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Remembering Horst Kroll

Canadian auto racing legend passes away at 80, will be remembered as a courageous, determined, brave, talented, unique, and totally original gentleman.

  • Horst Kroll

I first met the late Canadian auto racing legend Horst Kroll in 1971 when my wife and I bought our first house, a bungalow, on Meadowvale Rd. in Scarborough just north of Lawrence.

The late Gunther Decker lived at the corner and kept his Formula Ford in the garage attached to his house; Horst had an automobile repair facility in the village of Highland Creek, just across the Kingston Rd. bridge, and stored his Formula Vee or Formula 5000 or Can-Am Frisbee — or whatever exotic machine he had at the time — in a trailerin a vacant lot next to it. I felt surrounded by racing cars and German racing drivers, and I was in Heaven.

I didn’t do business with him because I was a General Motors man at the time and his garage catered to Volkswagens, Porsches and other European brands. But one day, my young son, Cameron, although he wasn’t hurt, rode his tricycle into a wall in the house with such force that he bent the front wheel. I figured, ‘Why not?’ and took the trike over to Horst to see if he could fix it.

“It’s a first for me,” he said, looking at me, “but a wheel’s a wheel.” Whereupon he took out his cutting torch and used the heat to fix my kid’s tricycle. I think he charged me two bucks.

Horst, who died a week ago Thursday at 80, was remembered this week as a courageous, determined, brave, talented, unique, and totally original gentleman.

Courageous, because — when still a teenager — he left his friends and family behind and escaped from East Germany to eventually make his way to Canada, being unable to speak a word of English when he arrived.

Determined, because he originally went to work at Volkswagen Canada but soon struck out on his own, as mentioned, to create and operate that European automobile service and repair garage in the eastern Scarborough area of West Hill, out of which he ran his racing operations.

Brave, because he raced anything and everything in those early years, which was a dangerous time in auto racing. He started off in ice-racing and retired as a driver after winning the last Can-Am Challenge Cup championship in 1986. He was so proud that he once said to the late, great, world driving champion, John Surtees: “You were the first Can-Am champion and I was the last.”

(It was also said about his bravery that it took real guts in 1986 to turn over his second Can-Am entry to a young Paul Tracy, who behaved himself for once and won the very last Can-Am race ever held, at Mosport. Horst finished second, right behind the precocious teenager, who was known to be hard on equipment but kept his nose clean that day.)

Talented, because not only was Horst Kroll a great racing driver and team owner but he designed and built a brand of Formula Vee racing cars, called Altona Vees, that won national championships.

Unique, because not only did he race in Canada but he competed at the highest levels in the United States, where he was known and admired. In total, he won eight auto racing championships in his career, including the overall Canadian Driving Championship in 1968.

Totally original, because even in his retirement years, you knew Horst was around. Whether it was at the Molson/Honda Indy in Toronto or races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, he would zip around the pits and paddock areas aboard his homemade motorized scooter that he operated with the same abandonment that he’d driven his racing cars.

Horst Kroll

Retired Toronto Sun racing writer Dan Proudfoot, who was close to Horst in his later years, once quipped that Kroll was the only man he’d ever met who’d slept with the legendary Roger Penske.

Penske, who was running a Porsche at Harewood Acres, a long-gone airport racing circuit near Jarvis, west of Toronto, in the late-1950s, early-1960s, was driving himself at that time before becoming a team owner and industrialist.

Horst picked up the story in an interview with racing historian John Wright:

“They were changing an engine. I offered to help. The job was finished at 10 at night. Only Roger and I were left. He asked me where was I staying. I didn’t speak any English and he had to pantomime sleeping with his hands under his head and his head tilted to one side. I shrugged. He offered his motel room.

“Roger and I left in a station wagon. At the motel in Jarvis, not far from the track, Roger pulled the mattress off the bed and he slept on the floor. I slept on the bed.”

