Old Racers Share Fond Memories of 1970s Bulova Series
Racing historian George Webster’s research into the Bulova Series is impressive.
In the early 1970s, the Bulova Watch Co., with top-up money provided by what was then Mosport Park, sponsored a series of races for Formula Ford cars whose drivers were chasing a big carrot on the end of a stick.
The winner was given a scholarship to go race in England the following year. A sister series for small sedans was also sponsored by Bulova but there was no “driver-to-England” prize awaiting that champion.
In addition to the scholarship, the other attraction for entrants was that they got to race in front of huge crowds. Mosport loved the idea of having two super-competitive series run races in support of the headlining Canadian Grand Prix or Can-Am series weekends. Fields of more than 60 cars were not unusual. It didn’t cost the track a lot of money and the fans got to see some great racing, which was often — not always, but often — more exciting than the Big Name events.
The first year, 1971, saw the series sponsored by Shoppers World, a company that developed and managed malls (Danforth, Brampton). That company lost its enthusiasm for the sport when a driver, Wayne Kelly, was killed at that year’s Grand Prix and it withdrew at the end of the season.
Bulova watches and clocks took over for 1972 and continued through ’76. Champions included David Loring in 1971 (he was an American racing in Canada because he was too young to compete in the U.S.), Luke De Sadeleer (1972 and 1974), Danny Burritt, David White and Alec Purdy. Burritt was the first champion to go to England; De Sadeleer and White both felt they couldn’t afford the year, even with the scholarship, and they were replaced by second-place finishers Rod Bremner and Nigel Gough.
Now, racing historians, particularly George Webster of PRN/Ignition, have done a wonderful job documenting Canadian history and Webster’s research into the Bulova Series is impressive. But nothing beats the real thing, so last Saturday night, at the Paddock Club in Burlington, I attended a reunion organized by David White of some of the drivers who raced in those series.
White, whose son, Matt, won three Formula Ford championships in recent years, said there were a number of reasons he decided on a reunion.
“Other than going to funerals or the Hall of Fame induction,” he said, “we don’t see each other. For some of these guys, it’s been 40 or 45 years. I’m 75 and I won the championship in 1975 and I found this place, the Paddock Club, and I said to myself, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ The next thing I know, 55 people were registered and paid up. Burke (Harrison) flew in from California for this and Michael Dodd drove up from North Carolina.
“People didn’t socialize in those days. It was an extremely competitive series. The atmosphere was always tense because people were hoping this was their chance to get to Europe, where they would be exposed to people who could maybe make a difference in their lives. I just thought it was time.”
Between 40 and 50 people attended last Saturday, Formula Ford and sedan drivers alike, and the reminiscing got started before many even got through the door.
Organizer White, for instance, told how he suckered a fellow competitor into giving him an opening.
“I was trying to get past Nigel Gough and I just couldn’t do it. Lap after lap I thought I had him but he stayed ahead. Finally, on the last lap, on the backstretch, as we approached Corner Eight, I got beside him and I motioned toward the back of his car and waved wildly. He backed off for just a split second before he caught on but by then I was gone…”
North Carolina retiree Dodd raced a Mini in the Bulova Sedan Series and enjoyed a brush with greatness at the 1973 Grand Prix. (The F1 race started in the rain but then it cleared up, forcing the drivers to pit to change from wet tires to dry. They didn’t do this all that often in F1 back then, so there was chaos. To add to the confusion, a pace car was used for the first time in an F1 race and it pulled in front of the wrong car. Although the late Peter Revson was declared the winner, the order of finish remains controversial to this day with Peter Gethin, a driver in the race, insisting Emerson Fittipaldi was the winner.) Dodd said:
“In late September of 1973, I was working as an apprentice mechanic at a Sunoco station in Whitby. One afternoon, a transporter pulled up to the pumps and a number of fellows jumped out. They explained that they were the crew for one of the F1 race teams. They thought it was cool that I would be in the support race immediately prior to the GP.
“After they had completed the fuelling, they came into the garage to pay and take a look at my Mini. It was kind of exciting having an F1 crew looking over my car. As they left, they told me to come by the pits after my race if I wanted.
“It rained hard during my entire race. I decided to look up the F1 crew. I remained in my driving suit and had no problem getting past the minimal security of the day. As I walked along behind the pit boxes, one of the crew I’d met was rolling some mounted wet tires into their pit. He called me in and introduced me to the three drivers who were getting changed into their driving suits. Those were the days prior to fancy motor coaches.
“The crew member told the drivers that I had just come in from my race. All three wanted to know what the track conditions were like, especially any locations where there were rivers flowing across. I told them everything I knew and they thanked me. The drivers were Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Peter Gethin and Niki Lauda.
“The crew allowed me to stay in their pit for the entire race and I even got to help out during the pit stop. I’ll never forget hauling a fat, steaming, rear wet-weather tire back into the pit box and being astounded how light it was and how hot and gummy the tread was.
“How often does a Bulova sedan driver get to supply track conditions to three F1 drivers? It had to be the highlight of my humble racing career.”
Brian Stewart of Sutton went on from the Bulova Series to have a successful career as an Indy Lights Series team owner. Among the famous pilots who drove for him over the years were Tommy Byrne, Cristiano da Matta and Paul Tracy. A Canadian Formula Vee champion, who was sent to the world finals at the Nurburgring by Volkswagen Canada, Stewart also won the Canadian Formula Ford Championship and went to the world finals for that class at Brands Hatch in England. He crashed in Germany but at Brands, there were 200 drivers there from around the world and he finished 12th.
