"Fast Freddie" Carleton's sister, Jill Saxton, makes sure the family's 358 Modified is always camera-ready. ELS SWART

After pandemic shutdown, drivers back behind the wheel, fans back in the stands

Merrittville Speedway is gradually putting COVID-19 in the rear view mirror for Saturday night dirt track racing. The complete racing family—minus only their American cohort, who are still unable to cross the border—was back together with fans in the stands last weekend for the first time in 2020.

It was hard to tell who was most excited, the drivers and fans, or owners Don Spiece and his wife, Lorraine.

The Speedway posted on their website that 100 tickets, the maximum set by Niagara Regional Public Health, would be distributed by lottery in bundles of five, four, and two to lucky fans, and those fans snapped them up.

Kimball Legiroux, wife Vanessa, and their kids Megan and Luke, of St Catharines, got tickets.

“We don’t come every weekend, but we try to,” said Legiroux. “We were supposed to be in Michigan this weekend, at the NASCAR race.”

NASCAR is still racing without fans, but the Legirouxs prefer dirt tracking when it’s available.

“I put in for five tickets, and got them,” said Michael McQueen, in the stands with his wife, Cathy, and friend Rick Thompson, a former Niagara resident visiting from Saskatchewan with his grandkids Todd and Kara Thompson.

“We’re all hard core fans, been coming since the ‘80s,” McQueen said. Cathy said she’d first been to Merrittville as a 12-year-old.

Merrittville Slideshow | Els Swart photos

  • Randy Giroux, Mod Lite #24, and his crew are clearly happy to be back racing.
  • Hoosier Stock racer Zach Bleich salutes one of Merrittville’s essential workers.  Staneff works on the track firetruck to protect drivers.
  • All in for last minute adjustments to the Rob Knapp 358 Modified.
  • Just add wheels and go.  Pete Bicknell’s #42 358 Modified getting last-minute changes.
  • A few more last minute adjustments to the Rob Knapp 358 Modified.
  • Eighty-three-year-old Don Deagle returned to racing this year after 30 years.  Yes, his sponsor is staying with him this season.
  • Dave Bailey, a top Hoosier Stock competitor, leads the field to the green flag.
  • No one can remember seeing the stands at Merrittville looking like this before COVID-19.
  • Track owners Lorraine and Don Spiece, thrilled to be back racing with fans in the seats, even if it is just 100.
  • If your racer is underweight you may be disqualified.  Tom Neale lines up for the weigh scales to make sure he’s on weight before racing.
  • Craig Martin’s new Mod Lite isn’t finished yet, so he brought his old Dwarf Car out of retirement just to participate.
  • Fast Freddie Carleton lines up for the weigh scales to make sure he’s on weight before racing.
  • 358 Modifieds waiting pitside for their heat race.
  • Mod Lite pilot Ryan Matheson ready for his second time ever racing the #44 with dad, Craig.
  • Pit crew working to change the gearing on Gary Lindberg’s 358 Modified.  They must be good, he won the feature.
  • Mod Lite pilot Ryan Matheson.
  • Mod Lites lined up for action in the pits.
  • Lucky ticket lottery winners, from left, Todd Thompson, Kara Thompson, Rick Thompson, Cathy McQueen, Michael McQueen.
  • The Legiroux family, from left, Luke, Kimball, Megan and Vanessa.
  • Matt Blanchard’s Pro Stock waits to be registered for the races.
  • Hard to believe these are the stands on a Saturday night at Merrittville.  This is what a 100-fan maximum looks like.

On the other side of the dirt oval, drivers and pit crews filled the pit area. Merrittville first nudged its way into racing this year by having limited practices, with track time by appointment, and following all provincial protocols. The next step was racing without fans, beginning in late July. GForce TV broadcast the events, but for fans, without the roar of the engines and dust flying, it’s just wasn’t the same.

Spiece recounted, “During practice nights, we had cars lined all the way down Holland Road, just wanting to see the racers, but we couldn’t let them in.”

As with other organized sports and entertainment groups, COVID-19 has turned the season upside down, the first time in its 69 year history that anything similar has happened at Merrittville.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Spiece, who is in his fourth season operating the track, but he and Lorraine have been touched by how the racing community looks after one another.

“We stick together and help each other out. People just want to be out here.”

Brian Pugh, of P.M. Lighting in Stratford, Ontario, unexpectedly gave Spiece $1200 just hours before the Saturday night program. “They told us, give some to the drivers, give some to yourselves.”

We stick together and help each other out. People just want to be out here

Others have donated money to be added to the prize money as well, including past track champion Davey Moore.

Spiece hasn’t approached track sponsors yet this season, but says many have already sent cheques without knowing how, or if, a racing program would happen. Fortunately, most drivers said that their sponsors were sticking with them too, come what may, allowing them to continue with their passion.

Spiece worked with the management of Brighton Speedway, a similar facility near Belleville, and a small committee of other dirt tracks, lobbying MPPs and Public Health departments to work towards reopening. This is continuing, and Spiece believes Merrittville will soon see more fans in the stands, perhaps as early as next week.

In expectation of a successful 2020 season, the owners made significant improvements to the track, one of Niagara’s oldest continually operating family entertainment venues. Spiece built a new Amis -style building to serve as an authentic wood-fired pizza kitchen. Honker’s Bar was renovated and expanded, and now features a 130-foot-long tribute wall, where photos depicting the history of the track and its fans and drivers are featured. For dirt track aficionados, the thematic room will now serve as a venue for weddings, receptions, and other social functions.

Competition on the track is fierce, with a large field of cars in each class, but in the pit area, where the racers park and prepare their cars, friendships are being renewed and camaraderie is evident everywhere. Many of the racers are second and third generation, and there is a lot of racing history to remember.

Don Deagle, who is 83, built a new race car for this season that he and his son share. Deagle raced for decades, travelling from Montreal to Florida in the Great American Truck Series, then retired from the sport in 1989. When asked what it felt like to be back behind the wheel at his age, Deagle responded that he was a little rusty. He said that a former racing buddy asked, “If I’d fallen and hit my head on a rock” when Deagle announced that he was returning to driving.

Deagle’s wide smile and enthusiasm for the sport explains how for many, the infectiousness of racing may be stronger than COVID-19.

Dave Bailey, many-time track champion on the circuit, summed it up as he pulled his rig through the pit gate.

“As long as there’s one place running, we’ll go.”

Pete Bicknell, Merrittville champion and previous owner of the facility, is back for another season at age 65. He’s already raced once this year in Cornwall and Brockville, but says this season is crazy.

“We saw lots of rainouts before, nine in a row one year, but this is ridiculous. We just have to cross our fingers for next year.”

When most of us think of communities working together to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on friends and family, the fans and racers of Merrittville Speedway may not be the first group that comes to mind. But outside the track, cars lined Holland Road, and fans sat in lawn chairs amid the roadside weeds beyond the security fence to glimpse the race cars rocketing out of corner four. Another couple was standing on the hood of their car for a better view, hoping next Saturday night Public Health regulations might allow them a seat in the grandstand too.

 

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