Horst Kroll, of course, was an early inductee to the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame and Chairman Hugh Scully had this reaction to the news of his death:

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of Horst Kroll. He was an energetic, dedicated and accomplished road racer who competed during much of his adult life.

“Horst was very personable, passionate about motor sport and always ready to help others. Over the years, we became friends.

“He certainly deserved his election as an honorary member of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame for his contributions to motor sport in Canada. On behalf of the Hall of Fame, I express our condolences to the Kroll family.”

Here is a brief — and I mean brief — recap of Horst’s career, again thanks to historian Wright:

1963: He won the Class 9 Canadian Ice Racing Championship against Porsches, Corvettes, and twin cam MGAs. He also appeared in his first road races.

1964: He won the first of his three Formula Vee championships, this one in a Canadian built Huron Formula Vee, the second and third in a Kelly Vee.

1966: He competed at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, partnered with Jacques Duval and finished eighth overall, second in class.

1967: In a Kelly Porsche (a Lotus 23 Porsche-powered clone), he won the Under-2 litre Canadian Championship, and in 1968, won the Canadian Championship overall against the larger Can-Am style cars. In addition, he won the DAC (German Automobile Club) Gold Medal — complete with diamonds — as the club’s top international racer, and Porsche gave him their top award, presented by Ferdy Porsche himself.

1969: It was time to move up in the ranks, and so, with a new Lola T142, he competed in the Gulf Canada Series for Formula A cars and in the U.S. Continental Series. In that same year, he started construction of his Altona Formula Vees, finishing third in the Canadian Formula Vee Championship with an Altona prototype.

1970 to 1976: Horst was a consistent top 10 finisher in the Formula A Continental Series.

1977: The Can-Am series was revived for centre-seat, closed-wheel racing cars, and Horst converted his Lola T300 to a Hayman-Kroll Racing Lola. He finished third in the opener at St. Jovite and ran seventh overall in the series.

1978 to 1982: Horst continued to race on a very limited budget but consistently achieved high placings in the series, usually finishing in the top half of the field. In 1983, he finished fifth in the series and was third in 1984.

Things were looking better in 1985 when he won the Canadian Championship for the third time, based on his competition record in international events. Overall, that success was matched with a third overall placing in the Can-Am series that year.

1986: His last year of competition, he won that last Can-Am championship and owned the car that won the final race with young Tracy aboard. He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1994.

Horst Kroll

Now, I have two favourite Horst Kroll stories. The first was when he — with help — sold a sponsorship to Silverwood Dairies for $10,000 to represent their Chipwich ice cream sandwich. In negotiations, he mentioned that the Chipwich Charger (as it would be known) would be a Galles GR3 Frisbee sports racing car. The only problem was that he didn’t own the car. He had a line on it through another Canadian racing champion, Eppie Wietzes, but the deal hadn’t been done.

In the end, he spent the $10,000 to close the deal on the race car, but then — as was often the case — had to try to run the season on literally next to no money.

Which was really what Horst Kroll was all about. In conversation this week, Myles Brandt, president of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport), who has been at the helm of that place forever, said he always enjoyed running into Horst “because he was a character.”

“He always showed up,” Brandt said. “Sponsor or no sponsor, he always put on a good show for the fans.”

My second favourite story is about the old Sundown Grand Prix, which has been an on-again, off-again race — mostly off these days — that started at Harewood Acres before Mosport was built. (An aside: driver Penske won the first two, the first co-driving with Harry Blanchard, the second with Peter Ryan, both Canadians.)

As I wrote in a Toronto Star Wheels column a few years ago, two drivers were frequently in contention to win the Sundown but always (it seemed) finished second or third. Klaus and Harry Bytzek always gave it the old college try but just couldn’t make it all the way to the top.

So, it’s 1975, which turned out to be the second-last Sundown Grand Prix before it went “off,” and the sort of things that happen to make motor racing stories great happened.

