"A Family Affair"
When Merrittville Speedway first opened in 1952, the world of auto racing was not viewed in the same vein as the so called "stick and ball sports". The sport of stock car racing was relatively new and the U.S. sanctioning body NASCAR was only 5 years old. The early heroes were made up of moonshiners such as the Flock Brothers, Junior Johnson and Buck Baker, who found their skill of driving an automobile at high speed paid off better racing legally rather than running illegal liquor through the hills of the south. These "rag tag" bunch of guys were anything but the media groomed race drivers of today. Many a dispute was usually settled with fists in the pits after the races. It was truly every man for himself on and off the track. It was the sanctioning bodies that brought organization and order to the racing sport by establishing rules of conduct, as well as setting specifications on automobiles.
NASCAR in the U.S. and the Canadian Stock Car Racing Association established in 1950 brought credibility to racing. The sport of stock car racing, while labelled a "fad" by some, became an attraction for both families and fans in the wooden grandstands. Each driver and crew in the pits seemed to have a following. Harvey Hainer's race team towing to Merrittville.
Certain sections of the grandstands attracted groups of followers usually established by the wives, girlfriends, and children of the drivers. I can remember families such as the Willards, Mallorys, Begolos, Hainers and in later years, the Littles and Moores all had their "preferred" sections of the grandstand. Some of today's modified drivers started out watching the family racer compete night after night, week after week. While in the 1950's stock car racing was labelled as a rough and tumble sport, it was evolving into a family attraction during the 1960's.
Youngsters such as Brian Stevens and Harvey Hainer Jr. watched their favourites such as Lloyd Holt, and Mike Zajac longing for their time behind the wheel. While St. Catharines was known for lacrosse, hockey and baseball, stock car racing at Merrittville Speedway was growing not only in popularity but also respectability. According to the February 13, 1957 sports column by Jack Gatecliff, "Through the Sports Gate", he deals with the phenomenon of auto racing. I quote: "An article in the latest Sports Illustrated gives an inside look at the popular but often misunderstood sport known as Stock Car Racing. It focuses on NASCAR and points out that this newest type of racing must now be considered of major importance in Canada and the United States."
Approximately 10,000,000 fans paid an average of $2.50 to watch racing last year, and of that amount $2,000,000.00 was collected by drivers as prize money. Some drivers working for the car manufacturers made over $1,600.00 a month and the 1955 NASCAR grand Champion Buck Baker collected $30,000.00 in prizes plus $9,000.00 in other awards. This growth was evident back in 1957 at Merrittville Speedway. According to Gatecliff, the Merrittville track drew more customers each Saturday night, than the entire Niagara District senior baseball league drew during the entire week, in the six area ball parks.
The average attendance was double the largest attendance at any one senior lacrosse game at Garden City Arena. While in 1957 the "stick and ball" sports received all the publicity in the local newspapers and radio broadcasts, if not for the efforts of Rex Stimers and later Jack Gatecliff, local highlights of auto racing would not have been heard on CKTB Radio or sparingly in the St. Catharines Standard. At this time you would be lucky to find a radio station carrying the Indianapolis 500 and no one carried a NASCAR race, except for maybe the Southern 500, which was their only superspeedway race. NASCAR Grand National Racing was branded a regional sport with its roots embedded deep in the southern United States. The respectability that stock car racing enjoys today is based on the fact that it has remained a family sport with fans that are extremely loyal to their drivers and car makes.
For example, many of us identified during the 1950's through the 1970's with Richard Petty, before he was labelled the "King", who drove his electric blue Plymouths and later Dodges to many victories. While his 200th victory was a milestone, it was too bad he accomplished this in a Pontiac. By using this example, I can relate to this since I was not only loyal to Petty and his MOPAR's even though he is fielding a stable of Pontiacs today, my loyalty is still to Petty Enterprises. The race fan is a funny creature. Even in 1957 this fact was noticed and even analyzed, as follows: "While some go to the races for the "danger" aspect, others apparently like the thrills of watching competitive driving by men who are unquestionably master of the cars they handle. Each driver has his own private little (or big, usually depending on his success) fan club and these also swell the ranks of the regular Saturday night crowd". For example, corporate America, the NFL, and now the NHL are all using NASCAR racing as a vehicle for exposing both football and hockey. While the exposure has been very good for media coverage of the sport today, it has caused some detriment to the average family fan. It wasn't that long ago that the Daytona 500 was first broadcast flag to flag, 1979 to be exact, and the average ticket price was in the realm of $25.00 to attend a NASCAR race.
Today, corporate America is buying up "blocks" of tickets for executives and employees, while the average family ticket is now close to $100.00 to attend a race, such as the World 600 at Charlotte, North Carolina. In my mind, corporate America is pushing the average family fan aside. It seems to me that blocks of preferred seats are now being corporately reserved, while the race fan who in many cases has supported the sport for decades is pushed aside. If you doubt what I am saying, telephone any ticket office and try to get a prime seat.
When is too much success, bad for the sport? The answer is when it forgets the family and goes for the corporation. It was true in 1957 that stock car racing's loyalty was founded by its fans, and it is still true today in 1997. While Brian Stevens and Harvey Hainer continue to pilot their families' racers around Merrittville's oval, short tracks such as this, have not forgotten the fan.
Admission is still very affordable and while many families have their favourite seats, no seat is reserved. Jack Gatecliff summed it up well in 1957: "One of the most amazing parts of the quick prosperity of the stock car game is that the crowds turn out night after night, despite the fact that gambling on the outcome of the races is illegal. If this may sound like a rather jaundiced attitude towards the sport, just ask yourself one question: If gambling was declared illegal on race tracks, operated by the Ontario Jockey Club next year, how many fans do you think would turn out to watch the nags perform? You're right. There wouldn't be enough to pay for the dried bread to feed the wooden ducks on the infield lakes." This is how Jack Gatecliff saw it, and this is how we still see it some 40 years later.
Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh