Automobile Racing | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Automobile Racing

The earliest automobile racing took the form of speed trials and tours. In 1900 F.S. Evans set a record of 3 hrs, 20 min, driving an automobile the 60 km between Toronto and Hamilton.
Grand Prix Auto Racing
Montréal Grand Prix (Corel Professional Photos).

Automobile Racing

Automobile racing in Canada can be said to have originated during the last 3 decades of the 19th century with the great popularity of cycling. The tremendous interest in developing an alternative mode of personal transportation to that provided by the horse led to the rapid evolution of technological innovations. Such inventions as the pneumatic tire and the drive shaft, which appeared on early bicycles, eventually found their place on the automobile. The early supporters of cycling also formed clubs, engaged in tours and races, and campaigned for good roads. Many carried this enthusiasm into the 20th century with the arrival of the automobile.

The earliest automobile racing took the form of speed trials and tours. In 1900 F.S. Evans set a record of 3 hrs, 20 min, driving an automobile the 60 km between Toronto and Hamilton. Both Toronto and Winnipeg witnessed many tours and "runs" by the automobile owners of their cities during this time, but the first automobile race took place in the latter city. There, in 1901, the driver of a 12-horsepower Ford won the first automobile race in Canada. Four years later, the Winnipeg Automobile Club was holding regular night races for passenger and light touring cars.

It was at this time that Pete Henderson, one of Canada's earliest-known drivers, began his racing career. He headed south to the US in 1914 and joined the top teams to compete in the board-track series, a competition of early sprint cars. A native of Fernie, BC, Henderson had his first AAA championship race at Des Moines Speedway in 1915 for the Duesenberg team. In 1916, he came second at Des Moines while driving a Maxwell as a teammate of Rickenbacker on the Prest-O-Lite team. In October of 1917 he won the board-track race at Chicago. He finished in the top 10 at Indy in 1916 and 1920.

In Toronto, automobile racing appears to have found its earliest home at the Canadian National Exhibition. In 1913 a form of automobile polo was staged at the CNE's grandstand, and the following year races and hurdling in automobiles were added to increase the popularity of the show. In 1917 Gaston Chevrolet raced successfully in an automobile against an airplane flown by Ruth Law, a noted aircraft pilot of the time. In 1919 Ralph De Palma was invited to drive the world's fastest car in a time test on Toronto's CNE track. From 1920 to 1928, a series of races were held with prizes totalling $9000.

Despite its early start, automobile racing has not been a premier sporting event in Canada. Only in more recent years, with the advent of the Can-Am series of races and the annually staged Canadian Grand Prix for Formula One cars, has the sport aroused broader interest. For many years, it was confined to a number of quarter- and eighth-of-a-mile oval tracks of asphalt or dirt construction. The cars used were greatly modified passenger vehicles known as "stock" cars. Competition was localized and there was little success at establishing national races, let alone international events like those occurring in many other sports. This form of racing continues to this day. More recently, stock car races sanctioned by the US Automobile Club (USAC) have been held at the better-established race tracks in Canada, and a few Canadians have tried to find success on the very popular US Grand National Circuit organized by NASCAR.

Another form of US racing that enjoyed great popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in Canada is drag racing. Two drivers race their cars against each other and the clock from a standing start over a quarter-mile straight track. By 1965 there existed a dozen sanctioned Canadian drag tracks.

The real impetus to involve Canada and Canadian drivers in international racing has come from road racing, which takes place on closed circuits featuring a variety of turns and straightaways. A wide variety of cars divided into different classes, from small sedans and sports cars to the more exotic open-wheeled formula racers, are raced on these tracks. The roots of this form of racing can be found in the interest that developed in North America after WWII in the small sports cars brought back from Europe by returning servicemen. The availability of abandoned air strips provided the facilities to race these automobiles. In fact, the first road race in Canada took place on the Abbotsfield Airfield in BC in 1949.

