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Cold, hard facts about ice racing

They're holding car races on Lake Couchiching over by the Fern Resort and I want you to cover them. Take a camera, too.

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When I got into the newspaper business in the early 1960s, the city editor of the Orillia Packet & Times, Jim Pauk, called me over one Friday afternoon early in the new year.

“The Orillia Winter Carnival is on this weekend,” he said. “They’re holding car races on Lake Couchiching over by the Fern Resort and I want you to cover them. Take a camera, too.”

So I covered the car races on the ice of Lake Couchiching. I can’t remember much about them because I was freezing cold and couldn’t wait until they ended. Two things remain stuck in my mind, however:

1. The spikes on the tires of the cars looked terrifying.

2. The pneumonia I got as a result of standing around for hours on end laid me low for a week. I swear I might have died if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Brown, of Brown’s Boarding House on Nottawasaga St. in Orillia, who looked after me like she was my own mother.

I haven’t been back to an ice race since. Which is a pity. Times have changed and they don’t run `em out on lakes and rivers anymore. Instead, there’s a purpose-built track at the fairgrounds in Minden, and if you start getting chilly you have two options:

1. You can walk over to your car and start the heater.

2. Ask one of the race drivers to take you along for the ride. (You might not warm up much, but I guarantee that you’ll quickly forget you’re cold.)

This weekend in Minden , the last of the six Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs-sanctioned ice race weekends for Ontario championships in four basic classes will be held. Organized from January to March each year by the usual car-club suspects (the Deutscher Automobil Club, British Empire Motor Club, BARC, etc.), it’s the Twin Lakes Motor Club’s turn and it has a couple of reasons to celebrate:

1. It’s the club’s 50th anniversary and it is commemorating Tom and Doris Medlock, who were instrumental in starting the Twin Lakes Motor Club. The Medlocks served it (and Ontario racing) for more than 30 years.

2. The local Kin Club (Kinsmen and Kinettes) won the service organization’s highest national honour last August because of its involvement in the ice-racing series. Since 1977, Kin members have raised funds for community projects by building, maintaining and renting out the track each winter (think about putting up a backyard rink and multiply the time and effort by about 100 times) and selling hot food and beverages at the races.

Mike Zeleniak is an organizer of this weekend’s racing and a member of the Twin Lakes club.

“(Ice racing) is about the safest form of motorsport going,” he said. “The track is about 750 metres in length and by the time you get to the end of the long straight you might be hitting 80 km/h. There are big snowbanks on the inside and the outside of the circuit.

“In fact, with one exception – when a driver needed medical attention after a crash, and he was okay later – about the only injury I can remember was one time a spectator was crossing the track and slipped and fell on the ice.”

Zeleniak also said the annual January-March ice-racing season at Minden is an economic boon for the community.

“We average about 100 racers a weekend and we need 25 to 30 volunteers to put on the races,” he said.

“They travel to Minden with their spouses and families and friends and they rent motel rooms and go out to eat in the local restaurants. It’s a lot of fun and it’s great for the local economy.”

Zeleniak was effusive with his praise of the Kin Club.

“They’re fabulous people,” he said. “It takes a million and a half litres of water to build the 16 inches (40 cm)of ice necessary for ice racing,” he said. “That’s a lot of cold nights. And they keep it plowed, of course, so that it’s in great shape when race weekends roll around.”

Scott Ellsworth, president of the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs-Ontario Region, said ice racing is about the cheapest form of competitive road racing going.

“The investment to go ice racing ranges from about $500 at the low end to $2,000 to $2,500 at the top – plus entry fees (usually $50-to-$100 per day),” he said.

“That $500 can be broken down this way: $200 for an old car, $200 for the tires (some classes have studs) and $100 for a helmet.

“At the high end, well, there was the time that John Powell came out in a BMW 323 that he was using in his racing school at Mosport. He was so fast in it that nobody could get near him, and he finished the season without putting a scratch on the car!”

Ellsworth was quick to point out that like all forms of racing, rough driving is not allowed in ice racing.

“People, when they’re learning, are going to make mistakes and that’s accepted,” he said. “And it’s tolerated that cars can run closely together – this is racing, after all. But drivers can’t use their car as a weapon. Ice racing is not a demolition derby.”

They must have been thinking of ice racing when they came up with the expression “fan friendly” because spectators can ride along beside the drivers.

“It’s a blast to go along in a race,” Zeleniak said. “Yes, you have to sign a waiver and you have to wear a helmet but we have spares and if Joe Schmoe comes along and wants a ride, we’ll arrange to get him or her in a car.”

Zeleniak acknowledged that’s how he got involved in the sport in the first place.

“My wife Cathy went for a ride during a race and when it was over she got out of the car and said to me, `Honey, we have to get one of these.’

“And so it started.”

Racing today will continue into the late afternoon. The driver’s meeting tomorrow, with racing to follow, is scheduled for 11:30 a.m.

I can’t think of a better late-winter outing.

Norris McDonald writes about motorsport each week at Wheels.ca nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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