Nostalgia Night even more special after 17 months of pandemic stress
Where were you in 1952? If it was Saturday night and you loved race cars, speed and a touch of danger, you were at Merrittville Speedway, pit-side as a driver or builder, or in the stands as a fan, sitting on the edge of your seat cheering your favourite racer.
The clay oval situated just outside Fonthill in Thorold celebrated its 70th Anniversary with Nostalgia Night last Saturday, August 21, and it was quite a party.
Everything and nothing has changed in those seven decades. The cars are faster yet safer, the dirt track surface is groomed wide and slick to perfection, and the announcers still excitedly struggle to describe trackside action over the roar of high-performance engines.
Race fans’ fingers clutch tightly to their wooden grandstand seats, hoping to see their favourite driver win a close, hard-fought race by mere inches. They know the difference between winning and losing may be a risky, full-throttle, last chance slide job in corner four headed to the checkered flag. Successfully accomplished, their driver will slide across the track at a ferocious speed, shutting the door on his opponent for the win. If not executed perfectly, cars will tangle, sending one or both crashing into the concrete grandstand wall. Either way, one more story will be added to Merrittville’s 70-year legacy.
The grandstand was filled to Covid-permitted capacity with young families and old-timers while the racers’ pit area overflowed for Nostalgia Night.
As a treat to both fans and race crews, many vintage race cars were showcased in the grandstand concession area for viewing, and their drivers and crews were there for reminiscing and storytelling.
Dylan Davidson, a fourth generation driver from St. Catharines, stood beside his #73 358 modified racer and explained it this way, “My great grandfather was deciding whether to go on a family picnic or to Merrittville to watch the races in the 1950s. The family went to the races, and got sort of hooked on it.”
Davidson’s grandfathers “on both sides” then raced, and his own father followed the tradition. It’s no surprise that Dylan is now piloting a premier-class 358 modified around Merrittville.
The stars of the night were the cars and drivers of the Dirt Modified Nostalgia Tour. Duane Van Alstine, of Fenwick, races a midnight black #61 vintage modified coupe built and painted, right down to the exact six bright red and yellow flames on each side of the car, in tribute to veteran driver Ivan Little, a fan- favourite driver for decades.
“I always wanted to race,” Van Alstine says. “As a kid I followed the Ivan Little car, and one day I had a chance to buy an old ’54 Chev chassis and body. I built [the replica] myself, painted it in the garage. I’ve been racing about five years now, it’s a lot of fun.”
He hesitates for a second, then adds, “But I’m racing against guys with 50 years experience.”
The car is immaculate. Van Alstine is a detail guy and was drawn to the #61 car because back in the day Little always kept his own cars spotlessly clean, even washing them between races. Van Alstine recalls fondly, “We had the car here and Ivan came out. He hadn’t been here in 15 years.”
We had the car here and Ivan came out. He hadn’t been here in 15 years.
Ivan signed the top of Van Alstine’s car, then counted the flames, telling Van Alstine, “You got it right.”
Like so many at the speedway, Van Alstine is hooked. He’s restoring another vintage racer, a 1965 Mustang fastback, and is selling another that he rebuilt after wrecking it in a race at Humberstone.
Traditions change, though. In the pits, Megan Ciglich, who made the trip from Brockville to race, says, “I was actually in vintage racing first” as she stands beside her 1975 Ford Maverick-bodied racer. Her dad, Jeff, had raced for years, but stopped driving and became Series Director of the Dirt Modified Nostalgia Tour. Megan acquired a vintage modified and went racing, while her dad joined her later when a friend’s ‘57 Plymouth Fury racer became available.
Jeff Murrell, Associate Dean of Trades at Niagara College, was with the vintage racer that his students built and now maintain. The car was provided to the college in pieces by Denny Lindberg, of Welland, longtime racer and father of Gary Lindberg, 2019 358 Track Champion—you know how the story goes.
“Whenever we’ve pulled it into the shop at the college, the kids all come,” says Murrell. “It’s a really cool learning tool.”
Merrittville Speedway’s success and endurance is the result of hard work by many track owners over the years. Rick Kavanagh, of Fenwick, and the Reunion Committee also work tirelessly to keep the track’s history alive and its fans and drivers connected.
Saturday’s program began with the induction of three drivers to Merrittville’s Wall of Fame for 2021. Pete “Mr. Smallblock” Bicknell, previous track owner before current owners Lorraine and Don Spiece, Glenn “The Bomber” Baker, and Gary Moreash.
Tim Breadman, owner of AutoFX Graphics and Signs, and Chris Long of RCM Racing Equipment, were also inducted for their longtime support of the facility.
Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin and Thorold Mayor Terry Ugulini joined the Spiece family for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate Merrittville’s 70th Anniversary, before good-naturedly sparring in front of the crowd about which community was more into dirt track racing.
Merrittville has survived Covid so far through the dedication of its fans and drivers, and the management of its owners, just as it has other challenges through the decades.
Fast Freddie Carleton, who was celebrating 40 years of driving at the track, showed the series of maple leaves he’d painted on his modified. The first were black, the next few green, and the final ones bright red, like those in the Canadian flag, signifying the sport’s successful battle through the pandemic. Fast Freddie then pointed to another panel on the car which read, “Racers and fans are all family, we stick together.”
When asked what it felt like to host Merrittville’s 70th anniversary, track owner Don Speice, a racer for years himself, simply replied, “It’s amazing, I’m speechless. All these people.” He motioned to Robert Young—“Mouse” to the Merrittville family, who was standing before an array of ancient black and white photos—and said, “This guy has brought all these photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when he built race cars, to give to the Reunion Committee to share with everyone.”
The list of track champions on the Wall of Fame begins in 1952, and dates without names beside them yet are stencilled in place until 2031. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind this night that ten more names will grace the wall over the next decade of Saturday night dirt racing at Merrittville.
Updated August 28 to correctly identify Daniella Spiece in a photo caption.