Klaus Bytzek, for one reason or another, wasn’t able to make the race. As a result, his brother, Harry, had pretty much decided not to enter. Then he got a call from his buddy, Jacques Bienvenue, who also didn’t have a partner. Both those guys owned Porsche 911 RSRs.

Bienvenue and Harry Bytzek decided it would be a scream if they entered the race as each other’s co-driver. The plan was that each would start the race in his own car and then they’d switch halfway through and finish in the other’s.

“So, I took the car out to Mosport,” Bytzek told me in an interview. “But when the organizers found out what we had in mind, they said to us, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ So, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

By this time, though, Harry had the bit in his teeth and wanted to go racing. But he needed a co-driver. He looked around the paddock and who should come walking along but his old pal, Horst Kroll.

“Ask Horst what happened,” Harry said to me, so I did.

“I had a free weekend,” Horst continued. “There was nothing going on in Formula 5000 (the series where he was racing at the time), and I was just looking to have a relaxing couple of days off. I had a girlfriend and we’d been out on the Friday night and I was feeling a little rough. Saturday comes and she said, ‘Let’s go out to Mosport.’ I didn’t want to argue, so we went.

“When we got there, I heard that Harry was looking for a driver. I was avoiding him like crazy, but my girlfriend made sure we bumped into each other. I told him I didn’t have my helmet or my driver’s suit so I couldn’t race. My girlfriend said, ‘I’ll go get them,’ so she went flying back to Toronto to get my stuff, and before I knew it, Harry had a co-driver.

“The funny thing is, I didn’t even know where fifth gear was on the RSR. I found it, obviously. I had a pretty good weekend, too. I didn’t make any mistakes. And you know what? We won the Sundown Grand Prix.”

Over the years, Horst won a lot of races. And he did it because of desire. Writer Proudfoot, who is travelling and was unable to attend services for his buddy, sent me a note:

“He was the last Can-Am champ before the SCCA shut it down,” Dan wrote. “Horst was pretty much the last man standing: Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Jr. had moved on to IndyCar, Patrick Tambay, Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg would be remembered for Formula One exploits.

“But say this for Horst Kroll: He was a top-10 racer even against the big dogs. Tenacity fuelled his rise, not cash. At the Mid-Ohio track, I remember making the rounds, circa-1983, as he checked the fully funded teams’ garbage bins. They threw out gears and other expensive parts after a prescribed number of racing hours. Horst knew they had plenty of miles in them before they failed.

“His daughter, Birgit, excitedly pointed out that Paul Newman was barbecuing burgers next door to their modest motor home. Horst didn’t know who Newman was. When told, he said he never went to the movies.

“My subsequent story in The Sunday Sun was titled ‘Team Poverty.’ Yet, he prospered, after a fashion, with major sponsorship one year — his car became the Chipwich Charger promoting a new ice cream treat — and fielding extra cars for paying drivers. Paul Tracy won his first major race driving a Kroll car, beating Kroll in the process.

“To the end, Horst handed out his business card to everyone he met. ‘Can-Am Champion,’ it said, and that’s exactly how Canadian racing fans will remember him.”

Retired Star sportswriter Frank Orr, who covered the auto racing beat (plus a little hockey) for years, credits Horst with educating him about auto racing:

Describing Horst’s race car preparation as immaculate after writing about him winning the Canadian Driving Championship in 1968, Orr sought out Kroll’s Altona Motors (the shop in Highland Creek) when his 356B needed an engine job.

Said Orr: “Done. In the process, Horst also lightened the flywheel to make it faster-revving. And, incidentally, my racing education began as we became friends.”

Scott Goodyear is a retired Canadian racing star, Indy 500 veteran and now colour analyst on ABC television’s coverage of IndyCar racing. He sent this note when he heard:

Horst was “one of the true, hard-core racers who worked on his car during the week, put it on the trailer and towed it to the track and went racing on the weekend,” Goodyear wrote. “He was a very special breed of driver who did it all himself.

