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October-November, 1977 — The winds were kicking up and a storm was brewing between the Ottawa-Hull Kart and Recreation Club (OHKRC) and the corporation Share 50/74.
The OHKRC started out as a karting club encompassing social recreation and racing. It had big plans to build a club track and be around for a long time. But its members had recently discovered, contrary to what they’d believed, that the club didn’t own the building site and wouldn’t own the track.
The site was, in fact, owned by a completely different legal entity called Share 50/74 (formed by some OHKRC members) and they were the ones building the track, not the club. This revelation was a surprise to many, and it had introduced a bit of a chill into the social fabric of the Ottawa-based karting community.
In September, Share 50/74 completed the paving work and held the inaugural race on the new track, located near Quyon, Quebec.
Now, at the beginning of October, it was the club’s turn. They wanted to hold their 1977 championship in the weeks before winter set in. That wasn’t much time since, in Canada, snow sometimes comes as early as Hallowe’en. It was going to be a mad rush to get it all together…
How many races did we need for a valid championship? Some lengthy and spirited discussions ensued about this and the answer didn’t really help the situation.
The club decided to hold championship events for five straight weekends in October and November and just hope the snow didn’t come early. There would be two heats for each class of karts (light and heavy) at each event. Drivers would earn points for finishes in each heat. So if a driver won both heats in a weekend, (s)he would get 9 points for each heat, totaling 18 points for the weekend’s event.
We could have got by with fewer races. But some competitors were concerned that one bad weekend might torpedo their championship chances. That struck a chord with many drivers because we’d all experienced bad weekends at one time or another.
It was going to be busy, fast, and furious and the schedule would certainly put pressure on drivers and their families.
As a newly-graduated journalist in 1977, I decided that my contribution to sorting out the friction between the two organizations might be achieved through a club newsletter. After all, if everyone has all the complete and correct information, surely we’ll make good decisions. That was a bit naive perhaps, but at least it helped to preserve the story of this tumultuous time in the sport’s history in the Ottawa area.
– Oct ’77 issue, interview with club president, Fred Russell, view or download.
– Dec ’77 issue, interview with new champion, Jon Snadden, view or download.
– Jan ’78 issue, interview with OHKRC president, Fred Russell, & Share 50/74 executive Dave Elliot, on the “new deal”, view or download.
Helpless at the first championship event
By the time the first race was held in mid-October, the leaves were falling and trees were already pretty bare. It was a bit chilly but sunny and dry.
Jon and I qualified on the front row for the light class race. He had his red Birel kart on pole position with a lap time just one or two tenths of a second faster than me. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough.
Jon launched into the lead as the green flag fell and he gained a few precious yards with each new lap. There was nothing I could do except watch him slowly get further and further ahead — a frustrating situation.
He won both races and I was second both times.
In the heavy class, it was a continuation of the struggle between last year’s champion Phil Tughan and Dave Elliot. Dave ended up winning both races in his Birel kart and Phil finished fourth and second.
I noted with interest that it was the two Italian-made Birel karts that won all the races in both classes…
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Second championship event and an important life lesson
The following weekend, we had two additional competitors in the light class to challenge Jon and I: Sean Sweet and Neil Hopkins who were both new drivers to the club in 1977.
Sean drove cleanly and was often quick. I’d had the legs of him in the September inaugural race but this weekend he was very quick.
Neil was also quick but could be a little untidy. He’d sometimes drop a wheel in the dirt at the side of the track and kick up dirt or stones, which was a problem if you were right behind him.
Both Sean and Neil had not raced in the previous weekend’s event. My battle for the championship was with Jon, but now I had two other competitors that could potentially get in the way. And that was going to prove much more of a factor than I’d anticipated.
I don’t recall the grid order, but Sean must have been up on the front row with Jon and Neil and I on the second row. When the race started, Jon was first, chased by Sean, then me, then Neil — all four of us nose-to-tail.
I was hounding Sean because I wanted to get by and be after Jon. But Neil was behind me trying to do the same thing — a moment’s lapse of my focus on Neil and he was through to third.
He started to slip and slide and kicked up some dust and few stones that bounced off my helmet. I tried to keep my distance from him because I thought he might slide all the way off the track at some point. But Jon and Sean were getting away up front and I was quickly getting impatient and anxious to pass Neil and get after them.
Then my worst fear suddenly came true — I was right on his tail when he spun sideways in front of me coming out of the “bridge turn”. I had nowhere to go but into him. Even before the impact I knew this would end my race and I’d get no points. I was livid.
