Legendary Canadian racer Ludwig Heimrath dies
Racer won first Canadian driver’s title in 1961, Trans-Am Championship in 1977
Ludwig Heimrath, Canada’s first national driving champion and the first Canadian to race in Formula One, has died at age 86 of pancreatic cancer. Known as a fierce competitor, he frightened friends and foes alike with his my-way-or-the-highway determination to win at almost any cost.
Heimrath, who spent his final days with son Ludwig Jr., a successful IndyCar driver in his own right, daughter Karen and a caregiver, Karen Gillett, did everything his own way, including dying. Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, he entered palliative care at hospital in Peterborough but signed himself out, determined to “go to Heaven” from his cottage on the shore of nearby Stoney Lake that housed more than 400 racing trophies.
John Bondar, owner of eastern Ontario’s Shannonville Motorsport Park, raced against Heimrath years ago. “I’d be going up the backstretch at Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park),” Bondar said, “and I would see this Porsche coming up behind me and there was no doubt Ludwig was driving. You could see the fire in his eyes right through the opening of his helmet.”
An expert in the building and tuning of Porsche engines (he owned and operated a small Scarborough dealership called Heimrath Porsche for 35 years), Ludwig emigrated to Canada in 1956, where he went to work for Volkswagen Canada.
With other members of the newly formed Deutscher Automobil Club – Rudy Bartling, Horst Petermann, Fritz Hochreuter, Horst Kroll and Klaus Bartels – he started racing in 1958 at abandoned airport circuits around Ontario, Green Acres (Goderich) and Harewood Acres (Jarvis) among them.
Once bitten by the racing bug, there was no stopping him. His passion for the sport knew no bounds. During his career, he took green flags in club racing, the minor leagues and the bigs. It didn’t matter: if there was a race anywhere, he’d strap in, fire up and run it.
For instance, he entered the very first race held at Mosport when the track opened in June of 1961. It was an amateur event organized by the Oakville-Trafalgar Light Car Club to prove the track could handle an upcoming professional event, the first Player’s 200, that was scheduled for later that month.
Driving a Porsche 356 Super 90, Heimrath was dominating his race until he lost control and rolled the car at Corner 5 (Moss Corner). Asked what he’d been thinking as he flew through the air, Heimrath replied: “I was downshifting for maximum power when I landed.”
Several weeks later, in front of more than 40,000 spectators, he finished fourth in that first Player’s 200 behind Formula One drivers Stirling Moss, OIivier Gendebien and Jo Bonnier. His performance that day made him a crowd favourite from then on.
Heimrath won the Canadian championship (known at the time as the Canadian Sports Car Championship) in 1961 and 1964 (when he drove a King Cobra for the famed Canadian Comstock Racing team) and was second in ’62, ’63 and ’65. That first championship, and his prowess in a Porsche, led to the German manufacturer offering him a Formula One seat for a non-championship points race at Pau, France, in 1962.
He qualified tenth fastest out of 18 starters and was moving up in the field when he crashed. There are those who say that had Porsche opted to run three F1 cars in 1963 (manufacturers did that in those days) that Heimrath would have been the third driver. But it was not to be.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heimrath suffered through a dry period. He seemed to have lost his touch. He tried Indy cars for two years and entered the Canadian and Continental Formula A Championship Series but mechanical difficulties or impatience with slower opponents, causing him to crash, did him in.
He finally saw the light and went back to racing Porsches (he rejuvenated his career by purchasing a Porsche 911S and bringing its mechanic, Auguste Lecourt, to Canada with it), where he was most comfortable.
In 1977, during the first glory period of the SCCA Trans-Am Championship (the second came during the 1990s, when Canadian Ron Fellows and Americans Scott Pruett and Tommy Kendall went after each other, hammer and tong, race after race), Heimrath and U.S. racer Peter Gregg took turns winning. They raced hard. They also hated each other.
In the end, Gregg won the championship on paper but Heimrath was convinced his opponent was a cheat. As the Mosport round had approached, he’d gone to CRDA secretary Brian Stewart (the Canadian Racing Drivers Association ran professional racing in Canada), who was also the track’s chief scrutineer, and pointed out that the Trans-Am Series was run under FIA rules and Peter Gregg was breaking them.
