Farewell to a Canadian motorsport original, Craig Hill
My favourite Craig Hill story happened two years ago at what was then Mosport.
It was the 50th anniversary of racing there and among the many celebrations was a question-and-answer and autograph session with some of the Canadian legends who had raced there over the years – Eppie Wietzes, Ludwig Heimrath, Bill Brack and all those guys.
I’d just walked into a tent where the guys were signing a commemorative poster when one of the legends, Craig Hill, stopped signing.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said – and promptly disappeared. I mean, he walked right out of the tent. Moments later, he returned and handed me a book.
“I was in the States last week and I saw this and I immediately thought of you,” he said. “I bought two – one for me and one for you. You’re going to love it.”
It was a copy of “Along for the Ride — A Love Story,” which was about the 1955 Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert, who’d been killed in a sprint car crash at Salem Speedway in Indiana a few weeks after the following year’s 500.
It had been written and published in 1998 by his widow, Dorie Sweikert, and was long out of print.
“It’s the first racing book I’ve ever read that was from the woman’s perspective,” Craig said. “I can’t believe what racing wives go through; now I know. from reading this book.”
I was so excited that I forgot to ask him where he’d found not one but two copies.
And now I can’t. As most everybody knows now, Craig Hill died last week at his home near London. He was 78.
A celebration of his life will be held on Wednesday evening (Nov. 7), at 7 p.m., at Otello’s Banquet Hall, 2273 Royal Windsor Dr. (northwest corner at Ford Dr.) in Oakville.The postal code is L6J 7X8 for those using Google directions.
Now, I wasn’t close to Craig Hill. I met him back in the late-1960s when he was racing – and winning – in Formula B. We were motorsport colleagues, in that I was writing about the sport and he was a racer.
But we were kindred spirits, in that we loved and appreciated all forms of racing. He started out in stock cars at the CNE Speedway, raced supermodifieds at Nilestown and Delaware Speedways near his London-area home, raced full-size midgets in the United States (in fact, he was entered in the USAC midget race at the CNE in 1965 but didn’t compete) and then went road-racing in Canada, winning two national class championships in Formula B in 1969 and 1970.
He knew of my passion for short-track “supers” and we would frequently talk about some of the drivers he’d raced against. When I went supermodified racing myself in the 1980s, he supplied me with all the motor oil and gear oil I needed, just as he did with countless others (“don’t forget to put that Castrol decal in a prominent place,” he’d say).
So he saw the Sweikert book and knew it would be right down my alley and I remain amazed by his thoughtfulness and generosity to this day.
We teamed up to do some other things together.
Remember the long-gone Canadian auto racing magazine called Formula? When it was published by Charles Demond in the 1990s, I was commisioned to write a six-part series on the history of auto racing in Canada.
Craig told me that if I needed some help, he had a pretty good memory and so we spent a lot of time on the phone together.
(As it turned out, I never finished the series because the magazine went out of business shortly after the second instalment was printed.)
And in 1996, when he was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (he was a member of the “fourth class” to be recognized and said the reason he hadn’t been inducted earlier was because “they had to get all the dead guys in first”), we ruffled some feathers in an article I published in the Globe and Mail, where I worked at the time, in which he tore a strip or two off the Canadian racing establishment.
And who can forget his incredible contribution to CTV’s Wide World of Sports during the Formula Atlantic years in which he not only raced in the series but acted as an on-camera analyst and colour commentator?
I remember being at Atlantic Motorsport Park near Shubenacadie, N.S., on a Sunday afternoon in 1975 (Craig and I used to see which of us could say that town’s name fastest) when he had to record the introduction to the following Saturday’s CTV telecast shortly after the Atlantic race ended.
He was standing in the pit area about three feet in front of a camera as the TV director was counting down the seconds before he had to start talking. Just then, a driver Craig had tangled with during the race walked past.
“Do that again,” he yelled at the guy, “and I’ll wrap a tire iron around your head!”
At that moment, the director reached zero and in an instant, Craig had a smile on his face and his voice was purring like a cat’s.
“It was a terribly exciting race at Atlantic Motorsport Park today, with Bill Brack emerging as the winner . . .”
When he left formula car racing behind, he was the driving force for a number of years behind the Can Am TQ Midget Club. And even after he retired, he was never far from Castrol (now Wakefield Canada). He was always available to shake a hand or do a little bench racing, if asked.
He was a helluva driver (in my mind’s eye, I can see him making a pass on the inside in Turn One at Mosport in 1970 that I still can’t believe he pulled off), a brilliant marketer, a till-the-snow-flies golfer, a racing sentimentalist and an all-’round great guy.
Farewell, Craig Hill. Motorsport in Canada has lost a wonderful friend.
Others, besides me, had thoughts.
James Robinson, of James Robinson Associates Ltd.:“Such a sad day for Canadian Motor Racing. Craig Hill was a dear friend who during his tenure at Castrol contributed greatly to introducing Canadian automobile and motorcycle racing to Canadian and USA television audiences.
“My association started with Craig as our English on-camera driver/host along with French driver/host Gilles Villeneuve in the Formula Atlantic series that was televised on CTV’s Wide World of Sports. He, through Castrol (now Wakefield Canada) sponsored the production of the televised Castrol Superbike and Castrol Pro 600 motorcycle series’ for several years.
“And again with Castrol support, Craig not only found the money to help me produce the CASCAR Super Series that aired on Sportsnet, Speed, TSN and CBC but also played an influential role in bringing auto manufacturers and after-market auto suppliers as associate television sponsors.
“Craig Hill, a great friend as well as an ardent and vocal supporter of Canadian motor racing in all its forms.”
Raymond Gray, fellow racer: “I remember when we were both driving for Team Triumph, Craig in the TR, myself in the Spifire.
