40th anniversary of thriller race for kids’ burn unit

Story by Derek Cadzow with contributions from Sean Sweet and Fred Zufelt. All photos by the late Dirk Van Battum.

If you missed it; you can read part one at how the idea got started and how the race was organized.

May 25, 1980 – Despite only a few hours sleep, I woke early and eagerly anticipated the coming day.

In just a few hours we’d find out if four months of planning the biggest public kart race in the Ottawa region would be rewarded with a resounding success … or an embarrassing failure.

I looked outside — it was sunny with a clear blue sky. There was no rain in the forecast and not too much wind. We were off to a good start.

Most of my equipment was pre-packed so I just had to put the kart on the trailer and head over to the Nepean Sportsplex, about 30 minutes away. 

Our little team consisted of me, my brother-in-law Roger, and new wife Niki. Our team sponsor’s name, “Green’s Photo Center – Bell’s Corners”, was plastered all over the back of our light blue t-shirts. My kart had a new front fairing, also emblazoned with the sponsor’s name, and sticky new tires for this race.  

Roger and I waiting on the grid.

As everyone arrived and unpacked in the makeshift paddock, I could see I wasn’t the only one who’d been making special “go-faster” modifications to their karts  — there were others who also had new front fairings, the same new Burris tires as mine, and even a couple that had sprouted rear wings.  Everyone seemed to be making a special effort for this unique event.

Entries had come from many different places:  there were the usuals from Ottawa including me, Fred Zufelt, Dave Elliott, Paul Joinette, Pete Kelly, Greg Kelly, Andrew Lick, Graeme Peppler, and Sean Sweet among others. Then there was Tom Chapman, Kevin Tyo, and their friends from northern New York as well as Frank Wilson from Picton.  Mike Armstrong, who later became a driver (and even later went to work for NASCAR in North Carolina), was there to crew for Pete Kelly.

Sean’s arrival was notable to say the least. In my last post we learned that he’d secured the Corkscrew Restaurant as his sponsor and I promised to tell you what he spent the sponsor’s money on… 

I’d accompanied Sean to a couple of big professional races at which teams spent lavishly to entertain their sponsors and guests in large motorhomes and provide world-famous racing drivers with a refuge from the crowds and fans.  So…

As we were unpacking, we noticed a 34-foot class A motorhome arrive and park at the start of the straightaway. 

Yes, it was Sean…!  He’d rented this set up and invited his sponsor (who didn’t turn up), his family, and his friends to hang out with him at the races. The Sweet entourage enjoyed the day’s racing on top of the motorhome sitting on lawn chairs – just like the big boys at Mosport. They also did their best to contribute to the atmosphere by yelling and cheering on their boy during the final race.

Dave Elliott going down the straightaway. Behind him you can see Sean’s motorhome with his family and fans cheering their driver on.

While Sean’s group seemed like the party-prone Hesketh F1 team off the track, he was very serious on the track.  Like me, he’d enlisted (he suggests coerced) friends as his pit crew. Each member wore black “Sweet Racing“ T-shirts with their first names in white script letters on the front.  

Sean had special incentive to do well at this event.  Although we didn’t know it at the time, he was about to leave us to live in Hawaii (where he still lives to this day) so it was likely going to be his last race in Canada. He wanted to leave with a bang — he said he wanted to finish in the top 3 but like the rest of us he really wanted to win, badly.  

And, for Sean, it was a possibility. He raced with the Ontario Kart Racing Association in Picton and had one of their new Yamaha KT-100 engines. As morning practice showed us, he was very quick.

The day’s schedule included three heats that counted for the Ottawa drivers’ championship, the celebrity race in which politicians and journalists duked it out on track with rental karts, and finally a 40-lap main event for the Firefighters’ Trophy. The heats were our usual 15 laps, so the 40-lap final was going to be an uncommon test of drivers and machines.

But first, there was practice.  


For me, practice was all about getting the gear ratios right. These karts only had one gear forward (no shifting). With the correct ratio, you’d get maximum speed down the straightaway before having to brake for the hairpin corner, which was a perfect recipe for making a clean pass. A kart with an incorrect gear ratio wouldn’t get the same speed and passing for them would be difficult.

There was no doubt in my mind that there’d be some key action at that corner today and that was part of the reason I’d designed the track that way — more action for the spectators.

The trick is to find the ratio that gives you maximum speed on the straight without slowing you down too much coming out of the corners. So we fitted different gears and eventually settled on one that we thought gave us the best advantage. Then, in practice, came my first opportunity to pass… 

I was flying down the straight and moved to the inside of another kart before braking late into the hairpin to complete the pass. 