I was so livid that, I’m embarrassed to say, I kept my foot on the throttle until the impact. Once stationary, I shot the one-fingered salute at him for an extended period of time and he, being much more composed than me at that moment, got out of his kart and walked far away.
I have to say that it’s probably the only time in my life where I was so angry that rational thought deserted me. I got out of my stationary kart and walked around the tangled mess a couple of times right in the middle of the track, fuming about the impact on my championship chances.
More importantly, I was forgetting that the rest of the pack was completing their lap and would be soon bearing down on me! An attentive marshal gingerly moved me off the track.
Some people ask me how I remember all the details I put in these posts forty-odd years later. This particular episode was so out of character and so embarrassing to me that it’s been burned in detail in my memory all this time. Even today if I could find Neil Hopkins, I’d apologize to him for it. But although I’ve looked on social media and asked friends, I haven’t found him — at least not the Neil Hopkins I remember.
It was an important lesson. My boyhood hero and Formula 1 world champion Jackie Stewart warns about letting emotion get the best of you on the track and I had let it happen. It taught me that very little good comes from losing emotional control and how nasty and damaging I could become if I let that happen. It was a lesson I’d remember for the rest of my life.
With Neil and I out of the race, Jon finished first and Sean second.
With repairs completed, I was back in the hunt for the second race. I likely started at the back of the grid because I didn’t finish the first race. (I’m guessing, because I literally remember nothing about that race.) The results say Sean won in his Zip kart from Jon and I finished third.
In the heavy class, Dave and Phil resumed their battle. This time it was Phil who won the first race with Dave finishing second. In the second heat, Dave took first. Phil would likely have won this one but he was black-flagged for some infraction on the last lap and finished fifth.
A wet end to our championship hopes
That was two weekends down out of five. With all the action in these first two events, the championship was still wide open, although we all would need to find a bit more speed to deal with Jon and Dave.
Unfortunately for us, Canadian mother nature decided that was enough. Instead of snow, she pummeled us with rain for the next few weeks. By the time it let up, it was getting too cold to continue the championship. And frankly, after three weeks of rain few of us had the heart to continue.
The rain created lots of mud and great puddles around the asphalt and sliding off the track surface could be more of a muddy mess than usual.
I vividly recall club president Fred Russell in practice sliding off the track after exiting the far 180-degree corner. He just ran out of room and powered off the tarmac, across the mud, and into a very large pond of standing water.
As it hit, the speeding kart pushed a great curtain of liquid high into the air, which plowed along in front of him like a large fountain until his kart eventually came to a stop in the middle of the little lake. We were all dead silent trying to process what we’d just seen.
Fred sat still in the seat for a few seconds; steam rising all around him from the hot engine and brakes. He pulled off his helmet and waded out of the pond. Then everyone just broke into a long stretch of laughter — even Fred had an amused smile on his face.
I think it was just the thing we needed to relieve the pressure of the past few weekends. The incident ended up inspiring this cartoon in one of our newsletters.
All things must pass
But there was to be more bad news for the group before the year ended.
McEtte Enterprises was the karting shop in Ottawa run by our fellow competitors Paul Joinette and Alan McRory, the pair who had really got karting going again in the Ottawa valley. Paul and Al announced they were going out of business and closing up shop.
I was sad for them both — they’d put a lot of effort and hours into making it all work and it was at an end. And for the rest of us, it meant that we’d have go out of town to Montreal, Belleville, or Toronto to get our karting supplies.
The final surprise was from Share 50/74 and underscored their new role as a major player in the Ottawa karting scene. Officials of the company announced they were going to create their own karting club and put on their own 10-race championship in 1978.
Principals of the OHKRC were surprised and distressed by this turn of events and took it as a bit of a betrayal as they felt they’d been playing Share 50/74’s game and doing a good job.
Share 50/74, on the other hand, felt it’s financial future was too uncertain and to resolve that they elected to take more control of local karting affairs. They said that their idea didn’t preclude the existence of two clubs in Ottawa — but with only 30-odd members in Ottawa, two clubs could not realistically survive.
It seemed like an ignominious end to what had been a very productive and fun year of racing and one in which we got our long-sought-after Ottawa-area-based kart track. Some grand entity up above was bringing down a giant bookend to mark the end of an era.
The last hurrah
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On December 10, Fred Russell and Sandy threw a end-of-the year party at their home for any club member who wanted to attend. Someone, probably Fred, had even bought small trophies for the top three in each class in our aborted championship. Not everyone turned up, but there was enough people there to have a fun evening.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the final cap on the life of the OHKRC. Everything would be different in 1978.