“Group 44, Bob Tullius’ team from the States, decided to come up to Mosport one race weekend to show us how it was done. Big mistake.
“Group 44, being a factory sponsored team, were not supposed to come into Canada. I think they wished they had not, as both Craig and myself beat them up pretty badly. Needless to say, they never came up again.
“I regretfully have lost a few good racing buddies in recent years – Leighton Irwin, Gord Green. It’s always tough to put memories down on paper. I am now into my 80s and have great memories of my good friends in my time racing.”
John Wright, historian: “Craig lived southwest of London, Ont., and was what you might call an all-’round racer. He raced on the ovals at the CNE but when I knew him he had graduated to road racing.
“He was Ludwig Heimrath’s teammate on the Triumph racing team at Sebring in either 1964 or 1965. He also had the fastest Triumph GT6 I ever saw. It had three Weber carburetors on an engine prepared by Al Wright (no relation) and Craig used to give the Camaros fits at Harewood Acres.
“Craig went on to become a Formula Ford champion and then with a Lotus 59(?) he gave the F5000 cars headaches too.
“I first got to know Craig when he had his shop in a Fina gas station on Oxford Street E. in London in the fall of 1963. My Austin Healey Bug Eye Sprite had a rattling noise in the drive train which Craig diagnosed as a worn out thrust bearing. He replaced it in one day, coping with the flexible hood of the Bug Eye. The engine had to be taken out (love those Brits!) and the bearing assembly replaced. He charged me $60 for the entire job. I went back to him often for servicing.
“Craig became involved with Chip Comstock who started up Competition Motors. Chip bought one of the first XKE coupes around and both Craig and Chip raced it at Harewood. But it was Chip I believe who flipped it after contacting one of Harewood’s notorious haybales. Craig drove it home with no winshield and a crumpled roof.
“Later on, Chip convinced some London business men who were also gearheads to collaborate in the purchase of one of the first Lotus 30s. The reasoning was the Can Am was coming and one could make a lot of money with one of the products of Colin Chapman’s fertile mind. Ha! Craig told me that the car scared him. They were testing at Harewood and the steering rack came loose. They found it had only been tack welded in place!
“Another of our heroes gone.”
Ken Graham, fellow racer and friend: “I first met Craig in the early sixties at the CNE when he drove a supermodified. We hit it off well as we both drove sprint cars, he in the midwest and I in the northeast. We both enjoyed all aspects of motor sports – road racing, oval track, asphalt and dirt. We also both shared a love of dogs, of course.
“We always had lots to talk about when we met a couple of times a week, as we lived in close proximity to each other. In winter months we would watch 16 mm race movies from the Castrol archives and get together with Jim Paulson (RIP) and Bob McAllister (RIP) to watch the Daytona 500 on television.
“Craig and I spent many years attending the SCCA runoffs at Road Atlanta. I did the driving and Craig did the cooking (and what a great cook he was). Craig told me one time that, “I was the only one he enjoyed being a passenger with because everyone else he rode with wanted to impress him with how fast they could drive and it would scare the p—p out of him”. We would stay in my RV at the track from Monday to Sunday watching practice, qualifying and races.
“Over the years, I remember Craig would be at my house every Thursday evening to get my copy of National Speed Sport News, as it was the only real connection to auto racing back then.
“In the early Eighties, Craig talked me into buying a Can-Am TQ midget, as he had arranged a ride for himself. He came with me to my first midget race at the Indy Speedrome for the Thursday night before the 500 race. On the way home from there, we stopped for a Can-Am race in Ohio and I let Craig race my car. I am fussy about who can drive my street car, let alone my race car; however, Craig was the only one I felt confident about driving my race car, which he did on several occasions. He drove with his head and not his foot !!
“One year he apologized for forgetting my birthday and presented me and himself with airline tickets to Ascot Park in California for three nights of World of Outlaws and one night of CRA racing ((non-wing sprint cars). Hill arranged infield/pit credentials for us as well. What a trip! I have stories that I cannot put in print.
“Since Craig retired and moved to the London area, we kept in touch by phone every week up to a few days before his passing. I am going to miss him terribly.
“Race on, my good buddy. Race on.
Sid Priddle, motorsport marketing and promotion specialist: “Craig was a PR man’s dream. And he was funny.
“It was an Atlantic race or Formula B in Debert, N.S. It was raining like hell and when I asked him about the slippery conditions, he said :
“It was like driving on snot. And I swear I saw a lobster scurry across the track.”
Gary Magwood, ex-racing and driving instructor: “It was June 1969, Mosport, Can Am, preliminary race, Craig in a Lotus 61 and me in my Merlyn Mk 11a, prize money was a grand for first! Craig and I went at it for about 20 of the 25 lap race, swapped the lead almost every lap, Jim Paulson (announcer) was going nuts in the tower and the crowd was actually watching.
“Anyway, a couple of laps from the end we both knew whoever was in second on the penultimate lap would probably win by drafting past on the straight. I made the mistake of watching Craig too much in my mirrors and not getting on with opening up a gap so he couldn’t draft me . . .
“I was so intent on what Craig was doing that I drifted onto the shoulder just before the hump and had to lift for a second. That’s all it took for Craig to blow by me and to pick up the grand!! This was a lesson I put to good use many times subsequently: focus ahead, not behind.”
Dr. Hugh Scully, president of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame: “During the early and developing years of the Ontario Race Physicians at Mosport, as I had an opportunity to watch many Canadian and international drivers, Craig was always competitive in whatever he was driving, always a colourful character in the paddock and, happily, never required my professional services, or those of the ORP group.
“As well, his contributions to the development and sustainability of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame were significant !”