West Coast Racing

Ten years later, the Sports Car Club of BC managed to financially support the construction of a new road racing circuit at Westwood, 15 miles east of Vancouver. It incorporated an auto racing circuit that could also be used by motorcycles, and a separate facility for go-karts. BC already had several auto racing sites such as the improvised drag strip in Abbotsford and oval tracks throughout the province before the construction of a truly European road circuit at Westwood occurred.

Because of the north-south orientation of Vancouver in auto-racing activities, many drivers from Washington, Oregon, and California travelled north to Westwood. Pete Lovely, a Formula One driver from Seattle, often raced at Westwood in Lotus racing cars. For several years, he held the track speed record in his Cooper-Ferrari. In addition to Canadian drivers from BC and Alberta, hundreds of drivers from the US raced a host of European cars, very much in fashion in the 1960s. In the early history of Westwood, sports cars such as Ferrari, Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar, Maserati, and Aston-Martin drew crowds. 18 000 motor sport fans attended Westwood's opening.

During the auto racing revolution of the mid-1960s, increasing numbers of sports cars were being fitted with the American V8 engine. Stan Burnett of Seattle created his own special, and Chuck Parsons, Dave Ridenour and Bill Amik handled new models such as McLaren and Genie, both products of California development. Also in the mid-1960s, George Fejer, an auto builder from Ontario, entered his Canadian Chinook driven by Nat Adams in 1966 at Westwood, placing in the top three. Eppie Wietzes of Ontario drove the Comstock Ford GT-40 at Westwood in 1966 and 1967 to compete against US drivers. George Chapman of Winnipeg and Harold Brown from Alberta also competed in their Lotus cars in the under 2-litre class. Bob McLean, of Vancouver, was the Canadian Champion in 1965; however, McLean died the following year driving a Ford GT-40 at Sebring.

The 1970s developed into a formula car racing period including Formula B, Ford, 5000, and Atlantic. Gilles Villeneuve, Formula One winner, raced at Westwood in 1974. Jacques Villeneuve, brother of Gilles, raced in Formula Atlantic competition at Westwood along with Brian McLoughlin, Bob McGregor, Graeme Cameron, and Bill Melnikoff from the Vancouver area. Also a big hit in the 1970s was the incorporation, through the auspices of the Sports Car Club of America, of the Trans-Am series of racing. Westwood featured several of these that drew very large crowds to the challenging track. Ludwig Heimrath of Ontario was a regular visitor in his Porsche Turbo as well as Gary Pullybank from Vancouver, and drivers from the US were Bob Tullius in his Jaguar, Peter Gregg in his Corvette, and Greg Pickett in his Monza giving Canadian fans an exciting view of international competition. The very popular series, NASCAR sedan racing, also appeared at Westwood for several years.

During the 1980s, Westwood continued to attract fans and, in addition to sports racing cars and open-wheel speedsters, two new types of racing were introduced. The first was Honda Civic, Camaro, and Firebird race groupings of identical cars that appealed to the crowds because these cars were available on the market. The other was the reappearance of the early racing cars from the pre-war and post-war eras, the 1960s and the 1970s as vintage cars. The circle was now complete, but by 1990 Westwood was closed. The lease had expired and property developers took over to erect a housing development.

East Coast Racing

One of the first tracks in Ontario was created in Edenvale, near Stayner, Ont. In Winnipeg the old Netley Airport was the scene of racing activity starting in 1955. Although similar racing spread across the West, the centre of Canadian road racing was southern Ontario. These early years of racing on airport strips were without much organization. In 1951 the Canadian Automobile Sports Club was formed as a federation of auto sports clubs across Canada.

