Sometimes there are coincidences in life that are unexplained. The late songwriter John Stewart called them "Strange Rivers."
There are strange rivers, rivers that you cannot see . . . And there are strange rivers that know our destiny
I'm thinking of those words right now. You see, I recently made contact with an old school chum from Stamford Collegiate in Niagara Falls. He’s living in the West now, and we hadn’t spoken or written a word to each other in 50 years and one day a few months ago I got an email from him out of the blue. I answered.
So Tuesday, there’s another letter from him and he’s got a question. He wants to know if the car in a picture he’s attached is a ’53 or a ’54 Packard. I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I have a friend, Nate Salter, who’d know and I get ready to forward the photo to him.
But before I can, I get another email and this one contains the very sad news that my friend, the very same Nate Salter, had died.
Nate Salter was a friend of mine and dozens - hell, thousands - of other people. He lived for auto racing and the old car hobby. He loved nothing more than talking about racing and cars and not far behind, in second place, was his love of writing about them. He was always doing one or the other, it seemed.
A walking encyclopedia of oval-track racing in the GTA, Nate published a book in 1997, "The Golden Years of Stock Car Racing in Toronto, 1951-1996." It wasn’t one of your boring history books, either. He stuck the history – the dates, the special events and occasions – into rollicking stories about the characters and legends of, primarily, the CNE and Pinecrest speedways: Jimmy Howard, Doug Duncan, Ted Hogan, Stormin’ Norman Lelliott ("who proved that nice guys can finish first"), Howie Scannell, Warren Coniam, "Quick Vic" Parsons, Norm Mackereth, and a host of others.
He wrote about the sport in a regular column in the newspaper "Old Autos," and served as a member of the board of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, working primarily to ensure that the stock car and modified car racers he worshipped weren’t ignored.
(In the photo a left, Nate - bottom row, right - met regularly for lunch with a bunch of his old racing pals (top row, from left) Ralph Luciw, Bill Brack, Mark Rotharmel, Cam Newlands and (bottom row, from left) Tim Miller and Wallie Branston.
(Luciw emailed this to me Tuesday night. "Today, we lost a wonderful friend and stock car racing historian. We'll forever miss his warmth and fabulous sense of humour and his chair at our monthly "lunch bunch" meetings will always be there for him. Nate's last few months were very difficult for him and it's good to know he is now at peace and in a better place. Goodbye, old friend. We miss you.")
For nearly 20 years, Nate was president of the Thornhill Cruisers Car Club and, with help from other volunteers, organized Monday Cruise Nights during the summer months. Over those nearly two decades, the club raised more than $200,000 for local charities, an amazing accomplishment.
As well as organizing Cruises, Nate also had a personal collection of classic vehicles (all Chrysler-powered, natch) and loved nothing more than to drive them on rod runs during the summer months.
Nate - who referred to himself frequently as either "the Rotund One," or "Honest Nate," fell in love with racing at a young age. In 1952, when he was 10, he hid out in the trunk of a car and was smuggled into the pits at the CNE on Opening Day, which happened to be Good Friday. One smell of castor oil and the sounds of racing machines warming up after a long winter in garages was all he needed to become a lifer.
Although he never raced himself, he started out as a gofer and then was a general helper and mechanic on any number of stock car and supermodified teams. When the cars and stars of visiting series like the USAC National Midgets raced at the Ex, Nate was one of the first to volunteer to help out.
"If you look at the guy standing behind the right wheel, you will see the assistant crew chief, who was a lot skinnier and had a lot more hair in those days (me). I had spent all the previous night at Moore's FINA with Jack Cook, Don Delville and Vic Parsons repairing the car after Jack had stuffed it into the wall during practice the day before. On the left is USAC star Jimmie Davies, who owned both his and Jack's ride. Cook got in the car next and won his heat but was such a weapon on the track that they started him tail in the main and flagged him in after a couple of laps.
"This was also the race that saw Al "Cotton" Farmer flip on the front chute and hit the wall with his head as the car slid sideways into the 1-2 wall. I was sitting on the (CNE Grandstand) stage with Howie Scannell and Norm Morton. Scannell threw up and Morton passed out as we figured that the guy was killed. I ran down and was one of those who flipped the car back over so that they could get him out. Turns out that while he broke his neck, he was not paralyzed and he went on to race for a few more years until the car bit him again and this time he didn't walk away.
