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Ed Hakonson: Fighting the odds his entire life

Clothing company founder and NASCAR team owner survived polio as a child

Published September 22, 2013

Ed Hakonson has addiction problems: speed and hard work. One comes from a love of adrenalin, the other from an unquenchable pursuit of success.

The owner of Choko Authentic Apparel and Ed Hakonson Racing/Team 3 Red of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series is at Kawartha Speedway near Peterborough today, where the last race of the 2013 NASCAR Canada stock car season will take place, and his car and driver are in the running for the national championship.

His driver, Jason Hathaway of Dutton, Ont., is a bit up against it. To win the title, he has to finish first in the Pinty’s 250 and his main rivals, two-time champions D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas and Scott Steckly of Ayr, will have to wind up worse than 19th and 15th, respectively.

A tall order, but not impossible.

Hakonson is used to tough battles. As a child, he fought the biggest of his life against polio, which still took his left leg and hip.

He was born in 1949, a Timmins boy. At three months, his mother noticed a leg that, “well, it wasn’t working very well,” he said in a recent interview.

But he considers himself lucky.

“Some had it with both legs, some with lungs and bronchial systems, and many didn’t survive,” he said. A childhood photo of the man, with Forrest Gump-style braces attached to his legs, sits above his desk — a constant reminder of what could have been.

He is gracious when speaking about the doctors at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, who treated him, and his parents, Audrey and Arne, who moved to Markham because it was closer to the hospital, even though they were farmers with no health insurance.

Local Lions Clubs and Kiwanis groups fundraised and, 13 operations later, Hakonson felt lucky.

“Worst-case scenario, I would have been in a wheelchair. Best-case scenario, I would have walked with a brace my entire life. It all didn’t completely work out, but it did enough.”

His doctors, he credits for his well-being. His parents, he credits for his ethics. A teacher named Muriel Buyer, he credits for never letting him feel sorry for himself. The drive? Some of that came from a professional wrestler.

A patient at Sick Kids, Hakonson became “Timmy,” one of the children who helped raise money for Easter Seals. At age 10, he journeyed across Ontario and into the United States on public appearances and speaking engagements. Later, he would become a board member of Easter Seals and have a hand in starting the Easter Seals Telethon.

But at 10 years old, to be travelling like he did, speaking in public, putting his disability on stage to educate, he needed good friends to cope.

The biggest was Whipper Billy Watson. The big wrestler was also a big part of Easter Seals.

“He was a lifetime volunteer,” Hakonson said. “He always worked on his own time, never took a dime. He worked with handicapped children because that was his passion.”

Watson inspired Hakonson. He taught him dedication, perseverance and love.

“How could you not go right when you had Dr. Robert Salter operating on you, Watson tutoring you to help other children, and then parents who gave everything they had to make sure you had your operations?”

However, when he was 12 and 13, self-pity set in. He couldn’t play sports with his friends. He was limited, and he knew it. Frustration led to fighting back.

“But I was fortunate during that negative period; I grew a love for cars. I bought my first ’55 Chev convertible when I was 15 and drove it home with no driver’s license.

“It really caught my interest. I don’t know where, I have this real, natural instinctive … I love speed.”

Not destructive speed, just speed.

By 16, Hakonson had bought and sold six or eight cars, and had enough money to buy a 1955 Chevy two-door with a good strong motor in it. He spent Saturday nights street racing for money with friends. They didn’t have the best equipment, but they won a lot.

“We didn’t smoke dope, we didn’t shoot up, we didn’t highball,” he said. “We just raced. It became our drug.”

And his twin addictions of adrenalin and hard work grew stronger.

After a business diploma at Ryerson he would work for Datsun, setting up dealerships and delivering cars. On the side, he raced snowmobiles for Arctic Cat, and won — a lot.

Yamaha noticed him and hired him to work in their parts and accessories department in his mid-20s. He advanced, started travelling around the world on business and found himself away from home too much.

“Eventually, my wife said to me, maybe you should look at the fact that you’re married to your business, and not to me,” Hakonson said. “That was a good sign I should change my vocation.”

Says wife Heidi: “He was the most determined person I’ve ever met, with the biggest heart. Nothing stops him when he gets an idea.”

So the couple sat at their kitchen table and drew diagrams and clothing. At the time, snowmobile racing gear was pathetic, Hakonson said. He knew he could make better product, and he did.

What he didn’t know was how to get it to market.

“I bought ads in a magazine, showed the garment, and put on the bottom, ‘Available at this dealer.’ The dealers would get calls for my product, and then call me. Most of them had never heard of me. Some were angry, some not, but it started the conversation. I just said, ‘maybe you should start carrying it’.”

When he added racing elements to Choko’s lineup, sales took off. “We went from 19th in a market of 19 to first in three years.”

Today, Choko is a multimillion-dollar clothing provider that has licensing agreements with major automakers and retailers.

Hakonson loves racing and his racing team, and is about to relaunch Fast Eddie Racewear, a retail line for racers.

Any more goals?

“Have the family together. You can have all the money and championships in the world, but if nobody wants to come to your home, what do you have?”

wheels@thestar.ca

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