FOUNDED IN 1991
Victoria, B. C. Canada is located on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island. This city is very unique with its Auto Racing heritage and history. It all began at the Willows Fairgrounds in 1912 and has continuously flourished, with the exception of the war years (1941-1945).
The Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame began with a couple of racers discussing historical information and spawning the idea of recognizing the many past personalities from Vancouver Island and their racing histories. The initial meeting was held on June 19, 1984 at the Rockett residence. Attending were (L-R) Ross Rockett, Bill Smith, Ted MacKenzie, Frank Kitto and Norm Wilcox, with Barrie Goodwin photographing the moment.
From this early beginning, the Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame was formed, the first of its kind in Canada solely dedicated to the sport of Auto Racing. The Hall of Fame has continued to grow and eventually moved into the Museum Facility adjacent to Western Speedway in 1991. The major Induction Ceremonies and Racer’s Reunion are held each February (on the weekend following the Daytona 500 race). The Hall of Fame also holds the annual Jim Haslam Memorial HOF race. A different class of car is chosen each year to compete for this coveted award.
Attached below is a historical review of the Auto Racing culture of Victoria. This was a 2003 paper written by University of Victoria student Kris Foley.
THE AUTO RACING CULTURE OF VICTORIA, B. C.
Western Speedway, now fifty years old, has had hundreds of thousands of people flock through its gates. The people have swarmed to the unassigned grandstand seats of the Langford oval and relished in their chance to take in an evening of auto racing. Even at fifty years old, Western Speedway was hot the first racetrack to appear in Victoria. In fact, the people of Victoria have been infatuated with the sport of auto racing ever since it first appeared at the Willows Fairgrounds in 1912. Between 1912 and 2003, there has been but one four-year stint where there was nowhere to legally race in the Victoria area. What is it that lures people to watch auto racing? After all, it is just a bunch of four (or two) wheeled pieces of metal machinery going around in a circle, starting and finishing at the same point on a track. Perhaps it may be something completely cultural. People love entertainment and many seem very attracted to cars. Maybe auto racing has just simply evolved naturally in a society that has raced everything from frogs to dogs and horses. One can assume that people have raced cars since they rolled out of the factory or even earlier when they were first unveiled from back yard garages and barns. People have always had a fascination with speed. “How fast can it go?” One would never know just how fast it could go unless they tried and perhaps that alone was the reason behind the creation of the motor racing culture.
At the beginning of the auto racing culture in Victoria, the cars had to alternate race weeks with the horseracing club at the Willows Fairgrounds. The track was a half-mile dirt oval with a grandstand seating capacity of 2500 and standing room for many more enthusiastic onlookers. The first sanctioned auto race in Victoria was Friday, August 16th, 1919. Members of the Victoria Automobile Club and men from the Automobile and Accessory Dealers coordinated the race. The Willows track drew many American racers up across the border and over to the Island. The Times and the Colonist newspapers ran a series of ads in the days that led up to the inaugural race. The newspapers tried to capture their audience of readers with a multitude of columns and fascinating headlines. The headlines told of how great the event would be and how the promoters had found the greatest “Speed Kings” and “Wheel Jockeys” of the Pacific Northwest and were able to assemble them all on the “fastest dirt track in the world.”
The local car dealers and automotive supply stores promoted the 1919 race at the Willows. They took out enormous ads in the local papers and sent out flyers as far up the Island as Nanaimo. The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway was also involved in the promotion of the event. The railway offered a special discount to those who wanted to go down island and watch the races. The train pass purchased on Friday was still valid on Monday, meaning more people stayed the weekend in Victoria and spent their money in the local stores, restaurants and hotels. The car dealers’ ads pushed the sale of their own vehicles, stating just how good one would look if they showed up to the races in a car of their own. One company ad even going so far as to say their cars will give you that same satisfied feeling as the auto races.
The Willows race was hugely advertised and not cheap to attend. The General Admission was $1.10, a Grandstand seat was $1.65 and a box seat was $2.60. Despite the prices, the event was a major success with a huge and energetic audience. People gathered at the Fairgrounds to watch men like Jack Ross, George Lott, Walter Blume, “Wild Bill” Giddings and other popular professional drivers of the time compete with local drivers. So by 1919 there already existed a kind of racing fraternity in Victoria, and the success of the first race led to the instant plans for future races of the same nature.
As the 1920s continued, the racing in Victoria carried on unabated. Racing gained in popularity and the drivers at the Willows became accustomed to performing in front of huge crowds. The American drivers returned to the Island track for a May 22, 1920 race night. But this time they crossed the border with their new technically advanced racing machines. The cars were now lighter and faster than before. People came in awe to see the sixteen-valve Stutz Special that, when driven by Jack Ross, did an average speed of 120 miles an hour around the Los Angeles Motor Speedway. The 1920 event also featured motorcycle racing. Tickets again were available from the local car and repair dealerships. To further entice the people of Victoria, the organizers arranged for a parade downtown the night before the races. The parade started in front of the Legislative Buildings and toured through the town. The promoters hoped to ignite the interests of anyone in Victoria who was still unaware of the upcoming race night. It that was not enough to get an audience, it was made public that Jack Ross had issued a one thousand dollar cheque for anyone who could beat him. If one were to look at the pictures from the 1920s Willows track, they could surely see the popularity of the events just by observing the overwhelming size of the crowd. There were over four thousand people in attendance for the May 22, 1920 race.
