Memories abound of Emo Speedway

Bob Oak

It all started when Lyle Bush and I went to a stock car race in Florida in November, 1949 that was held on a quarter-mile track in a huge, shallow gravel pit.
Because of space limitations, the pits were in the centre of the track and that worked very well.
The grandstand was built on a long, steep sidebank of the gravel pit, where they simply sunkstrong posts about three feet into the gravel and spiked 12-foot planks onto the top of the posts, forming a seating area for about 2,000 spectators.
They used either flame or chemical agents to kill the grass.
We brought this concept back to Fort Frances, but were unable to find appropriate land for our use.
Sid Asselin joined Lyle and me in going to stock car races in Hibbing, Mn., where we got friendly with a few of the principal employees and would buy them drinks after the races.
Soon we developed an understanding of how the whole racing game worked.
Of special help was Bud Stapleton, who was a flag man but his knowledge covered all aspects of the racing game.
He gave us a copy of NASCAR rules and told us the magazines to buy, which were full of racing news, in the U.S.
A real breakthrough occurred in early 1950 when Sid had a few days off work. He drove to Winnipeg and got an interview with the owner of the successful stock car track on the west side of the city.
That fellow was a total egotist and braggart. When Sid asked him how he knew how to build a track, he brought out blueprints and showed Sid how the drainage should be laid out.
When Sid asked how to light the track for nighttime races, he drew out engineers’ drawings describing how many lights, how high, and what wattage.
They also talked about safety problems, such as protecting the public from flying wheels or other parts if there was a big crash on the straightaway in front of the stands.
He had answers in written form for every question.
When the interview was over, Sid’s very genuine, honest nature must have hit the man as when he asked to borrow this information, the man replied, “Take them, son, I don’t need those now, and good luck.”
One day in the early spring, one of us developed the grand idea of talking to the district fair board in Emo. That board consisted of a pharmacist, lumber dealer, hardware merchant, and various other middle-aged men who fell in love with the idea.
They saw that we had come to do business with a written business plan, which I knew how to create after taking three years of commercial studies at Fort Frances High School, and supported by the technical information Sid had gathered in Winnipeg.
After several meetings, we hammered out a verbal agreement that the fair board would build a 1/5th-mile track within their existing half-mile horse track, which was used but one week per year when they held the annual fair.
They would install proper drainage and a new lighting system, which turned out to be about six big banks of floodlights on top of very high telephone poles. A heavy mesh screen was installed in the stands to protect spectators.
We suggested that food concessions be parcelled out to local youth groups, and I guess outfits like the Boy Scouts earned their business skills by hawking hotdogs in the stands.
The board also promised to install water tanks and fire protection equipment in the pits for safety reasons.
Our company, I believe, was named the Borderland Stock Car Racing Company and our job was to supply the personnel to run each race starting with track stewards, who could visually detect driving infractions, mechanical deficits, and pertinent safety information.
This could be delivered to the judging unit for action.
Then we had judges, observers, and people who counted the number of laps produced by each race car and their winning status.
Dr. Bob Lidkea, I am proud to say, took over as chief judge and performed flawlessly in the two years that I was involved. We had other people guiding traffic in the pits at the north end of the track and I served as flag man.
My job was to run each race by displaying various coloured flags to give corresponding messages to the drivers.
We were responsible for putting at least 13 race cars on the track for the original race, and more would be added until a maximum of 40 cars could be accommodated.
Our company also was responsible for providing racing insurance on every driver, and paid for press and radio advertising. We were paid a percentage of the gate receipts to do our work.
We also had the responsibility of figuring out the prize money payable to each racer and issuing cheques to them.
It turned out that Sid Asselin, who exuded honesty, was very successful in persuading car dealerships, service stations, parts distributors, tire dealers, and paint shops—among others—to build stock cars and enter them in the Friday night races.
The advertising value was considerable, considering that each car usually would pass the grandstand possibly 25 times each evening, and our announcer kept a constant chatter regarding sponsors and drivers.
The racing season started out with 16 cars and standing room only crowds. We used a fairly simple system of racing, starting with time trials, a couple of qualifying races, and then a couple of feature races.
In the second season, we added extra novelty races, such as the powder puff derby, which were well-received.
Fortunately, we had set up an association amongst the drivers for several reasons:
•by having their own racing club, drivers could wear a common club jacket with a nice emblem on the back;
•when there was discord about the driving habits of certain rough drivers, their club was the best way to settle differences; and
•the existence of a club helped build fellowship and camaraderie.
When Sid and I dissolved our company, we told the fair board and the drivers’ association to take over and run the track far into the future.
Apparently, this was done with some success because Lyle Bush has told me of driving in many races—and it looks as though things are operating well after 50 years.
I must not forget a man who gave us wonderful help and that is Gordon McBride, who was our radio announcer and was very creative in preparing radio commercials for us with great sounds of screaming tires and roaring engines.