"The Sister Track"
As we remember the history of short track "dirt" stock car racing in Southern Ontario, there is one facility that is remembered as the most modern and fastest dirt oval in Ontario. We all know that Merrittville Speedway opened in 1952, followed by Humberstone Speedway in 1958 as well as Lancaster Speedway in 1959 and Ransomville Speedway in 1958, the last two being in New York State.
However, how many racing fans remember Speedway Park in 1961? Speedway Park was the brainchild of then track owners Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell, as well as Merrittville Speedway's founders John Marino and George Cullen, all of St. Catharines. These four men became partners in this endeavour and envisioned what was to be the largest most modern facility in Ontario.
Basically the layout was simple, acquire a large parcel of land near a large population and offer lots of comforts for the spectators and drivers alike. Quigley Construction of Hamilton carved a smooth, wide 1/2 mile oval out of the Stoney Creek clay. The track was wide with the banking being smooth leaving room for three wide racing. The lighting would allow perfect lighting for both spectators and drivers alike. The grandstand was the most modern steel and concrete facility money could buy, incorporating both rest rooms and concession stands within its walls. This was at a time when Merrittville's grandstand consisted of wooden bleachers. The spacious Speedway Park facility was opened on June 19, 1961 on a tract of land at Highway #20 and Mud Street near Elfrida.
I can remember the scene as many area racers from St. Catharines made the journey to the new Stoney Creek race track to test its clay. The opening of Speedway Park would start a tradition of racing on Friday night racing that would last about a decade. While we worked and watched during the races at Speedway Park, We would venture to our home near St. Catharines and do it all over again on Saturdays at Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval.
While Merrittville Speedway was only 9 years old at the time, it was the fledgling Speedway Park that drew the admiration of many stock car pilots. Speedway Park was truly the dream that we wished Merrittville Speedway could be. Many Hamilton fans as well as many Hamilton drivers would get hooked on the Merrittville Speedway Park tradition. We now had a "dirt circuit" that was independent of big sanctioning bodies, which now could attract drivers and spectators not only from the Niagara area, but also New York State and the Hamilton area. Many of Merrittville's regulars would go on to score many victories and track championships at Speedway Park.
I believe Speedway Parks most memorable show had to be in 1966-67 when they introduced the racing public to the U.S.A.C. Sprint cars. It was my first exposure to sprint car racing on a professional basis and it was truly an exceptional show-with former Merrittville drivers Jim Hurtubise, then Indy racer in attendance, assisting track announcer Dizzy Dean Murray in the pressbox. Speedway Park would prove to be an extremely successful dirt track and continued to attract the loyal dirt track fans, even though Cayuga Speedway's paved oval would open in 1966-67. Some of the U.S. drivers switched to asphalt racing, lured by the higher purses, but the owners of Merrittville and Speedway Park would remain committed to dirt track stock car racing. The stress of operating two racing facilities finally dictated a decision during the early 1970's to sell Speedway Park.
A group of Hamilton investors purchased Speedway Park and for some reason they decided to pave it, of all things. The one thing that Hamilton area didn't need was another paved oval. Already Cayuga Speedway was operating on Fridays and so was Flamboro Speedway on Saturdays, there was no real night for Speedway Park to fit. After trying to attract different types of cars, from super modifieds to lat models, Speedway Park couldn't continue to function, having not found its niche. By the mid 1970's Speedway Park was closed and the beautiful grandstand was dismantled.
Today there is only a reminder in the middle of a corn field, of what once was. The remainder of the large oval is still visible as are the crash barriers. If only the new owners had left the racing surface clay, Speedway Park would still be functioning today. Many of today's Hamilton based racers started their driving apprenticeships on dirt. As we look across the field over the remaining stubble of corn stalks, we can only reminisce on how drivers such as Bill Rafter, Chuck Boos, Alex Gunn, Bruce Van Dyke, the Deagle Brothers as well as Fred Hurst, Mike Zanjac and others all veterans of our sport would carve their mark on this big 1/2 mile oval.
Today Speedway Park is only a distant reminder of what Merrittville Speedway could have been. Thank goodness no unscrupulous promoter decided to "pave" the now oldest dirt track in Canada. The tradition of dirt track racing in Ontario is alive and well, we only wish that Merrittville's sister track Speedway Park was as well.
Even by today's standard, Speedway Park would be ranked as a modern facility. One of the last track champions at Speedway Park was George Treanor. George was one of the veteran pilots to drive Jimmy Birks' bright orange #67 Coach Modified.
The car was one of the first to be powered by a big block engine. Once Jim and George sorted out the handling of this car, there was no stopping its accomplishments. It not only won the points championship at Merrittville Speedway in 1969 and 1970 but also Speedway Park.
This past year, Jim Birks master engine builder and championship car owner passed away. Jim was inducted on to Merrittville's "Wall of Fame" two years ago. When you see his plaque on the walls of Merrittville Speedway, remember not only his accomplishments at Merrittville, but also at Speedway Park, with drivers such as Chuck Richarson, Ted Renshaw, George Treanor and later Davey Moore.
So while we lament the passing of a racing tradition, we will not forget the man who helped tame it, for the last time, Jim Binks and his big orange coach, on Speedway Park's big 1/2 mile.
Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh