mike and Harvey started working on the car together and the success continued.
In 1969, Mike was second to George Treanor at Speedway Park in the final points standings, however, Mike came back in 1970 to become the final sportsman-modified points champion on dirt. Mike admitted that he loved to race at Speedway Park on the big 1/3 mile wide, smooth surface. The track and facilities were ahead of their time.
For 1970, Mike, wife Joannie, and Harvey Hainer would race with much success at Merrittville, Humberstone, Speedway Park and even Ransomville. The white #8 coupe would win multiple championships at these tracks, but much success was yet to come. During 1971 season, the big 427 cu. in. Modified Coupe #8,!was a force to be reckoned with, winning Mike's first championship at Merrittville.
For 1972, Mike came back with the familiar #8 coupe, this time blue, and would win one championship at Ransomville, while BobSt. Amand would win the points at Merrittville. However, in 1973 and 74, Mike came back and won the points back to back at Merrittville Speedway, even after a late season accident that demolished the car, but saved Mike. While many people speculated on why Mike didn't return to racing, I can tell you that there was and still is a desire to race, but the pressures of Mike's business took up much of his time and his race car, now a twisted wreck, was a write off. Mike's career was that of a bakery distributor for Dempsters for over 39 years, and many times, his work day started while the rest of the world was sleeping. I could tell that Mike and Joannie missed the sport, but I can tell you that they both follow racing, especially Rush Hour on Dirt and Nascar, by satellite, with their dog Tim, at their sides. .I While sharing many photographs, Mike reminisced about the details and changes on his coupes through the years, while Joannie let me know that some of her remembrances were of those at the track, with each racing family having its permanent Saturday night spot in the grandstand. You see, while we talk a lot about the accomplishments, those of us who grew up in racing, make lasting friendships, whether it was lending a hand or parts to a fellow competitor, or traveling together to race dates at other tracks. Mike and Joannie remember one particular trip where Jeno Begolo and Ivan Little were partying, pushing one or the other up and down the hall, in the hotel, during a tour of Kingston, , Brockville and Cornwall race tracks, in a baby buggy. I won't tell who was in the buggy, but you can imagine.
While many people at the time, speculated on Mike's crash, I am not here to dwell on it, it was a racing incident, but back in 1974, our family friend and Wall of Famer, Jack Gatecliff listed many of Mike's accomplishments and I know that Jack's assessment of Mike's career was judged by his conduct on and off the track. He respected his competitors and in turn, they respected his quiet gentlemanly demeanor, letting his ability speak for itself. Mike was always known as a quiet competitor, ready to help anyone. Just ask anyone around him.
His friend Davey Moore once stated that if it wasn't for Mike Zajac he wouldn't have been near as successful. You see, Davey Moore got his start in an ex Ivan Little coupe, then after Mike's Championship car was written off, Mike sold the parts 'reasonably to Davey Moore. In my estimation, even though Mike's career as a driver ended abruptly, one only has to look at his accomplishments in that period of time, especially as Merrittville Speedway's first three time champion.
As always, I asked Mike who he would like to thank, and his first response was to Wimpy Nicholls for setting him on the right track, as well as his only regret was that his parents never saw him race. Well Mike, tonight it's our turn to honour a true gentleman of our sport and may the checkered flags always fly with the #8 over Merrittville Speedway. Thanks for the memories, Mike and Joannie Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh P.S. It was Jack Gatecliff who nick named Mike Zajac as the "Beamsville Breadman'