Merrittville Speedway – “In The Beginning”
Opening Day, July 1st, 1952
Recently the management at Merrittville Speedway asked me to write an article about the very early years of the sport. This is very difficult for me for in 1952 when Merrittville Speedway was built, I wasn’t born yet, that happened in 1953.
I recently had a visit with John Marino and his wife Pauline at their lovely home on Lakeshore Road. My wife Michelle admired one of John’s hobbies, rose gardens, while I admired the other, old cars, a 1930 Durant Coupe to be exact. You see, even thoughJohn Marino and George Cullen sold Merrittville Speedway in 1955 to my father Ken Kavanagh and his close friend Bill Russell, he always maintained an interest in the sport.
According to John, the idea of Merrittville Speedway came to mind after a few trips with friends to Buffalo’s Civic Stadium, where in turn he would meet many friends from St. Catharines. After a while the idea of building a Speedway in southern Ontario came to me he said, “why the hell drive to Buffalo when we can drive to St. Catharines”, yes, I said St. Catharines.
Merrittville Speedway was nearly built on a tract of land in Louth Township near where Kala’s Hardware presently stands. John along with his partner and friend, George Cullen had even bought the material for the bleachers. However, there were problems as St. Catharines was primarily a “stick & ball” town and stock car racing was a “fad” being opposed by several city councilors.
The search went on and John and George heard of a 20 acre parcel of land in Thorold Township south of St. Catharines, where a farmer owed the township for nine years back taxes. A deal was struck on the price of the property and the present location was secured.
During 1951 the 1/4 mile clay oval was carved out of the farmers field, wooden bleachers were erected and racing was officially started on July 1st, 1952 during the daytime.
We’ve all heard how dusty that day was and how the racing was new to John and George so they learned and learned and learned.
After many trips to Ancaster during 1952 with their friends Orville and Dolly Kelley, Merrittville’s first points champion, they moved their racing to the coolness of the evening and treated the racing surface with many tons of calcium.
The city of St. Catharines was heavily involved in baseball, hockey and lacrosse and hardly gave a wink to the new sport of stock car racing. Friday nights were traditionally lacrosse nights at the Haig Bowl and so John and George picked Saturday nights to run, and established a tradition which continues today. It was hard to get an announcer who could report on the races and get space in the newspaper.
The lacrosse boys were worried as many fans of lacrosse became stock car fans. This became apparent when lacrosse switched to Saturday and their attendance dropped as the attendance was increasing at Thorold’s Merrittville Speedway in spite of poor media coverage, except for the Welland Tribune.
If anyone tells you it’s easy running a speedway, it comes with many actions of trial and error to entertain the fans, keep the drivers happy and offer “fast family fun”.
While John Marino and his family, with George and Joan Cullen and their family worked hard at establishing the start of Merrittville Speedway, they sold their “baby” to my father Ken Kavanagh and Bill Russell for the 1956 season. At this time, Dad and Bill continued to work hard improving the facility by adding more seats, better lighting and securing an announcer who seemed to like the sport, his name was Rex Stimers, known to many as the “Lung”.
Rex’s announcing, I’m told was memorable and his sports show “The Spice of Sports” was widely listened to. As kids, traveling to the track we would here Rex go through the list of drivers and his pronunciation of one driver, Cam Gag-li-ar-di was memorable.
When Rex retired as announcer, Jack Gatecliff was a school mate of Bill Russell’s and assumed the role of track announcer. For many years as well Jack wrote his column “Through the Sports Gate” in the St. Catharines Standard.
During 1960 and 1961 Ken Kavanagh, Bill Russell, John Marino and George Cullen ventured into a new facility and after building their “dream”; Speedway Park, Stoney Creek, opened its gate on June 19th, 1962. This 1/3 mile, wide, high banked facility, with its modern steel and concrete grandstand was more modern than many of the existing Nascar tracks of its day.
Our families worked hard and long, both kids and adults as we all had jobs both during the day and night from cutting grass to selling popcorn, we all did it: Butch, Len and Jim Marino, Rick, Ron and Marilyn Kavanagh, Nick, Tony, Mike and Lai Russell, Bob and Wendy Cullen.
All of us as kids didn’t have to look for summer jobs on Fridays and Saturdays for many years up to 1970. We all worked at stock car racing, grew up with stock car racing and some of us today continue to follow the sport.
Even though after many years we have all gone off to our own careers, there is still a bond and it happens to be those years from 1952 to 1970 at both Merrittville Speedway and Speedway Park.
I know we never say it, but on behalf of the “kids”, thanks for the memories John, George, Ken and Bill.
Courtesy of Rick Kavanagh