By Anthony Leek – Throughout many parts of the United States and Canada, Oval Dirt Track Racing has a long and deep rooted history. In the Midwest in particular, over seventy years of racing on dirt tracks has developed into generations of families getting and staying involved over the decades.
In the small town of Emo, Ontario, Canada, a racetrack called the Emo Speedway has been a part of a community tradition since 1954. In its long storied history, family has been the main theme that has kept the spirit of dirt track racing alive. Fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, the list goes on and on. For instance, Gary Wilson is a driver that started when his father Orbra introduced him to it in 1970. Forty years later, Wilson is still racing, while his son Mike has been racing since late 2006.
In the Jackson family, Glen was one of the individuals to bring racing back to the community in 1965. His son Tom and daughter Linda both raced stock cars in the late 1980s to the 1990s. Richard Visser has been racing since 1966 and still continues today, while his son Anthony has been racing since 1992. There are dozens of examples that show it is all in the family.
Whenever you drive through the Rainy River District, one thing you may notice the most is the race cars sitting on so many of the front lawns. Just mention the word about racing in a grocery store or any kind of gathering and you will find drivers, pit crewmen, officials, volunteers, and even sponsors in the crowd.
From an outsider, racing may seem pretty simple. Just jump into a car and turn left. While the logistics of racing are a bit more complicated than that, one would quickly realize that dirt track racing is not about turning left, it is about family. In the case of Kendal Gamsby (three time track champion), his older brother Garrett is a pitman as well as mechanic, his younger brother was a race car driver, and his father keeps an eye on all the statistics in the stands on race nights.
Another great example of family is the wonderful barbeques that take place after a great night of racing. Throughout the year, there are birthday parties, celebrations, and traditions that involve plenty of people, plenty of food, and of course, plenty of talk about racing. All the people involved with racing come out to these events to show support of each other.
It is more than just individual families that get into racing, the whole community does. In effect, it creates a family of community that creates a relationship within all members of the region. Like any family there are arguments, but at the end of the day, everyone comes out to support their family. Whether a person is a part of the organization as a driver, a volunteer, a sponsor, or just a fan, everyone feels connected.
In 2009, the Borderland Racing Association celebrated the fifty-fifth anniversary of the original opening of the Emo Speedway. Three original drivers of the first race to ever happen were in attendance. Raoul Cayer, who is ninety-two years old currently recalled that the “crowd was so packed into the grandstand that it looked on the edge of collapse.” Cayer won the very first race at the track and still attends the races today on occasion. He is one of hundreds of drivers that remain rooted in the racing community, even after fifty-five years.
Dennis Pelepetz is the grader operator at the track and was once a driver himself in the 1960s and 1970s. His son, Dwayne, has raced since 1986. For Dennis, his racing career was some of the most memorable moments in his life and he stated that if he could go back to the beginning of it all, he would “do it all over again”. Although it has been several years since he raced last, being a part of the community has given him the desire to keep helping out for others.
Steve Arpin is an ARCA Re/Max Race Car driver in the United States who got his start in the late 1990s at the Emo Speedway. Growing up in the Rainy River District, he got his start in Go-Karts and moved to Mini-Sprints, then to Modifieds. Even though it has been five years since his last race in Emo, Arpin continues to mention in several of his interviews about considering the track his home track and wanting to come back when he gets the chance to again. He has become an extension of the family community, spreading his talents and great personality to others throughout the racing world.
The track is a part of the WISSOTA Promoters’ Association, a non-profit organization that sanctions over fifty tracks throughout the Midwest United States and Central Canada. Being a part of a larger community allows drivers and fans alike to travel to different tracks and feel welcomed into their families as well. This creates a great network of communication that can help to build the continued success of dirt track racing to all as an entertainment venue and a tradition.
The talk of community and family is not just limited to the Midwest and WISSOTA. It is seen at all levels and regions. Kurt Busch/Kyle Busch, Gilles Villeneuve/Jacques Villeneuve, Rusty Wallace/Kenny Wallace/Mike Wallace, A.J. Foyt and his children are also examples of family at the national stage from the past to the present.
It is at these small dirt tracks, in little communities that continue to maintain the tradition of family and belonging. It is those people that are always welcoming of new individuals and never afraid to share the passion. During the spring to fall months, a night of racing is more than just cars turning left; it is family having a great time together and sharing traditions with the next generation.