The popularity of the Willows track gave rise to other racetracks around Victoria. In 1937, the Langford Speedway, built by Jack Taylor, with the help of the British Columbia Automobile Sport’s Association and the community of Langford, was ready for racing. The fact that B.C. had its own racing association shows how the sport of auto racing had permeated into the lives of enough people to warrant attention. News of the construction of the Langford track reached the United States by early 1936. Upon completion, Taylor had no problem convincing the American drivers to show up for local shows, nor did he have any problem filling his grandstand of two thousand seats.
In 1937 there was also a racetrack at the present site of the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre in Colwood. Racers also had the option of travelling over the Malahat to racetracks in Cobble Hill, Chemainus, Nanaimo and possibly other small towns up the Island. The Langford track also had the distinction of being the first paved racetrack in Canada. Racing was curtailed during the war years, but Langford re-opened in 1946 with a new owner Bruce Passmore at the helm. Unfortunately, the government shut down the Langford Speedway in 1950. The track’s land was appropriated and used for the development of a new school (presently, Ruth King Elementary). For four years, the people of Victoria were without a local racing facility. The drivers and race fans of Victoria were forced to pass over the Malahat to participate in up-Island racing events.
In the fall of 1952, A.J. Cottyn purchased a 62-acre parcel of wilderness in Langford, off Millstream Road. He had an immense love of racing and a desire to provide a local racetrack. Cottyn, with the help of a few others, carved the track out with their bare hands. Without the huge fanfare that Willows received in its early days, Cottyn’s Western Speedway opened on May 22nd, 1954. There were 3000 cheering fans that filled the Grandstands. People had come to watch Indy style racecars manoeuvre around the track at speeds of up to 80 mph. Cottyn’s poster ad was simple and his track had no advertisements on the premises. The track was just a track. A place for drivers to race and for fans to cheer. No gimmicks, it was just racing. Racing the way it was meant to be.
Auto racing was definitely not just a fad and had a strong following everywhere it appeared. One could pose the question of whether culture affected auto racing or did the auto racing affect the culture? Very tough to answer, but here are some examples that illustrate both sides of the question. As for society affecting racing, one can easily find examples where the times have played an integral part of the racing scent. Racing in the beginning was a man’s sport. The cars were fast and everything about the race was masculine. A test of wills, courage, talent, control and speed. Women were welcome at the track as dates or later as trophy girls. The 1940’s saw women in the driver’s seat, albeit in what was called the “Powder-Puff Race” where women would borrow their husbands or other racers’ cars and go out and compete on the track. This was to entertain the crowds with something that they just would not regularly see. At the time, culture had determined that men drove cars, not women. There were even men who would not allow women to borrow their cars and if a female driver ever crashed the car, huge write ups appeared in the local paper the next day. In the early years, racing was influenced by the separate sphere ideology that saw women as members of the private sphere and men as the only ones welcome in the public sphere. Hence the stigma that followed trophy girls as not “proper” women and a prize that the drivers sought after. It was not until more recent times that female drivers became acceptable at the racetrack, but they are still comparatively rare.
On the other hand, one must not overlook the effects that auto racing has had on society. In 1939, Rajo Jack of Los Angeles, the only coloured driver on the coast, came to race in Victoria. This was in a time where segregation and overt racism were prevalent in society. Jack was a professional driver six years before Rosa Parks catalyzed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, eight years before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional baseball and twenty five years before the Civil Rights Act was signed. Perhaps Rajo Jack was able to cross the colour barrier because he had the right tool. His car was what people were fascinated with. Onlookers may have simply passed over his skin colour due to the awe surrounding the sport of speed. After all, would anyone have really recognized the colours of ones skin when they were flying around the track at 100 M.P.H. and wearing a helmet?
Helmets lead to another interesting affect that automobile racing may have had on society. Safety had long been an issue at the local racetracks. Even back at the Willows, there was always a Doctor on hand in case anything went wrong. Later came ambulances and paramedics on standby, located within the track itself. Drivers may have initiated the beginnings of the consumers’ demand for safer vehicles. In the 1950s, drivers at Western Speedway began to use seatbelts, better crash helmets, reinforced bumpers, side rails, roll bars and then later moved up to a full roll cage. The racers had figured out safer ways to race long before any legislation made the same kind of safety implementations a legal facet of society. In the fifty years of Western Speedway, there have been numerous spills, flips and dangerous crashes, but there has never been any fatalities.
Automotive racing has long been a part of our culture. Ever since cars were created, they have been raced. Society has had its affects on racing, and racing, in its almost mystical sort of way, has also affected society. Maybe it has been a but that only a few have caught, but those who have it and accepted it into their lives have succumbed to the passion of racing. It would be difficult for one to deny that the feelings of liberation, speed, power, control, excitement, etc…and even fears are what have motivated us to race cars. Has there ever been a better way of testing one’s limits and skills while at the same time going head to head with other contestants, all wanting to achieve the glory of crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else? For those out there consumed by the sport, many of whom craved the excitement long before they learned to drive a car or even fathomed the complexities of the racing culture, they would all say no. For those that answered yes, one could argue that they just do not understand, and if put in the correct environment they too could become obsessed with a new addiction. Society has always affected, and been affected by the auto racing culture.