As we standby for work to resume on the Canadian Motor Speedway site in Fort Erie, the local Niagara racing scene is emerging from its long winter’s nap to start a brand new season. Just a short drive from the CMS location, the three dirt tracks in St.Catharines-Thorold and Port Colborne on The Canadian side, and a short hop across the bridge in Ransomville New York, form a solid and long surviving Niagara racing fan base.CMS will draw fans and competitors from across North America, but Niagara’s dirt track racing fans, who already know how important the sport is in this market, already make up the foundation of what will be a large, enthusiastic and loyal percentage of CMS ticket buyers and customers.
The three clay ovals in the immediate CMS neighbourhood have been vital sports attractions in the region for generations.
Very much aware of the vitality of the local racing tradition, CMS established immediate dialogue with the management of all three tracks. We have all pledged to co-promote each other’s events and to work closely together.
It can’t and shouldn’t work any other way.
For those not familiar with the area dirt tracks, let me take you on a little written tour with some photographic assistance from my good friends Alex and Helen Bruce. Thanks to Softouch Photo as well.
Merrittville Speedway, the 3/8’s mile D-shaped banked clay oval just south of St.Catharines in Thorold, is only 12 miles from the U.S border and a stone’s throw from CMS.
The elder statesman of dirt track racing, Merrittville opens this month for their 63rd consecutive season. They are the oldest and longest operating dirt track in Canada.
My Dad first took me to Merrittville when I was seven years old in 1960, so the place has been part of my life for 54 years.
I eventually met my wife Janice at Merrittville, as her family co-owned the track in the 70’s and 80’s.
Janice started working there in popcorn when she was a kid, moved to hotdog sales and then graduated to the control tower as an official scorer.
I figured if she could put up with my ridiculous race calling as the track announcer every week, she would make the perfect spouse.
I was right.
We had daughter Katelyn at Merrittville when she was a baby, and I’m proud to say Katie spent 12 years as a scorer herself, inheriting her mother’s prowess for keeping track of cars at the historic bull ring.
Owned by the Bicknell and Williamson families, with Pete Bicknell himself a multi-time track champion who also builds most of the cars, their feature division on their Saturday night card is small block DIRT Modifieds.
For those who haven’t been entertained by these cars, a DIRT Modified is like a big, long and heavy sprint car without wings, with body panels attached. You broad-slide these 500 horsepower machines around corners.
Supported by several support divisions at all three tracks, the Modifieds keep the fans coming back for more every weekend from April to September, season after season!
The same machines are the headliners Friday nights at Ransomville Speedway, Ransomville NY, just east of Lewiston NY, just a short drive across the Queenston-Lewiston bridge.
It’s a unique facility in that it’s located in New York State, but it’s owned by long time friends the Friesen family of St. Catharines.
Janice’s Dad Kurt co-owned “The Big R” and Merrittville together with since departed Friesen family patriarch Stan Friesen in the 70’s and 80’s.
Stan’s sons Jamie and Joel and their families run the speed plant into 2014, Ransomville’s 56th season of dirt track thrills on the larger, faster 5/8th mile high banked clay oval.
Ransomville’s ticket buyers hail mostly from Western New York, boosted by a loyal Canadian following of fans and race teams.
The closest track to CMS geographically is Humberstone Speedway just outside of Port Colborne, less than a twenty minute drive from the Fort Erie site down highway three.
Operating Sunday nights, Humberstone is a banked 3/8’s mile clay oval, slightly wider than Merrittville, that’s been drawing fans and drivers from both sides of the border since 1958.
Their main division is DIRT Sportsman cars. They are essentially the same as a Modified, only with slightly less engine power.
They bring in the Modifieds several times as season as a special guest attraction.
All three Speedways are clean, well lit, well run facilities with ultra-modern enclosed hospitality areas, excellent concessions and ample parking. Ransomville also offers a camping area.
Canadian Motor Speedway Directors, Planners and Investors know The Niagara Region is the perfect location to build our world class racing and entertainment complex.
The fact the region already has a long standing and prosperous local dirt track racing fan base and tradition is a well recognized, greatly respected and valuable bonus for CMS.
I’m proud and privileged to have been associated with the dirt track scene in Niagara and Western New York almost my entire life, personal and professional!
It will make the connection and cross-promotion of our racing programs and attractions, a marriage of dirt and asphalt, all the easier going forward.
We are going to be excellent racing neighbours!