But I’d braked too late. The back wheels locked up putting me in a lazy clockwise spin. I spun right into our nice hay bales (two rows of them at the end of the straight) and stalled the engine. Only my pride was damaged. How embarrassing… 

I pushed the kart back to the pits and Roger got it re-started. 

But now I knew how late I could brake while trying to pass and there would be no more embarrassing moments like that for the rest of the day! 

After my somewhat embarrassing practice spin, Roger and Fred Zufelt get me fired up again to get back into the practice session.

While I worked on my gear ratios, Sean and his crew were working out how to set up the weights on his centrifugal clutch — the mix of slow and fast corners and the long straight made those decisions difficult.

Too much weight meant that the clutch would engage too early coming out of a corner and keep the engine from reaching its optimum mid-to-high RPM range — resulting in sluggish acceleration. Too little weight meant that the clutch would slip too much in the tight corners, not transmitting the engine’s power fully to the drive wheels resulting in slow corner exit speed.

Sean and the crew were constantly changing weights throughout practice and the heats to find the best answer.

The rest of my practice was just making sure that I knew the course, that the new fairing was secure, and that the new tires were working well. I had been concerned about the new tires since they didn’t seat perfectly on the rims. I didn’t want a sudden tire decompression if the tire came off the rim in the middle of a corner!  But they were stable enough during practice and that gave me the confidence I needed to push hard for the rest of the day.

The organization also got a good workout during practice.  We’d found good people to act as Race Officials (Jon Snadden and Terry Watkiss), as the timing and scoring team (Sharon Betrand, Elaine Zufelt, Sandy Russell, and Mrs Lick), as the pit marshal (Dave Pimblett), and the experienced marshals from the Motorsport Club of Ottawa. I had been afraid that, as an organizer, I’d be pulled away from racing to help keep things running, but that didn’t happen much because we had the right people in the right jobs.  

Ron Ralph, my organizing partner, and his buddies from the Nepean Firefighters were also working hard to get round the spectators with their collection “boots”. Ron also fed information to Ken Mair, our announcer, to encourage people to give to the cause. 

Everything was working well and I was very thankful for them all.

The heats (and the spontaneous fire)

Throughout the heats Tom Chapman was on top, although heavily challenged by Dave Elliott. Dave had secured pole position for the start, beating Tom by 7/100 of a second, and then ran second to Tom in the races. Tom won all three heats to collect maximum points for the championship and Dave was second each time.

Start of one of the heats. Dave Elliott (#2) is on pole position, but Tom Chapman (#11a) gets the jump on him into the first corner.

My main problem became apparent at the start of the very first heat. Normally, during the slow pace laps, we’d stick our fingers down the throat of the carburetor to restrict the flow of fuel into the engine and keep it from getting too much unburned fuel in the engine and cylinder.  Today, no matter how much I covered the fuel jet with my finger, I couldn’t stop the engine loading up with fuel.  When the flag fell and I put my foot hard down, the engine struggled to burn off all that extra fuel before it would run and accelerate properly.

By the time it cleared up I was about a lap down on the leaders — frustrating to say the least…

It meant I had more people to pass. But thankfully, based on my practice performance, I knew how to do that.  In the first heat, I came up behind Dave Elliott who had started on pole (but a lap down) and was making good time. I noticed that people seemed to be moving over for him and letting him by.  So I tucked in behind him and stayed there. When he passed someone, I’d sneak through as well. 

He was aware that someone was following him closely because he turned his head to see and waved for me to pass. But I stayed behind him as I figured I had a pretty good thing going. It worked for as long as the race held… but I wasn’t regaining all the ground I needed to win in just 15 laps.  

My starts didn’t improve in the next two heats and the story was much the same for my finishes — I’d be able to reach mid-field by the end of the 15 laps after miserable starts.  But, I was getting much more confident that once my engine cleared out I could pass effectively and turn in very quick laps.  I hoped that perhaps I’d be able to do better over the 40-lap span of the main event.

Sean was still messing with clutch weights and hadn’t found the “sweet” spot yet (yes, that was a pun…). His combined finishes, behind Tom and Dave, gave him third spot on the grid for the final.

During the heats, one incident proved that having experienced marshals was a good thing. I never thought that spontaneous fires were possible, but we had reports of the hay bales spontaneously catching fire during the race! That could have been catastrophic if it had got out of control. 

The MCO marshals quickly figured out that the sun’s rays shining through the transparent plastic bags enclosing the hay bales, combined with no circulation of air inside the bags, was making the hay hot enough to combust. They quickly ran around the track and tore holes in the plastic bags, allowing them to breathe. There were no more fires — between the MCO marshals and the fire department being onsite, we were in good hands…

Politicians and journalists, oh my!

The next event was the celebrity race, to which the Ottawa Citizen newspaper gave the name “The Ben Franklin Challenge Cup”.  (Ben Franklin was the Nepean mayor and he also competed in the event.)  

