Since the inception of Stock Car Racing
at Merrittville Speedway in 1952, many competitors came
through the pit area, but few left a lasting impression on
Tommy Cook of St. Catharines was one of
those competitors who competed on the 1/4 mile oval from
1953 to 1964 and left a lasting impression. Tom's career
started in 1953 when he prepared his own cars - mostly
flathead Fords. His 1937 Ford Coupe would be painted bright
yellow with the red fireball #24 emblazoned on the doors. At
this time Tom worked at Valley Motors on Hartzel Road - the
local Volkswagen dealer and they always sponsored his racer.
Tom raced at a few area ovals such as
Stamford, occasionally at Humberstone and even a couple of
times when Speedway Park opened but his home track was
In all of his racing career he only
missed two nights of racing at Merrittville Speedway in
twelve seasons of competition - very few racers can match
that record. No matter what happened the week before, Tom
and his crew would rebuild the 24 then flat-tow it through
Merrittville's gates the following Saturday.
Whether it be a bent fender or a total
rebuild the #24 Valley Motors Special was always present.
During a recent conversation Tom told me that one of his
first racers was a '37 Ford which were built like tanks.
They were fast sturdy race cars that could take a beating.
Tom proved this many times
Originally Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval
was surrounded by a five foot high tin fence supported by
posts and then in order to provide adequate lighting - the
infield was full of many wooden light poles so that the
track would be adequately lit - primitive to today's
In the heat of competition many coupes
and coaches tested the wall as well as the strength of their
bumpers against the light poles. Tommy Cook was, as many
others were, no stranger to this plight and his high grooved
racing line seemed to attract him to this wall.
Tommy Cook truly loved the sport and the
camaraderie of his competitors, amongst one of those that
stood out in his mind for his clean driving style was young
Jerry Winger who was so talented he didn't need a bumper to
get through traffic - he was a quiet polite pilot who raced
and passed cleanly in the heat of competition - the #10 ball
was a nemesis to many.
He loved the sport so much that when his
sponsor and employer Valley Motors wanted him to work
Saturday evenings, he declined since he wished to race at
Merrittville on Saturday nights. Tom took employment with
Simpson's Towing Service. Tom continued to race and win many
heats, consi's and the occasional feature, but one of his
funniest, most memorable moments was in 1954, when John
Marino then founding owner, pleaded with Tom in jest, "Stay
away from the poles." Tom tried to comply but as with many
others - the poles seemed to always get in the way.
The story of "Cook's Corner's" centers on
Tom's ability to ride high in the turns - no driver wished
to be on the high side of Tom going into turn 4. Quite often
Tom would get too high and slide and/or roll the top heavy
coupes off of turn 4, in the heat of competition. He was a
strong competitor who didn't let his impairment interfere
with the sport. Did I mention impairment - it was only minor
as Tom had sight in only one eye. This was not a handicap as
he loved driving at Merrittville Speedway.
As time went on Tom gained employment at
Burnstein Brick in St. Catharines and continued to race his
#24 coupe. One of the scariest moments for Tom occurred one
Saturday night when the bright yellow coupe tangled in turn
two and started to flip end over end, and roll down the back
chute landing upside down in turn three. At this point the
car burst into flames at the rear and Tom couldn't get out,
his foot was stuck under the pedals. finally the safety crew
freed him and put the fire out. Tom was fine, the car a
mess, but by the following Saturday night, a rebuilt #24 was
ready to roll. Another of Tom's memorable moments was
when driving in the early 1960's for Ray Stevens, at the
Stateline Speedway in Pennsylvania. It was an exciting race,
starting 75 cars three wide, however Tom got taken out by a
rival US driver who T-boned Tom. Another was while leading a
100 lap race at Humberstone, it started to rain at lap 75.
Tom Cook was leading and instead of calling the race, since
the majority of the laps were run, they rescheduled the race
to be run over again, snatching victory away from Tom.
Don't get me wrong, Tom enjoyed the sport
and continued to compete at Merrittville. Tom stayed with
the tried & true Flathead Fords while others would go to
overhead valve engines. According to Tom, the "good speed
equipment" was hard to come by in Ontario while many US
competitors had the latest new speed equipment, he continued
to race on good used parts. Tom drove for Ray Stevens the
last couple of seasons of his career and actually did some
successful asphalt racing at Lancaster Speedway.
Tom's career came to an end when the
rules actually banned the flathead Ford, the sport was
actually becoming too expensive even then. tom continued
working for Burnstein Brick for 33 years finally retiring
some years ago. Today at age 74 he still has fond memories
of the sport and continues to attend occasionally.
Here's to you Tom, truly a loyal
competitor for many years at Merrittville Speedway, who
didn't let an impairment become a handicap May turn four at
Merrittville be fondly named "Cook's Corners" as a
remembrance to the man who drove the Fireball #24 Coupe on
Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval. My father Ken Kavanagh,
former track owner, said to me that a fellow like Tom Cook
should be named to the Wall of Fame for his outstanding
weekly racing attendance at Merrittville Speedway, and the
spirit in which he competed.
So here's to you Tom, welcome back to