“I first remember Horst when I started racing at Mosport as he was driving Cam-Am cars — the monster cars of that era. I would watch him pilot his Frisbee around the track, being amazed at his speed. He was one of the Canadian heroes to young drivers like me along with Eppie Wietzes and Ludwig Heimrath Sr.

“I remember when Horst showed up with Chipwich as a sponsor on the side of his car. It was a signal to the young drivers that you could sell racing sponsorship in Canada.

“Always approachable, he loved talking about any type of racing. We’ve lost one of the original gentlemen racers.”

Horst Kroll

Another Scott, Scott Maxwell, who went on from Mosport to win his class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, also has fond recollections.

“My overriding memories of Horst are from when I was a young kid watching up at Mosport in the ’70s,” Maxwell said. “His cars stood out because they were always bright yellow. It didn’t matter if it was his Can-Am car or Formula 5000 or even his Formula Vee, they all looked the same.

“And just like the other top drivers of that era, his number was iconic. Eppie (Wietzes) was No. 94; Mo Carter was No. 88 and Horst was always No. 37. Horst never had the best equipment and probably always raced pretty much on a shoestring budget. But if you think of those grids and the stars that drove in those races — Andretti, Hulme, Revson, Redmond, Weitzes — what a great era.

“In hindsight, it’s pretty impressive what he did out of his own garage.”

Maxwell said that Kroll was always very supportive of his early racing career.

“I think I raced against him a couple of times in Formula Vee when I was just starting out in the mid ’80s. But what I do recall is he was really keen for me to drive his Can-Am car, and of course, I was either too dumb or naïve to think this might be a bad idea. I didn’t have any budget anyway, and I drove for Brian Stewart then, and I think he basically told me no way. Brian was very protective of me. That was the year I think that Paul Tracy and I were battling it out for the Formula Ford championship and we were really hard on each other — lots of contact and a big rivalry so we weren’t exactly best buddies.

“Of course, I didn’t realize that Horst was making the same offer to Paul. I think Horst and Tony (Tracy, Paul’s father) were tight and Horst was out there trying to make the best deal he could! In the end, Tony and Horst did the deal and of course Paul went out and dominated the Can-Am race. I was envious at the time; I missed my only chance to drive in a Can-Am. But Horst made the right decision and Paul delivered.”

Paul Ferris, author of a book on Paul Tracy, Never Too Fast, pitched in with this:

“The main thing that sticks in my mind about Horst was that he was honest, very generous with his time and more than happy to talk about racing.

“I approached him for an interview out of the blue for the Paul Tracy book. We had never met or crossed paths before and yet he agreed to talk right away. He answered all my questions (and my followup questions) and pointed me to other people who could help. His honesty was probably most helpful. He was never malicious but there was no PR filter about what he said.

“For someone like me who had taken on this book project and quickly realized how much work was in front of me, it was great to have someone like Horst make himself available and help me set the foundation for a lot of the interviews that were to come.”

OK, it’s time for a moment of levity.

As everybody who knew Horst knows, he was “follically challenged.” He started losing his hair at a young age and, like many men, tried to disguise the fact as he got older. So, we get this little gem from the Star’s own Jim Kenzie:

“When we were running the 24 Hour race at Mosport in the SAAB 9000 under the auspices of World of Wheels magazine (there were several 24-hour events at CTMP in the 1980s and ’90s). Horst was our designated ringer. We were putting in time between driving stints at Lynn Helpard’s place near the track. We were taking a swim in the pool and Horst dove in. He surfaced here — and his hairpiece surfaced over there.”

Ed Moody, recording secretary and banquet chef for Corner 2 Racing, an unorganized organization of racing fans who gather at the top of the hill overlooking corners one, two and three at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park every race weekend, watched and admired Horst for many years.

“Horst always had the time to talk,” Mr. Ed said. “I took my 6-year-old daughter to the final Can-Am race at Mosport. Thanks to Horst, she got to see Horst win the championship and Paul Tracy win the last Can-Am race. After that, I began taking her to the Molson Indy, and Horst would be buzzing around on a motorized skateboard and always had the time to stop and have a talk.