Stewart asked Heimrath to elucidate and was shown two rules – one disallowing ballast and a second forbidding cutting the body of the car to make room for what were illegal parts.
It so happened that Stewart also ran a team in the SCCA Super Vee Championship and a week before Mosport there had been a Super Vee-Trans-Am double-header at the Nelson Ledges circuit in Ohio. Stewart, as just another racer, wandered over to the Gregg garage and saw, close-up, what Heimrath had been complaining about. When Gregg produced the car at Mosport for scrutineering a week later, Stewart disallowed it.
As just about everybody in racing knows, the chief scrutineer reports to the clerk of the course who, in this case, was the SCCA chief scrutineer, who overruled Stewart. Heimrath protested, but the protest was thrown out. He then appealed to the FIA in Paris, which ruled in his favour. The points taken away from Gregg, and awarded to Heimrath, gave the championship to the Canadian but it took the SCCA, which had awarded money and silverware to the American, nearly five months to make the change.
Ludwig continued to race for the next 20 years in club racing events and pro series like the Rothmans-Porsche Turbo Cup Series (as of 2000 it would have been his sixth decade of competition), forcing the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame to change its rules for induction.
Like most Halls of Fame, a potential inductee had to be retired from competition for three years to become eligible. When it became clear that Heimrath had no intention of ever stopping – in fact, he was planning to race this summer in the Monterey Historics, a vintage event at Laguna Seca Raceway in California and had his Porsche race car primed to continue club racing at CTMP this season – the Hall changed its eligibility to a minimum non-stop involvement for 25 years.
Retired motorsport reporter and columnist Dan Proudfoot knew Ludwig well. In fact, he drove up to Stoney Lake a few weeks ago to have lunch with the old campaigner. He told me that although there’s no way to prove it, “I am confident to say that Ludwig is King of Mosport. Nobody has driven more laps of the place, because he raced in the track’s first races – the club race that preceded the first big show, the Player’s 200 – and never stopped.
“When his friend Billy Smilovsky held lapping weekends for his Engineered Automotive clients, they and their wives and children would line up to ride with Ludwig and he thrilled them in his highly-modified Porsche, lapping effortlessly at the same rate as he raced the Eglinton-Caledonia RS60 back in the day, mid-1:30 laps.”
(On a personal note, every time I saw Ludwig at CTMP, he would point at me and say, “One of these days I am going to take you around this place and give you the ride of your life.” I never went, because I was afraid he would try so hard to scare the living daylights out of me that he would wind up killing us both.)
Myles Brandt, president and general manager of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, praised his old friend when told of his death..
“I’ve known Ludwig since the time I started working at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (then Mosport) in the 1970s and have long considered him a friend,” Brandt said.
“He’s one of the greatest Canadians to have ever raced at the track and I think it’s fitting that he won his first Canadian Driving Championship in 1961 – the same year that Mosport opened. He’s been an important part of CTMP’s history ever since.
“Ludwig was an intense and sometimes intimating person, both on and off the track. But he cared deeply about CTMP. He loved racing here and was always willing to help the track however he could. I’m going to miss him.”
CTMP co-owners Ron Fellows added this:
“Ludwig Heimrath Sr. was always a larger-than-life character on the Canadian racing scene. As a kid who began following the sport religiously beginning in 1969, Ludwig was synonymous with the Porsche brand. In the 1970s and 80s, I watched him race a variety of Porsches at CTMP in both IMSA and the Trans-Am Series. Our paths crossed in the late 1970s when his talented son, Ludwig Jr., began racing Formula 1600, where I was cutting my teeth as well. Despite his gruff exterior, Ludwig Sr. was always friendly and helpful with advice and I felt privileged to get to know the Heimrath family during my first couple of years in F1600.
“For the decades that followed, Ludwig continued to be a fixture at CTMP, driving his Porsches at various track days and attending the occasional race where our paths would continue to cross. A legend and a very worthy member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, Ludwig was always a gentleman and I will miss his charismatic smile, and his passion and enthusiasm for Canadian motorsport.”
Heimrath always gave credit to his wife, Brigitte, for his racing success. He said that unless a race driver has full and complete support from his spouse, “then you’ve got trouble. She (Brigitte) always came to the track and never complained.”
Ludwig Heimrath leaves Brigitte, son Ludwig Jr. and daughter Karen. We are never going to see his kind again.