There were so many politicians and journalists who entered that we had to run five heats before we could slot the top finishers in a final run-off for the cup.   Competitors included Nepean Mayor Ben Franklin, Nepean Regional Chairman Andrew Haydon, CFGO radio’s John Weldon, Ottawa Citizen reporter Chuck Daly, Ottawa Journal reporter Marg Allen, and many others.  

Peter Bourque of CHEZ 106 FM came out on top as the winner and Mayor Franklin made it to the run-off but finished last in the final.

Anything can happen in 40 laps

After a bit of a breather during which we handed out trophies to the celebrity winners, it was time for the 40-lap final.

As I’ve mentioned before, kart races were normally in the range of 10-15 laps, so a 40-lap race was something we really hadn’t done before.  The teams were pouring more fuel into the karts than usual and it was possible that some karts might break down before the end of the race.  Although I’d experienced driver fatigue in the large carousel curve at Picton before, I never thought there’d be an issue here.  But there WERE two extremely fast long corners on this track…

Sean and his crew were oblivious as the rest of us rolled our karts out and lined up for the start of the final. They were busy working on Sean’s clutch and engine. He says he got a bit of shock when they announced 15 minutes till the start and his engine and clutch were still in pieces in his pit.

Frenzied, the crew rushed to put it all back together and set the tire pressures. Sean took his best guess for the clutch weights. They finally got it all back together while the rest of the field was on their first rolling warm up lap.

Crawling slowly around the track waiting for the start, Frank Wilson (Picton) had pole position and Dave Elliott (Ottawa) had the outside pole. Thanks to my abysmal results in the heats, I was starting ninth.

Sean was supposed to be in third spot on the second row beside Tom Chapman, but he wasn’t there. Guessing at what was going on, the starter Jon Snadden sent the grid around for a second warm-up lap.

Now, Sean was finally on the track and zig-zagging like crazy through the field to get to his starting position. He made it just as they rounded the last corner and Jon dropped the green flag seconds afterward.    

First picture, on the pace lap of the final with Frank and Dave on the front row. At the start, Frank and Dave battle into the first corner, Dave getting a bit sideways into the hairpin. Frank emerged in the lead.

Sean slotted in behind Frank to try and take second place, but at the first corner Dave was still ahead and squeezed him out to keep second.  Dave couldn’t get clear of Sean, but he drove a stellar defensive race to keep the faster Sean at bay. Finally at about lap 16, Sean finally got the inside line down the straight, tucking in very close and out-braking Dave into the hairpin. Second place was his!

By this time, Frank was way ahead and out of sight. Sean says that for a moment, he thought he might have to settle for second.  But that was only for a moment. He says that he remembered this might be his last race in his country, in his home town, and that he really wanted to win this.

By Sean’s account, he concentrated on achieving perfect laps: braking super late, hitting every apex, and accelerating out of every corner at the “absolute limit”. Several laps later he noticed his whole pit crew swinging their arms frantically — just ahead, Frank was coming into view and he was being blocked by two backmarkers who were oblivious of him in their own battle.

Frantically trying to find a way past, Frank was going from one side of the track to the other, which inadvertently gave Sean an opening. When Frank zigged left, Sean zagged right and squeezed through on the inside line to slip by for the lead.

Next he waved frantically to the marshals and pointed to the two slower karts in front — the marshals waved the blue flag and the two back markers moved over to let Sean squeeze by and away from their obstruction. Sean now had a solid command of the lead.

Back down the grid, my start had been predictable — I still had the fuel issue at the start of the race although not as badly this time. I still had to charge from the back once again.  But… this time I had 40 laps to do it, not just 15.

Like Sean, I focused completely on whatever was in front of me and settled down into a quick and consistent groove.  

I experienced being “in the zone” as I had several times previously — my brain was in hyper-mode, fueled by surging adrenaline, and the short term memory just seemed to shut itself off.  It’s like the brain has so much to deal with in a short space of time that it stops recording what is happening and focuses only on the here and now.  It takes in data, processes it, acts on it, and then throws it all out so that it can accept and process the next batch of incoming information.

The result is that (and this has happened to me several times) someone speaks to you after the race and says: “oh, you passed me in corner X”, and I look at them and think “I did…?”   

I know I’m not alone in this as others have recognized this story when I tell it.  

All that to say my memory of the race is sparse.  The kart was working well and, once it cleared out, so was the engine.  I started to pick people off, mainly at the end of the straightaway.  I know from looking at pictures that I’d race them down the straight, out-brake them into the hairpin, and then move to the outside at the exit of the corner to block any attempt at re-passing.  

There were retirements.  After Sean’s pass, Frank was one of them although I don’t recall what happened to him. And Tom Chapman had some mechanical woes that caused him to slow down.

