Speeding through Toronto a tradition

One way or another, there has always been an Indy race at the CNE.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

One way or another, there has always been an “Indy” race at the CNE.


Okay, they might not always have been called “Indy” races, but every time there has been automobile competition at the Ex, some of the top race cars of the time have been there and some of the best drivers have been in the cockpits and, to my mind, that makes them “the Indy” of their day.

When Danica Patrick, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and 20 other drivers take the green flag tomorrow for the first Honda Indy, it will be nearly 109 years since the first automobile race in Canada was held at the Ex.

To be precise, the first organized car race in the Dominion was held Sept. 5, 1900, on a half-mile dirt oval track during what was then called the Industrial Exhibition. Three cars took part and the headline six-mile race – 12 times around the oval – was won by a speed demon named J. Short in a CCM (yup, the bicycle people were once in the car business) at an average speed of 17.85 miles an hour (no metric in those days, folks).

Unlike the millions of dollars in prize money available to racers in this day and age, Mr. Short reportedly was awarded a medal – likely for surviving

The car racing focus of the nation throughout the 20th Century was often on the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto. For instance, in 1904, the famous American daredevil Barney Oldfield went up against the clock to set a new world’s record for three miles of 3 minutes and 57 seconds in his Peerless Motor Car. A crowd of 5,000 held their collective breath while he did it.

In 1917, car racing driver Gaston Chevrolet (his brother Louis founded the car company) accepted a challenge for a match race from airplane pilot Ruth Law. Law took off and tried to have her plane follow the contours of the race track below. Unfortunately, she had terrible trouble making the turns and Chevrolet won in a walk.

So far as anybody knows, there has never been another car-vs.-plane race at the CNE.

But there were other motorsport attractions in the ensuing years: speed records set by the barnstorming (and famous) Indianapolis driver Ralph DePalma and Auto Polo, a wild and wacky game starting with the new passenger cars of the time being stripped down to four wheels, a front seat, a gas tank and not much else. While one man drove, and tried not to pile into the other cars in the game, another stood on the running board with a mallet and attempted to whack a ball between two goal posts.

It was great fun and likely the forerunner to today’s demolition derbies.

Between 1920 and 1928, annual race meetings were held at the Exhibition featuring the cars and stars of the International Motor Contest Association (the IMCA), which was formed in 1915 and is still in business today.

Operated by master showman J. Alex Sloan, of St. Paul, Minn., the IMCA races, which were featured at county and state fairs throughout the United States and Canada, usually had about a dozen cars and drivers who would compete in as many as six events in an afternoon including three or four races and several time trials or "world record" speed attempts.

The races were usually spectacular because they were often fixed. Known in the carny trade as "hippodroming," in which the winner is known beforehand, the drivers would put on a first-class show that would thrill the fans and ensure a contract would be signed for the following year.

And while purses were advertised ($1,000 for first, $500 for second, $200 for third; total purse of $9,000), they were often as fictitious as the race results. Most of the IMCA drivers were paid salaries of $50 or $100 a week, depending on their star power.

For instance, Sloan once decided his troupe was in need of an exotic foreign attraction to beef up the show. He convinced a little-known American race driver from Cleveland named George Stewart to let him promote him as being "Leon Duray, the French Champion."

Duray became a crowd favourite – yes, he raced several times in Toronto and is mentioned in the newspaper stories of the day – and competed in the Indianapolis 500 eight times. Nobody was ever the wiser that “Leon Duray” was really George Stewart until many years later. Curiously, he is still listed in official Indy 500 record books as "Leon Duray."

Another of Sloan’s drivers, Fred Horey, would become a "Canadian" when the IMCA travelled north of the border. With a straight face, the American-born racer would tell event organizers and newspapermen that he had been born in "Canada," that his bloodlines were French-Canadian and that the family name was originally D’Orey.

Spectators – who often numbered 15,000 for the IMCA races at the Ex – lapped it up and would cheer mightily for their “fellow countryman” as he went up against the invading Americans.

(All of Horey’s family is dead but until the end, his children insisted that he was born in Canada – primarily because of a scrapbook kept by their mother containing press clippings in which their father had told reporters he was a Canadian . . . )

Sloan frequently had a woman racer named Alfrieda Mais in his shows. Billed as the `World Champion Woman Driver," Mais was not allowed to take part in actual races but did go up against the men in special match races.

In 1924 at the CNE, she beat Louis Disbrow in one of those exhibitions. Disbrow had four starts at Indianapolis, so he knew his way around a race track, which suggests that Mais had real talent. She was to later die while performing a daredevil stunt in a thrill show in Alabama.

Following the 1928 IMCA appearance, racing at the CNE disappeared because, according to the newspapers of the day, the event had outgrown the facilities. The grandstand was just not big enough to accommodate the crowds and it wasn’t until 1948 that seating capacity was increased to nearly 21,000.

In 1952, what old-timers in the Toronto area call the "golden years of stock car racing" began at the Exhibition on a new, third-mile paved track in front of the grandstand.

The racing – rain or shine, by the way; the grandstand was covered so the spectators stayed dry – was an immediate hit and crowds of 20,000 were not unusual. It cost $1 admission for adults and kids could get in for 50 cents. Winners of those early stock car and jalopy feature races could take home $900, which wasn’t a bad payday.

Total attendance that first year was 400,000, according to an article on the Internet web site, Canadian Racer.

The stock cars remained popular throughout the 1950s and the drivers became heroes. With only the Maple Leafs and the Argonauts to cover, the Toronto papers gave major play to the CNE races, radio stations like CKFH broadcast the races live and, before long, daredevils of the speedway like Ted Hogan and Jimmy Howard were household names.

