I have only really been cold at a car race twice in my life.
Once was on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in early October, 1984, during Super DIRT Week in Syracuse, N.Y. This was back in the day when they also ran the Quartermaster Twin 35 features on Saturday night at Oswego Speedway, just up the road from the N.Y. State Fairgrounds on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.
The Twin 35s featured the NASCAR modifieds (Richie Evans, George Kent, Maynard Troyer, Reggie Ruggiero, Jerry Cook and all those guys) and the Oswego supermodifieds (Warren Coniam, Doug Heveron, Eddie Bellinger Jr., et al). A few of the World of Outlaws sprint car stars who’d raced on Saturday afternoon at Syracuse would always show up to rent a modified or a super for the Oswego races because the driver who scored the most points at both speedways over those weekends was awarded the Syracuse-Oswego Challenge Cup and the $10,000 that went with it
Anyway, 1984 was the year that Jeff Swindell (Sammy’s brother) won the trophy and the moolah and what I remember most about that Saturday night was that it was bitter cold at Oswego.
The temperature was below freezing and there was a wicked wind off the lake that cut right through you like a knife. I towed with an ‘82 Chevrolet Beauville van that year and I left it running because the only way to warm up was to stand in front of the grille and catch the heat off the engine.
I was never so happy to see the final checkered flag fly because that meant we could load up and go home. I love racing and I love being at race tracks but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
The other time was on Isle Notre-Dame in the middle of the St. Lawrence River 35 years ago yesterday – Oct. 8, 1978 – when Gilles Villeneuve won the first Grand Prix of his glorious Formula One career, which also happened to be the first Canadian F1 race to be held at that now-storied track.
The sun was out but the clouds were low and half dark – a sign that the arrival of winter was not far off. The temperature was minus 2 Celsius and it was windy. The island has the St. Lawrence on three sides and the Olympic rowing basin and Lachine Canal on the other. Like New York City, which is also surrounded by water, Isle Notre-Dame is not a pleasant place to be when it feels like the middle of January.
I’ll tell you how cold it was. The first thing – or almost the first thing – Villeneuve did when he got out of his Ferrari after taking the checkered flag on a Victory Lap was to put a parka on over his driving suit. Now, that’s cold.
Of course, we were all cold during the race, all 73,000 of us, and cold afterward but when Gilles went across the finish line and it hit home that a Canadian racing driver had become the first to win the Canadian Grand Prix, we all went absolutely bonkers and forgot for awhile that we were freezing. I won’t say we felt warm but it wasn’t so cold for awhile.
Typically Canadian, eh? What do I remember best about both those days?
- NORRIS McDONALD