My kart was still going gangbusters, but the length of the race was starting to take a toll on me. The acceleration through the last corner coming onto the straight was so hard that the lateral force on my neck was making it very tired and very sore — so much that in the last few laps I didn’t even try to hold my head up at all, I just let it fall to one side!

After many laps and a number of passes, I didn’t really know where I was in the race or how much of it was left. I knew I’d already passed Fred and Dave and reckoned I must be pretty close to the front.  I didn’t know Frank had retired and could see Sean about 50 yards in front of me. All I knew was that Sean was the next person in line I had to pass.  

I tried hard with every lap to close on him. I might gain a bit on one lap and then lose it in the next. Overall, I wasn’t losing ground but I wasn’t gaining any either.  Then I saw the white flag indicating one more lap to go and then the checkered flag — it was all over.

I saw them give Sean the checkered flag to take on his victory lap and realized that meant I had come in second.  I would much rather have won of course, but second was nothing to sneeze at.  (I don’t buy the NASCAR philosophy of second place being the same as first loser — and if you’ve ever fought hard in a race, you’d know why.)

I pulled into the pits to be weighed and the photographer, Dirk, came up to me with a huge smile on his face and said “Man, you were flying…!!”  

Although I didn’t remember the details, I had an overall impression that this was true — I felt pretty good about coming from the back to finish second and I just smiled.  

(Prints of photos are available in our client galleries.)

Success and … relief

It may sound melodramatic, but the next number of minutes really felt like the end of the race in the movie LeMans.  There seemed to be people everywhere. The tension associated with organizing and competing in the race was completely and suddenly gone.  There was just peace and pride in our accomplishment.  It was like my mind had come back to earth and I was seeing the detail around me now for the first time all day including people I knew in the crowd that I’d not noticed before.

I was very happy for Sean as he was obviously very quick — quick enough to stay out of my clutches. He was thrilled, calling it by far his biggest win at the biggest race he’d ever been in.

Dave Elliott had come in third and Fred Zufelt finished fourth, which made it a clean sweep for the Ottawa-based drivers.  And more credit to Fred and Dave, they attained their finishing positions even though they likely carried an extra 20 pounds or so over the minimum weight limit.

Ron, my organizing partner, and I shook hands — we’d pulled this off and I’m sure he felt as relieved as I did that all the planning and organizing was done and we could go back to living our regular lives.  The only disappointment was that the collections for the burn unit had not gone as well as we’d hoped. He told me the take was about $2,300 (in 1980 dollars) — much less than we’d hoped for.  

With all the promotion that the city of Nepean had put into the event, the charitable return had not recouped the city’s cost for the race. As a result, there was no political will to repeat the event next year in Nepean.  

Nevertheless it was still a big celebration at the track. Mayor Ben Franklin handed out the trophies — first and second place trophies were supplied by Johnson’s Chev-Olds in Kemptville and Elaine Zufelt came up with the third and fourth place trophies at the last minute!

Surrounded by lots of people and many snapping cameras, I suddenly realized that my sponsor’s name was nowhere to be seen now that I was out of the kart!  I called over to Roger to bring my helmet and held it under my arm for the whole ceremony.  So Green’s Photo ended up in most of the award ceremony pictures.

I was constantly afraid Bill wouldn’t think he was getting his money’s worth.  But I was relieved to hear him say while watching the race, “this is the best publicity I’ve ever had.”  I breathed a big sigh of relief.

As we finished up this story, Sean shared one more detail with me:

“You know, I didn’t get to spend a single minute in the motorhome enjoying my envisioned ‘driver’s refuge’. I was much too busy dialing in my race setup all day. But we enjoyed it after the race — all my family and friends stayed with me in the Sportsplex parking lot till very late savoring the day and reflecting on how great and how surreal it all seemed.  It still feels that way today.” 

Shortly after the event, he packed up and moved to Hawaii, where today he runs a very successful sportswear business, Sweet Waterwear. He also spent time in southern California racing 125cc & 250cc gearbox SuperKarts, an experience of which I’m extremely envious!

Quyon Racing Club newsletter

“HOW SWEET IT IS” (issue about this event)
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Race press and coverage


By all accounts, many found CJOH sportscaster Brian Smith to be an instantly-likable fellow and my experience with him being interviewed about the Sportsplex event was no different. He continued to gain fans in the Ottawa area and poured himself into community sports and charitable work.

In 1995, he was tragically gunned down by a madman outside the CJOH broadcast building. The entire Ottawa area and beyond was in shock and disbelief. Since then, an annual golf tournament held in Brian’s honor has raised millions for his favorite charity, the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club.

Read the next installment in the series: 1982 karts at Quyon (movie)

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