Jim Begolo and the Bugs #16
While we are here tonight to celebrate our rich dirt track racing history, there is one family who can lay claim to being involved in stock car racing, as long as Merrittville Speedway has existed, as drivers.
The racing bug caught Jeno Begolo at the young age of eighteen, after attending races at Stamford Park and thus building his first race car #123, competing at Merrittville Speedway on opening day, July 1, 1952.
However, this story is not about Jeno Begolo the driver, but Jim Begolo the second generation driver. By 1975, the Begolo Body Service, Bugs #16 was a legend at area dirt ovals, having amassed many track Championships including 1958 and 1968 at Merrittville, but Jeno retired at the peak of his career, so son Jim wouldn’t be tempted to become involved in racing.
To no avail, Jim starting racing enduro motorcycles, then tried drag racing, then tried a Mini Minor on a homemade race track behind the Begolo Body Shop in Thorold South. Finally Jeno relented and along with Jeno’s former crew members, Wayne House, John “Pogo” Roberts, and Larry Cienik, they built a limited sportsman with the familiar bugs #16 and headed to area dirt tracks, including Merrittville Speedway in 1981. As with any rookie season it was learning experience and with the passionate support of family and friends, the Bugs #16 was alive and well in Thorold South.
The Begolo driven #16 even won the All Canadian in his rookie season. By 1983, Jim Begolo felt confident enough to make the move to the modified division, where he would compete at Ransomville on Friday nights and of course Merrittville Speedway on Saturday nights, a Begolo family tradition.
Throughout the years the red and black Bugs #16 had some different sponsors, but there were always two businesses that stayed with the family, from the beginning of Jim’s career. Of course, Begolo’s Body Service of Thorold South and the car owner Jeno Begolo and crew, but equally Brian Antonsen of Beachwood Golf Club at the crossroads of Thorold, Allanburg and Niagara Falls. The career of Jim Begolo continued to blossom in the 1980’s with some highlights being the points Champion at Humberstone in 1983, and going on to win the “Dirt Rookie of the Year” in 1983. Jeno and Jim were doing a lot of travelling on the dirt circuit then, and even raced at Syracuse. During that time the Bugs #16 was a formidable threat at area tracks whether as a showcar or Troyer race car. By the 1990’s the dirt race car continued to evolve and the Begolo family #16 Troyer modified was a constant threat, whether it was a D.I.R.T. sanctioned dirt event, or a D.I.R.T. sanctioned asphalt event. Yes D.I.R.T. cars raced on asphalt.
There was however one very memorable race night. You see, way back at the very first Wall of Fame induction night, when father and car owner Jeno “Bugs” Begolo was having his plaque presented, next generation driver Jim Begolo would go on to win the Modified Feature. There was no better way for the Begolo family to celebrate, but with a victory on Reunion Night. Jim Begolo would continue to race modifieds for father/car owner Jeno until the end of the 1995 season. The infamous #16 Troyer modified would become the next race car for sportsman driver Bill Willard Jr. For 1998 two Thorold residents would combine their efforts as Terry St. Amand would field a first class modified for Jim Begolo to pilot as the Swiss Chalet #16.
After a successful season, a Bicknell chassied #16 Swiss Chalet modified would again compete in the top division at Merrittville Speedway with one goal in mind, to win the 1999 points championship.
A passionate car owner, coupled with a fiery driver, like Jim Begolo made for a memorable modified points race. Believe it or not the points title challenge came down to the final points night between Peter Bicknell #42 and Jim Begolo #16. It was a hotly contested race with the points standings changing lap after lap, however in the end Bicknell would win, but only by a couple of points.
As we raced into the new millennium, the Begolo #16 was temporarily retired however by 2007, there was a resurrection of the #16 again.
A young third generation driver Brent Begolo wanted to race, much like his father had, however it would be on a tight budget. There was one resource and it was a 1976 Camaro, that Jeno had kept back for son Jim to restore as a show car, but Jim and Brent had other ideas. Soon the car was stripped, a cage welded and a chassis set up and red paint applied. The #16 re-emerged this time as Hoosier stock and while Jim brought his modified experience to the table, he credited Mike Granton to helping him set up a full fendered car.
After a couple of seasons behind the wheel of the Jim Begolo “Bugs” #16 Camaro, Brent’s real passion was to drive a modified but modified racing was a very expensive move. Brent being mentored by his dad Jim and modified competitor Mike Bowman tried his hand driving the Hitchman owned and sponsored sportsman and crewing and observing Mike Bowman’s #71.
Brent showed talent in the sportsman class and became more patient as a driver. Jim Begolo the car owner, made a move to sportsman by purchasing a nearly new Teo Fab car and installing the crate engine from the Camaro. The original Camaro chassis continues today in the Hoosier stock class for racer Jason Fontaine.
The now red and white sportsman Bugs #16 has evolved on a budget, with help from Beechwood Golf Club and Semenuk’s Esso into a very consistent competitor every week. I believe Brent is having one of his best seasons as a driver. His smooth consistent driving style is giving him a top five place in the points and the race car is coming home in one piece every night. So while we have briefly touched on the careers of three generations of racing Begolos, it is the evolution of a young sportsman driver Jim Begolo, whose career as a modified pilot was memorable and now full circle as a car owner in the sportsman division for his son Brent, just as Jeno was for Jim, way back in 1981.
Congratulations Jim for your enduring career as a driver-car owner, like father like son for 63 seasons at Merrittville Speedway and Welcome to the Wall of Fame.
Sincerely Rick Kavanagh, Merrittville Speedway Reunion Committee.