“But one day I looked around and I was in my 30s and I figured I wasn’t going to be able to make it as a driver in racing but I was good at getting cars ready for others to drive,” Stewart said. “Plus, I found I got as much enjoyment out of getting cars ready for others to race as I did driving them myself, so I stepped out of the cockpit and went into business. I did pretty well, too.”
Stewart said that sometimes there would be regional races at Mosport (now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) where there would be short fields. “Harvey Hudes (who ran Mosport for years) would call me up and he’d say, “You have five cars (Formula Vees) in your shop and you have to bring them all over. So I did. There were drivers around, just not cars.
“I got to Indy Lights and the same thing would happen sometimes. In 1992, Roger Bailey (Indy Lights commissioner) phoned me and he said, “ I won’t get paid in Toronto unless I have 12 cars on the grid. I know you have four cars but you only have two entered. You have to bring all four. So I entered four cars so that Roger would get paid. Frank Freon and Bryan Herta, who won, were my regular drivers. I recruited two other guys.”
As you can imagine, Stewart’s name was frequently mentioned during the evening.
John Scratch, a Formula Ford driver who raced an all-Canadian Ferret FF that was designed by the late Alec Purdy and fabricated at Ferret Industries in Hanover, Ont., thanked Stewart for “spinning out once and letting me win.” Brian Graham, who is involved in driver development (Kyle Marcelli, Conor Daly, Mikhail Goikhberg) and owns a successful Formula 1600 team these days, said he was going to call his business by a generic name but that Stewart talked him out of it.
“He told me that if ‘you’re not proud enough of your own name (to use it in your business), your team won’t be worth anything.’ So that’s when I decided on Brian Graham Racing.”
Ian Campbell and his great pal Bob MacDonald met at the University of Waterloo and went racing together with Ian doing the driving and Bob handling the mechanical chores. MacDonald said:
“I was chief mechanic and my girlfriend at the time, she’s my wife now, did the lap charts and the timing and helped to keep the car clean. We’d trundle out to Mosport at 4 in the morning and unload the car and we were often the support for F1 and Can-Am and so we’d be hobnobbing with people like Colin Chapman and Jackie Stewart. It was great.”
Campbell — who freely admitted to becoming a racing driver in order to attract women — said: “I kept my car at Brian Stewart’s. He lived beside a fellow whose name was Heinz Snizek, who made all the fibreglass bodies for the cars. Heinz gave me a great piece of advice.
“Before my first race, I was talking to Heinz and he said, ‘I have a tip for you. Tape a cigarette to your dash.’ I said, ‘Why would I do that?’ And he said, “The Bulova Series is very competitive and you probably won’t finish one of every three races. Maybe you run into a guardrail. You’re going to need something to calm you down. So after you hit the guardrail, hop out and take the cigarette with you. Smoke it and you will feel better.’”
Campbell said his fondest memory was not about the Bulova Series but of a regional FF race he had to run to qualify for a national licence.
“It was a 12-lap race. The Bulova races were 20 laps so I figured, since gasoline weighs a lot, I could make the car lighter by not putting in a full tank of gas but just enough to go the distance. I was leading by at least 100 yards and I started the last lap and ‘Sputter!’ Sputter!’ I ran out of gas and I lost. I never came that close to winning again.”
Burke Harrison has made a living as an engineer in the Indy Lights Series for years and is another one who has Brian Stewart to thank.
“I had my own car but I ran it out of Brian’s shop. If I crashed, I had to fix it; Brian let us use his lathe and other tools. I learned from driving the cars and working on the cars. Eventually I started to work for Brian and I worked with Alec Purdy who was an engineer.
“When he left to go to work for Nissan, I said to Brian: ‘Who we gonna get?’ And he said, ‘You can do it.’ So that’s how it started. I didn’t have a vision, it just happened. It’s just fate.”
In these days of renting racing cars and even making it to the big leagues more on the strength of a pocketbook than talent, it’s hard to imagine what grassroots racing was like back in the day. Danny Burritt, who was there on Saturday with his wife, won the championship in 1973 and was the first to take advantage of the scholarship to help pay for a season’s racing in England the following year.
“In those days, if you wanted to go racing, you saved up, bought a car, put it on a trailer and you’d go to the track. You got out there and you went racing and you said to yourself, ‘That wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be but, you know, I can do this.’ And your heroes were guys you’d go to watch — the Bill Bracks and the Eppie Wietzes and the George Eatons; Craig Hill was another one — and you’d want to be like them and to race against them.”
Burritt, like some of the others, continued in racing behind-the-scenes and works for the Multimatic of Markham racing organization these days. He said he had his eyes opened when he got to England.
There’s a big difference between racing here and over there. We had seven or eight Bulova races a year and then you would fit in going to Sanair or Three Rivers, Que. Over there, they start in March and they go till November and they race every weekend and it would be sometimes twice or three times a weekend — Oulton Park on the Saturday, to Snetterton for Sunday to Brands Hatch on Monday.
“One season over there was the equivalent of maybe four seasons over here. My wife, she was my girlfriend then, we worked on the car and travelled all over and really enjoyed ourselves. But you need a learning year. That would prepare you better for the grind. The best thing about the Bulova was that the racing was really hard and there were times you were ready to kill the guy next to you but at the end of the day you were still friends. There was some animosity that carried over, but not much.”
Former Canadian top soldier, Maj.-Gen Lewis MacKenzie (Ret’d), who raced Formula Fords for years — still does, in fact — and was inducted last year into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, was guest speaker and talked about the importance of staying involved in the sport and that his personal motto was, “Grow old, not up.”
“Everybody needs a passion,” he said. “While some of you might have retired (from auto racing) because of age, I urge you to get back in for no other reason than not enough young people are taking up the sport, so we need people to fill out the fields.”
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