Earl Ross, the only Canadian to win a NASCAR Winston Cup race and a member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, died Thursday. He was 73.
The pride of Ailsa Craig, Ont., Ross won the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sept. 29, 1974. He qualified 11th but was more than a lap ahead of the second-place finisher, Buddy Baker, at the checkers. His car was owned by the legendary Junior Johnson and sponsored by the Canadian-owned Carling-O’Keefe Breweries.
The win was the push needed for Ross, who could only afford to run a partial schedule, to win the NASCAR Rookie of the Year award that year. In his NASCAR Winston Cup career, he had the one win, five top-five finishes and 10 top tens in 26 races.
In a statement released in Daytona Beach Thursday, NASCAR paid tribute to the Canadian.
“NASCAR extends its condolences to the family and friends of Earl Ross, a true racer whose considerable on-track success helped grow the sport internationally.
“Ross was the first Canadian driver to win a race in what is today known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and he did it at one of NASCAR’s most historic tracks for one of NASCAR’s most historic owners. His 1974 win at Martinsville for Junior Johnson helped lay the foundation for the sport’s tremendous growth in Canada, and beyond.”
Ross raced stock cars mainly in Ontario and the Maritimes from the 1960s through the 1990s. He spent time on the ASA circuit (Bob Senneker, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki were competing at the same time) and raced in the CASCAR Super Series (which later became the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series) against Canadian legends like Don Thomson Jr.
He wound down his career in the late 1990s by running periodically at Delaware Speedway near London and not far from his Ailsa Craig home.
He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Maritime Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2011.
Over the years, I had occasion to interview Earl on several occasions and, unlike the media-savvy, media-trained race drivers of today, he was just a real down-home type of guy. But he was a talented athlete and people knew it. For instance, he was one of those lucky car racers who always had a sponsor. Sure, he had to spend some of his own money to build and race his first car in the mid-1960s, a jalopy. But after that, it was smooth sailing.
Some southwestern Ontario businessmen, who liked what they saw of him in the hobby car (he won his first race), approached him to go late-model stock car racing and they picked up the tab. When he went to the big leagues, he drove for Carling-O’Keefe to sell their beer and for Coca-Cola to promote the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal. After he retired, he was lured back to competition by the Ford Motor Co. and proceeded to put in four more years on behalf of the automaker.
I asked him once how all this happened. He just shrugged and said, “Just lucky, I guess.”
But it was more than luck. Every time Ross crawled behind the steering wheel of a stock car, he was a threat to win the race. And all those sponsors who attached themselves to him saw him as a man they wanted representing them.
One time I wanted an interview near the anniversary of his big win, and I caught up with him while he was driving through Quebec en route home from a golfing vacation in the Maritimes (he was born on Prince Edward Island, so the pull of “Down Home” was still strong). Did he remember winning that race at Martisnville?
“It wasa hot and sunny day, ” he said. “And to be honest, I felt pretty ‘hot’ when I drove past the checkered flag at the end of the race. It was a big thrill for me and to this day I’m very proud I was able to do that.”
Ross, who qualified 11th in the 30-car field, took over the lead when Cale Yarborough developed engine trouble and had to drop out. At the checkers, he was more than a lap ahead on the half-mile track that looks like a paper clip, with Baker second and Donnie Allison third.
It was – and remained – the highlight of his auto racing career.
But how did he get there? What was the route that took him to Martinsville that day?
Earl was driving his hobby car when the McKichan brothers – Gord, Stan and Ken – asked him to drive their late model at the London-area Delaware Speedway and other area tracks. He was so good that in 1968, he won track championships at Delaware, Nilestown and Flamboro speedways.
He told me in another interview several years ago that in 1971, he and the McKichans went to Florida to watch the Daytona 500 and he caught the bug. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’d sure like to drive one of those cars some day.’ ” Little did he know that he would be starting the Great American Race three years later.
Carling-O’Keefe started to use stock car racing to market its Red Cap brand and decided to enter a car in the Daytona 500. They chose Earl to be the driver and the late supermodified star, “Smiling” Jack Greedy, to be team manager.
“They approached me, which was unbelievable,” Ross said. “We bought a car and three engines from Bobby Allison and Carling’s rented the Daytona Speedway for us for three days during the Christmas holidays and hired Donnie Allision to show me the ropes.
“In 10 laps, we blew up all three engines. So we went to Junior Johnson and he supplied engines for us for the rest of the year. We ran 21 races and we won the rookie title and the Martinsville race. We never failed to qualify and finished in every spot in the top 10 – second at Michigan, third at Dover and so-on.”
Carling-O’Keefe cut back its support the next year but Coca-Cola, a primary sponsor of the ’76 Olympics, approached him to run Daytona that February to promote the Games and then sponsored him in Ontario racing for the following two years, after which he retired.
In 1982, he was convinced to run the inaugural McKerlie Millen 200 at Delaware, which he won. Then he retired again until 1993 when Ford called and asked him to drive their house car in the CASCAR Super Series, which he did for four years before calling it a day for the final time to concentrate on his business, Ross Welding and Fabricating, and to play golf.
But looking back to that day in ’74, Earl said he couldn’t believe he’d won. “I’d always wanted to go down there and win but I honestly didn’t think I would. It was a big surprise.”
He said the team had quite a party at Martinsville – “there was some Carling beer involved” – but said the real celebration took place back home in Ailsa Craig.
“They really partied it up, ” he laughed over the phone. “I called my wife, Bonnie, from Martinsville and she said about 100 neighbours were over at the house. They really had a good time.”
– NORRIS McDONALD (firstname.lastname@example.org)