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