By Randy Spencer / OntarioOval.com – Ailsa Craig is a small hamlet located in Middlesex County north of London, Ontario. It is known for it’s racing history, the four legged kind as well as the four wheel kind. Oddly enough Ailsa Craig is best-known for its annual turtle racing event, but, that’s where the similarities end. The other kind is known for speed. With over 10,000 wins, John Campbell is one of the youngest members to enter the Harness Horseman’s Hall of Fame. It also is the birthplace and home of Earl Ross, the first non-American to win a NASCAR (Grand National) Cup race, which he did in 1974. Earl was also Nascar Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1974. As you enter the town, big beautiful signs pay homage to these two legends of racing… and also the turtles races held the third week in July. I recently made my way to the Racing Capital of Ontario to speak with Earl.
Born in Fortune, P.E.I. in 1941, Earl had the love for cars from a young age. In 1952, the Ross family moved to Ontario and Earl would soon start the road to what would be his passion for his entire life, stock car racing. His first car was a hobby car. He built it himself to race locally and won his first race, from that day forward he knew racing would be his life. Starting out in the early 60′s Earl told me his favorite drivers were some of the best known and most successful drivers of the Super Modified era, the Tammy 10 of Harvey Lennox and the Lobo 1 of Jack Sharpe. By the mid 1960′s Earl was starting to make a name for himself and would begin to ply his trade in the Late Models. He won a few races in the beginning, but his break out year was 1968. When the final flag dropped that year Earl was Points Champion at three different tracks, Nilestown, Delaware and Flamboro. He would quickly be known as the Maritime Express and London Flyer. Earl told me that the top class of cars in the early to mid 60′s was the Super Modifieds and as he progressed the plan was to switch to the open wheel series. Costs began to soar and car counts dwindled at tracks all over Ontario, most tracks dropped the division for the Late Models which were more economical and Ross definitely made the best of the situation.
In 1970, Earl was nearly perfect. Back in the day, local tracks like Delaware, Flamboro, Pinecrest and the C.N.E. ran International Events. The best racers from Ontario and parts of the U.S. would routinely make their way to the local tracks to battle wheel to wheel to compete for large sums of money that are rarely seen today. Ross didn’t get started on the right foot early that year blowing several small block engines including the first International. The team made a change and began using a big block engine and they never looked back winning the remaining 9 straight Internationals, something never matched again. In 1971, Earl and some buddies made the trek to Daytona to take in the Great American Race. It was his first ever trip to a super speedway and little did he know that in two short years he would be taking the green flag at the most important and prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar. During the 1972 season, Earl won his first Export A series crown and after another successful campaign in 1973, NASCAR came a calling.
Back in 1972, the Carling O’Keefe brewery (controlled by Rothman’s, whose parent South African company used stock car racing to promote and sell beer and cigarettes) sponsored Larry Smith, who won NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors in 1972. The following season, Smith was killed at Talladega and Carling officials were forced to look for a new driver. In 1973, they wanted to increase their sponsorship in NASCAR and decided to enter a car in the Daytona 500 to promote it’s Red Cap brand. They wanted the best and Earl Ross was their man. Before the 1973 Daytona 500, Carling’s rented the Daytona track for three days over Christmas and had Donnie Allison show Earl the ropes. Things didn’t start well as they blew all three engines they had in only 10 laps. Enter NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. Johnson, one of NASCAR’s top 50 all-time best drivers was also well known for his ability to build superior racing engines. Earl qualified for his first Daytona 500 and ended up finishing 39th in his NASCAR debut and also finished third in the ARCA Daytona 200. Ross would race just two more Grand National races that year. 1974 was Earl’s best year as increased interest from the sponsor and changes to the engine rules, Ross found himself with a full time ride for the remainder of the season.
At that time NASCAR changed to small block engines, many blew up so most still used big blocks, but they were restricted. They gave less horsepower, but at least would finish the race. With the better equipment gained through the Carling’s sponsorship, Earl’s finishes were getting better. He finished fifth at the World 600 race at Charlotte, third at Dover, fourth at North Wilkesboro and in one of his best moments finished a very close second to the ‘King’ Richard Petty in Michigan. Junior Johnson took over ownership of the operation and Earl found himself teammates with another legend Cale Yarborough. The greatest racing memory of Earl’s career came in September 1974 at Martinsville Speedway. Starting 11th in a field of 30 cars, Earl raced the race of his life. Yarborough was dominating the The Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, but his small block blew up on lap 288 and Ross led the rest of the way. He raced the final 100 laps with “no brakes” beating Buddy Baker and Donnie Allsion to the checkered flag for his only NASCAR win and took home a cool $14,550. Ross was the first non-American winner of a NASCAR race and finished the year with 10 top 10 finishes and was crowned Rookie of the Year. Earl told me he was the last driver to win a race running a big block engine. That year, there was 30 races and 4 drivers dominated 29 of them. Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison would clean up, but Earl was the only other driver that year to win a race. Carling cut back there sponsorship in 1975 and Earl would run only two more NASCAR events driving for Coca-Cola finishing 13th in Charlotte in 1975 and 39th at the 1976 Daytona 500.
Back at the local tracks, Earl continued his domination. He won the Export A series again in 1975 and finished second to another legend Junior Hanley in the OSCRA series in 1976. He would take the Wheelspin trophy series with a win at Delaware Speedway in October of 1977, his 4th win of the year. Earl continued to race in various regional racing series throughout the 80′s and into the 90′s. Earl took some time off from racing in the late 70′s and early 80′s but made a comeback and won the McKerlie Millen race in 1982 at one of his favorite tracks, his home track of Delaware Speedway. Earl took time off again to focus on his business, Earl Ross Metal Fabricating and returned in the early 1990′s racing for Ford on the CASCAR circuit for four years before calling it a day. “When you get older, you kind of lose your edge a bit.” In 2000, he was recognized by the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame. In 2007, his hometown of Ailsa Craig recognized his achievements and the road signs were erected in his honor. His home province of P.E.I gave him recognition and elected him into their Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. A successful semi-retired businessman, Earl’s spends his days still keeping active in his business and also enjoys golfing. ‘Back In The Day’, Earl was with out a doubt one of the most successful drivers to race at tracks in Ontario, Eastern Canada and the United States. It was definitely an honor to meet one of the racing legends of our time.
Randy Spencer – Writer/Historian
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