“Even when he quit racing, he seemed to enjoy being recognized for all he had achieved on a shoestring budget. And it really was a shoestring budget. I remember Horst doing some demonstration laps in the Frisbee a few years ago and he ran out of gas.”

Jonathan Brett has fond memories.

“In 1986, Horst gave me my first job out of college. It was only a one-month deal, I was tasked to find sponsorship for the 1986 Can-Am season. He placed me at an ad agency in Toronto where I used their facilities to write letters and contact prospective sponsors.

“We ended up getting the City of Scarborough to sponsor the Lola/Frisbee. I enjoyed hanging out with Horst at his garage and doing a bit of help around the shop and on the race car. He also had a sponsorship with SKF Bearings. I ended up getting a position with SKF afterwards, which was a direct result of Horst putting in a word for me.

“We ended up at his apartment a few times, having a few beers and talking about racing. He had an impressive wall of trophies. They were very enjoyable moments.

“After starting a family and moving to London, Ont., I got involved with vintage racing. I saw Horst at the track one more time when he brought the Lola/Frisbee for some laps at a VARAC vintage festival. He still had the touch with the car.”

As mentioned, Horst would keep a race car, or cars, in a trailer that he left parked on a vacant lot next to his repair shop in Highland Creek village. That trailer sat there for years — until one night, when somebody just went and hooked it up and hauled it away. The police found it fairly quickly and everything was intact (the thief, or thieves, probably did a double-take when they found out what they’d stolen) but Horst came to realize that maybe a vacant lot wasn’t a great place to leave such precious cargo.

Enter Fran Matsumoto, who’s owned a farm in the Uxbridge area for years.

“I first met Horst in the ’70s. It was at Mosport at some Can-Am race. I had been to a couple of races before, but I had never been in the paddock area and ‘behind the scenes.’ I was dating Horst’s friend at the time and he and Horst went off to talk and I was left with the car.

“I tried to stay out of the way of the two guys he had with him who were preparing the car, but I remember that they were very kind and would answer questions. I was intrigued.

“Horst came out to the car and suggested that I could have the privilege of polishing the car. I must have given him ‘a look,’ as he never asked me again.

“I never saw the Can-Am car again until he brought it up to the farm to store it ‘temporarily’ in the barn. For some reason, he could no longer keep it at his shop. I think he mentioned some sort of zoning problem. I did not ask. It was just here when I got home and did not leave until several years later when he took part in a vintage race in Mosport.

“Over the many years, Horst remained a good friend. He would come to the farm for dinner with bags of food for my dogs. He was very loyal and trusting (sometimes too trusting.) He was the kind of friend that you knew that you could be thousands of kilometres away and if you needed help, he would be there.”

Fran’s partner, Ralph Luciw, added:

“We called him every few weeks to say hello and, in my last call just a few weeks ago, he sounded good and said he was OK and that he was still swimming a couple of times a week.

“He was a wonderful character, and we’ll miss seeing him roll into the paddock with that old telephone truck hauling that beat-up old trailer that had long since reached its ‘best before’ date.”

The last word will go to Paul Cooke, vice-president, ASN-FIA Canada, which is the sport’s governing body in this country. Mr. Cooke sent me this statement:

“In 1994, Horst Kroll was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, Canada’s highest form of recognition.

“As one who shared the track and the sport with Horst, I had a consistent fondness for a genuine person with extraordinary mechanical skills, technical creativity, performance on the track and the ability to attract sponsorship for his passion, culminating in his success.

“Always ready to ask for help, always ready to help others, Horst carved an enviable reputation in Canadian and North American motorsport. Rest in peace.”

Horst leaves wife, Hildegard, and daughter, Birgit, as well as sisters Renate Streubel and Krista Silbersack. He was the son of the late Emile Kroll and Elisabeth Jany and uncle to Petr, Guido, Stefan and Holk.

He will be missed.

Horst Kroll

[email protected]

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