"The race was won by Elmer George, whose son Tony George ran the Indianapolis Speedway for awhile and started the IRL. Hope you enjoy this little bit of trivia about a race that happened here in Toronto 45 seasons ago, or so, at the CNE."
Moving into racing administration in the 1970s, Nate was track manager and director of competition at Sunset Speedway near Barrie. In the 1980s, he spearheaded a movement to build a speedway in the Highway 48 and Bloomington Sideroad area of Stouffville but, after initial encouragement, the local politicians got cold feet and wouldn’t sign off.
In the last 15 years or so, he talked to me several times about promoting an indoor TQ midget show at the Direct Energy Centre during the winter but backed off when the trade centre’s management wouldn’t agree to give him a break if bad weather killed the gate.
Nate hadn’t been feeling all that well the last couple of years but he was still out there organizing reunions of the old timers, writing columns for "Old Autos" and firing off notes to me about racing history or tie-ins he thought Wheels readers would find interesting.
For instance, shortly after it was announced that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series would be racing at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on Labour Day weekend, he sent me the following email and photograph:
"Our race team going back to 1960 was sponsored by Custom Automotive Machine. The proprietors were Dave Shano and son Bob. In 1965, George D'Antimo parked his race car, so his cousin Vic and I moved over to the new Custom Automotive race team, with Rick Spence behind the wheel.
"Custom was sold to Pinecrest champ Ross Howes in ’69 and Dave retired while Bob went up to Nunavut with his sons Dave and Glenn and wife Sandy. While up there, they adopted a daughter and after he completed his contract they went directly south to California. It wasn't long after that the family wound up in the Carolinas.
"Brothers Dave and Glenn got involved with short track late models, both having winning careers. For many years they all worked for Michael Waltrip Racing, with Sandy being the at-track cook and Bob and Dave touring the show car when not at the races while Glenn drove the hauler. It was on one of the show car tours in ’98 that Bob died.
"Today, Dave works with Penske on the famed Blue Deuce driven by Brad Keselowski. Glenn is a member of the Michael Waltrip-Mark Martin team.
"Dave in partnership with Mike Algier (Justin Algier's daddy) bought the Keselowski-owned Dodge race truck and six Penske Dodge race engines. This combination will not only run the dirt race at Eldora (Norris Note: Wednesday night, by the way; Speed Channel live), but are planning to compete at Mosport.
"When Bob died, there were ‘Remember Bob Shano’ decals on all the Cup cars. Dave sent me some and he recently asked if I had any left so they could be on the truck at Mosport. I happily sent them to him.
"The sad part is that of the guys in the picture, the only two left are Rick Spence, who is having his second go-’round with the big C, and yours truly, just home from hospital after some challenges."
The really sad part today is that of the guys in the picture he was talking about, there's only one left now.
Farewell, Nate. We’re all going to miss you.
The funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 25, at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, 2401 Steeles Ave. West (three lights west of Dufferin).
The death notice: SALTER, Nathan (Nate) - On Tues., July 23, 2013. Nate Salter, beloved husband of Andrea Salter. Proud father and father-in-law of Shari and David Stephens, Heather and Rob Kugler, Deborah and Dave Reine. Devoted Zaidy of Kate, Justin, Owen, Benji, and Abby. Dear brother-in-law of Arnie Wine. A lifetime car enthusiast, Nate wrote a column in Old Autos and he published a book, The Golden Years of Stock Car Racing in Toronto. He was also the founding President of The Thornhill Cruisers Car Club and sat on the Board of The Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame. Nate spent his 30-year professional career selling overhead cranes and hoists and in later years established his own classic car appraisal business. Service at Benjamin's Park Memorial Chapel, 2401 Steeles Avenue West (three lights west of Dufferin) on Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 11:30 a.m. Interment B'nai Brith section at Pardes Shalom Cemetery. In honour of Nate, fellow car enthusiasts are welcome to drive their classic cars to the service. Shiva at 333 Clark Avenue West, #414. Memorial donations may be made to the Kidney Foundation Of Canada, 416-445-0373.