Such was the fame of those fellows – and others like Glenn Schurr, Jack McCutcheon and a young Warren Coniam – that on June 18, 1958, when the NASCAR Grand National division towed to the Ex for a race (which turned out to be Richard Petty’s first big NASCAR race – he was listed in the results as "Dick" Petty), the first part of the Toronto Star story the following day was about a disagreement in the pits between two of the local drivers. The big-name Americans were almost an afterthought.

Speaking of Coniam, who now lives in Burlington, he was typical – in many ways – of the young fellows drawn to the sport in those mid-century years.

"I was a kid from North Toronto who had an engine, a 364 c.i. Buick, and I was going to build a hot rod," he told me in an interview earlier this week. "I ran into a fellow named Earl Parks and he had a car that he raced at the Ex but he needed an engine. So we put my engine in his car and he drove."

One Friday night, Parks couldn’t get away from work and told Coniam to take the car and race it.

"I’m on the track for the first time and Hogan went by me on the right and Howard went by my on the left – both at the same time – and I just about crapped my pants. But I was okay after that."

Okay is an understatement. Coniam went on to be among the finest supermodified drivers Canada has ever seen and was honoured for his success in 1996 when he was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.

Coniam drove for legendary Toronto owners like Hazen McIntosh and Gordie Wilkinson and even owned his own car for awhile. He still has fond memories.

"The money was good at the Ex," he said. "I won the Little Feature one night (they call that race the “semi” on oval tracks these days) and got $1,000. Guys could race for a living back then. Jimmie Howard lived off the race car; Gary Witter, too.

"And the competition was great. Harvey Lennox, Jack Greedy, Howie Scannell, Norm Mackereth – I aimed to beat those guys every night out. There were 10 or 12 guys who could win the feature on any given night. Not too many tracks could boast that level of competition."

In 1959, two things happened that would lead to the eventual extinction of oval track car racing at the Ex despite the large attendance and high car count (more than 50 car-and-driver combinations would often sign in at the back gate): the much more expensive supermodified class became the feature attraction – they had only appeared on special nights previously – and the Toronto Argonauts moved from Varsity Stadium to what was then re-christened Exhibition Stadium.

Stock car racers like Hall of Famer inductee Wallie Branston couldn’t afford to move up to the elite supermodifieds. “Those guys were spending more on one engine than I was spending in an entire season,” he once told me.

And a “war” literally broke out between the football team and the racers. The Argos did not appreciate having their field – in the infield of the now-quarter-mile race track – periodically torn up by out-of-control racing cars. By the early Sixties, the football team had convinced the powers-that-be to kick the race cars out of the Ex once the regular CFL season started in July.

It was then only a matter of time before the racers – and the spectators – found other places to go play (primarily at Pinecrest Speedway on Highway 7 west of Keele and at Flamboro Speedway near Hamilton). The icing on the crumbling cake came in 1966 when the CNE announced it would replace the asphalt speedway with a cinder surface for track and field meets in Centennial Year, 1967.

(An effort to revive stock car racing inside Exhibition Stadium in the early ‘90s was short-lived. There were frequently more competitors than spectators.)

Several attempts to use the Exhibition grounds for car races were made during the late 1960s and `70s (the Lakeshore Raceway proposal that would have seen Indy car and Formula One races moved from Mosport to the Ex was the most famous failure) but it wasn’t until 1986 that racing returned – and it came back with a bang.

Molson and Labatt, the two major Canadian beer companies, had long fought for control of big-league car racing in Canada and Labatt had won the right to promote the F1 race in Montreal.

Molson negotiated for CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams, the sanctioning body for Indy car racing at the time) to race on a course laid out around and between the CNE’s buildings – including the grandstand – and along Lake Shore Blvd. W.

On July 20, 1986, the first Molson Indy was held in front of a crowd of 60,000. Emerson Fittipaldi won the pole with a speed of 106.248 mph. The race itself (24 cars started that day – a mix of March and Lola chassis powered mostly by Cosworth engines) was won by Bobby Rahal, with Danny Sullivan second and Mario Andretti third. Total race purse was $600,000.

The field featured famous drivers like Al Unser Jr. (4th), Rick Mears (8th) and Johnny Rutherford (10th) as well as a number of unknowns like John Morton, Randy Lanier and Mike Nish.

There was a Canadian in the field named Jacques Villeneuve, brother of the famous Gilles and uncle of Jacques, who wrecked on the first lap. And there was another young fellow racing that day, too. His name? Michael Andretti.

Michael finished 19th after hitting the wall, but went on to win the Molson Indy Toronto (other Molson Indys followed in Vancouver and Montreal) an amazing seven times.

Over the following 20 years, the giants of Indy car racing – Canadians like Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve (who went on to become F1 World Champion) and Greg Moore plus international stars like Nigel Mansell – thrilled the race fans of Toronto. Crowds of 70,000-plus packed the CNE on race day, year after year.

Tomorrow, following a year’s absence, the first Indy Racing League-sanctioned Honda Indy – a race now owned by Michael Andretti – will go to the post.

Like the first Molson Indy 23 years ago, the field will boast the stars of the Indy car series – Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti (plus Danica, Paul and Marco) – as well as an equal number of unknowns like Ed Carpenter, Mike Conway and E.J. Viso.

There will be 23 cars in the race – one less than started the ’86 Molson Indy. All are designed and manufactured by Dallara, however, and all are powered by Honda engines.

And there won’t be an announced purse this time. Although some money is available to be paid out at each event (except for the Indy 500, which is separate), and there are several millions of dollars in a point fund that will be doled out at the end of the season, all full-time Indy car teams receive a subsidy of $1.2 million per car to ensure participation.

Translation: they get their money up front in order to show up. Shades of the IMCA!

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