100 Years of Stock Car Racing in Thunder Bay
by Brian G. Spare
There has been stock car racing in Thunder Bay for nearly as long as there has have been motorized vehicles here. The earliest recorded race was in September, 1914. It was held as an event in the West Algoma Agricultural Fair at the CLE race track. The 100th anniversary of stock car racing in the Lakehead was celebrated last year at the Duke Hunt Museum in Rosslyn.
Most exhibition grounds had a track for racing horses. After the horses, daring young men would take over the track and race their cars on the same track as the horses. Thus dirt track car racing was born. Right from dirt track racing’s beginning up through the 1930s, the race cars were open speedsters which were little more than buckboards with engines. Drivers and pit crews worked in machine shops and garages modifying engines to make them lighter and more powerful and engineered the suspension to make the cars more maneuverable. They had one goal in mind which was to be faster than the competition. The racing cars were built from the ground up from stock parts and hence called stock cars designed for speed with little concern for safety. The purse was often topped up by fistfuls of money waved in the air challenging the spectators and racers to match the wager.
During the 1920s and 30s, the cars were just as famous as the men who drove them. The crowds cheered for their favourite cars such as the King’s Special, Green Spear, Red Devil, Silver Flash and Dreadnought as well as their favourite drivers. The legendary King’s Special was built by the King brothers Arthur and Arnold in a chicken coop at their home on Algonquin Street in Port Arthur for the huge sum in those days of $2,000. They made it using an engineered Model T chassis and modelled it after the Indy cars of the day and was driven by Frank Colosimo. The legend of the King’s Special grew as it chocked up win after win. Frank would drive it slowly in front of the grandstand waving money daring the crowd to bet against him – and big amounts of cash too of $50, $100 and up to $500. Those that did usually lost their bet. When Frank retired from racing in 1931, he started Uncle Frank’s Supper Club. Other well known stock car drivers of the day were Norman Durant, Ernie Boffa, Mike Discepalo, Shorty Asseff, Pat Bryan and Eddie Cusson.
The King’s Special raced from 1924 to 1932. Ninety years later it was meticulously restored by Al and Sandra Cronk of Wyoming, Ontario who donated it to The Duke Hunt Historical Museum in Rosslyn in August, 2014. After being showcased at the Thunder Bay airport, it is now on display at the museum in Rosslyn.
The Rock and Roll Years of Racing
Racing ceased in the 1940s. During the great depression and the Second World War, gasoline, tires and money in were short supply and racing ground to a halt. After the War dirt track racing returned. The open speedsters of the 20s and 30s were replaced with modified street cars. The race cars were fitted with chassis that made them look like street cars, but that is where the similarity ended. Underneath the hoods were powerful engines. They had welded doors with no head lights or windshield and they were designed to driven on a dirt track not the street. There was more concern for safety too. The cars had interior roll bars and exterior crash bars for driver protection and the drivers started wearing helmets and seat belts. It wasn’t long before the drivers started using the crash bars as battering rams to push other cars out of the way. The 1950s and 60s were the rock and roll years of dirt track racing that saw names of local drivers like Louis Tocheri, Glen and Barry Kettering, and Al Massaro come to the forefront.
In the 1970s, some of the Lakehead’s stock car drivers such as Tom Nesbitt, Joel Cryderman, John Jones, Jeff Helget and Glen Timko made their mark. In all, over 900 drivers competed in the different stock car classes at Riverview Raceways. Some of the classes were Super stocks, Street stocks, Bombers and Diamond cars, but the premier class was always the Late Model stocks. The purse for winning a Late Model Stock heat at Riverview was usually $1000 – $1500. Stock was racing has always been a sport where the bump and grind of the heats sent tempers flaring with road rage. And cutting other drivers off and bumping them out of the way in their impassioned zest to win was all par for the course. Despite the intense completion, all the drivers had a great respect for each other. When the races were finished all that was forgotten. The drivers went to the Alexandra Hotel or the Wayland – the 19th holes of stock car racing – to talk shop and share comradery. Racing a stock car was like being in a large brotherhood.
In 1969, John Jones became the first local driver to win an invitational race. In 1976, he became the first Canadian to win the Tri-State championship. For most of the ten years, 1969-79, John was in competitive racing he would race in Thunder Bay and take his stock car down to Minnesota and Wisconsin weekly to race there.
Tom “The Bomb” Nesbitt was one of the few local drivers to make a career out of stock car dirt track racing. He raced for 50 years with over 650 wins to his credit. Tom raced all over the southern US during the winter coming back to race in Thunder Bay during the summer. He was inducted into the Superior, Wisconsin Speedway Hall of Fame and became the first Canadian to be inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame. Tom is also a member of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Dirt track racing became a community event. Women formed the ladies auxiliary holding dances for the start of the racing season, the annual invitational races, trophy dances and other socials. Stock car drivers were featured in local advertising and received ample press coverage.
The tracks at Murillo and the CLE shared the racing events until Riverview Raceways on Hwy 61 opened in the late 1960s. Races were held at Riverview until it closed in 1994. A week after Riverview closed, Mosquito Speedway in Nolalu opened and racing continued. Riverview Raceways reopened in 2000, but by 2003 all the tracks in Thunder Bay were closed. It was mainly due to Thunder Bay’s isolation from the nearest of the dirt tracks in US. Only a few American racers regularly made the long drive to the Lakehead except for the annual invitational events. The local race car drivers and pit crews were getting older, the cars were becoming more expensive to maintain and racing finally ceased. The only people who were glad to see the races stop were those that lived near the race tracks. They no longer had to endure the roar of the cars, the loud PA systems or the wafting clouds of dust kicked up by the races.
Yet the romance of racing has remained. Eleven years after the last race in Thunder Bay, Mosquito Speedway was reopened for a two day invitational racing event. It was a huge success. The popularity of dirt track racing was still very much alive. It demonstrated that, just as stock car racing over the years was always a colourful and storied part of the Lakehead, it still is. Efforts to build a new dirt track at Twin City crossroads are well under way. Will it become a reality? If racing enthusiasts have their way it will.
Thank you to the following who assisted with this article:
Glen St. Onge – Stock Car Heritage
The Duke Hunt Museum
Russ Wanzuk – Stock car collection
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*