By 1959 a growing disagreement between those who raced for fun and those who believed the sport could be developed only through competitions between well-known drivers lured by substantial cash prizes led to the formation of the Canadian Racing Drivers Association. In May 1956 the British Empire Motor Club opened Harewood Raceway near Jarvis, Ont. Here many of Canada's top drivers of the 1960s got their start. A major development, however, was the construction of Mosport, a 2.46-mile (4 km) road racing circuit north of Bowmanville, Ont. On 24 June 1961, a crowd of 40 000 spectators gathered to watch Britain's Stirling Moss defeat an international field in the first Player's 200 race.

Further efforts were made to develop the sport. Edmonton International Speedway and LeCircuit at St-Jovite, Qué, were opened in the years that followed. In 1963 Don Hunt of Toronto developed the concept of a Canadian-American challenge series for unrestricted sports cars and, 3 years later, the first Can-Am race was held. Each year a series of races is held over a number of road courses in Canada and the US. Although American drivers have won most of the races, in 1968 John Cannon of Montréal won the last Can-Am race prior to the complete domination of the event until 1974 by the McLaren team of Britain.

On 27 Aug 1967, the first Canadian Grand Prix for Formula One cars was held. Before settling on the Montréal location of Mosport Park, the Grand Prix location had alternated between Mosport Park and Le Circuit Mt Tremblant-St Jovite. The race has been a highlight of the automobile racing season since. In 1978 it was moved to Montréal, where it was won for the first time by a Canadian, Gilles Villeneuve - for whom the course is now named. The first Canadian to compete at the Formula One level was Peter Ryan of Mont-Tremblant, Qué. A highly promising young driver, his career ended tragically on 2 July 1962 when he was killed while racing in Europe.

In 1969 and 1970, George Eaton of Toronto drove for the BRM team in North America and in selected European events. By far the most successful Canadian driver was Gilles Villeneuve. After a brilliant career in North America, he joined the Ferrari racing team in 1977. From then until his death in 1982, he won 6 world championship races, including, in 1981, the crown jewel of the sport, the Monaco Grand Prix.

Other successful Canadian drivers include Earl Ross, who was NASCAR's rookie of the year in 1974, and Gary Beck of Edmonton, who won the 1974 world drag racing championship. Canadians have had an opportunity to develop their skills at the Formula 2000 and Formula Atlantic Series and several Canadian racing series, including the Player's Challenge and Rothman's Porsche series.

Despite successes at these levels, Canadian racers continue to remain a novelty on the major international circuits. The high cost of operating a racing car severely restricts Canadian opportunities at the highest levels of racing. It is only in recent years that a Canadian racing team entered into the CART-Indy Car circuit. Uncompetitive early on, the team became a regular contender, and in 1992 their car, driven by Scott Goodyear, finished second in the prestigious Indianapolis 500, the premier racing event in North America. Goodyear later that year won the Marlboro 500, with fellow Torontonian Paul Tracy finishing second, and was one of the circuit's leading drivers in the overall championship.

Tracy was fortunate to drive for Penske Racing, the dominant team of the circuit, and won 8 races for the team before moving to another team in 1995. A third young Canadian driver, Jacques Villeneuve, the son of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, burst upon the circuit in 1994, winning the race and placing second at Indy in his rookie season. Villeneuve became the first Canadian to win the Indianapolis 500 in his second attempt in 1995, cementing his position as one of the bright young drivers in international motor racing. He was also awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's outstanding athlete in 1995. He then went on to success in the far more challenging Formula One circuit. In 1997, Villeneuve became the third North American, after US drivers Phil Hill in 1961 and Mario Andretti in 1978, to win the Formula One Championship. Greg Moore of Maple Ridge, BC, was another Canadian whose tremendous promise was never fully realized because of the potential for tragedy in the sport. Born in 1975, he showed great talent and enthusiasm, starting out in go-karts at an early age. By 1996 he was racing in the CART racing series, the highest level of open-wheeled car racing in North America. By the next season he had won his first race as well as 4 others before being killed in a high-speed accident in the final race of the 1999 season. Out of respect to Moore, CART permanently retired his number, 99, from further competition.

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