On the front stretch of Langford’s Western Speedway, nothing exists but you and the competition. The grandstand is crowded with fans, but you can’t see them, and you’re deaf to their cheers. Strapped in so securely that you feel like part of the car, all you hear is the roar of the engines. When the green flag drops, chaos erupts as you and 20 other drivers charge for the lead.
“I’m going blind in one eye, so it makes it interesting,” chuckles Old Time racer “Poor” Rich Bennett.
The Duncan logging contractor chose his car number—58—to reflect his age when he climbed behind the wheel of a race car eight years ago.
“Old Timers” refers to the cars, not their drivers, but of 21 competitors on opening night of the 2006 Old Timers Racing Association season, OTRA president Dan Morneau estimates more than half are over 50.
Dave Gill, who drives a 1933 Ford coupe, says the club attracts older drivers because “the cars are from the same era we are.” OTRA’s youngest driver, 19-year-old Jesse Dardengo, says he chose the class because the cars are “interesting, fast and good-looking.”
Of 1928 to 1940 vintage, the old beauties reach speeds of 140 km/hr. Most of them originally raced in the 1950s. Restored, they are worth between $10,000 and $15,000.
The bodies are original steel, which makes them hard to come by. Dardengo’s 1931 Plymouth coupe was salvaged by Morneau from a backyard in Washington state. One of only two club members who are “able and keen” to build the Old Timers, Morneau had to cut the Plymouth in half to get it out from around a tree that was growing through it. The body shop owner has had a hand in building, fixing or painting most of the cars in the club, but it’s not unusual for any of the drivers to be under the hood of a competitor’s car. They are a close-knit group, and they help each other. “If somebody blows an engine at practice, half a dozen guys will pitch in to get him up and running,” Gill says.
The Old Timers race at Western Speedway, Saratoga Speedway north of Courtenay, and Aggasiz on the Lower Mainland. Until recently, they followed an annual circuit that took them to the Okanagan and as far south as Kalispell, Montana. When they race out of town, the drivers and their families travel and camp together.
“It’s a family atmosphere,” says Gill, whose wife Jeanette is OTRA’s pit boss. She records the drivers’ qualifying times, assigns their starting positions, and keeps track of their progress during the race.
The only thing at stake in an Old Timers race is a trophy. The drivers don’t race for points or cash, but that doesn’t mean they’re not serious about their racing.
“When you’re behind the wheel,” Dardengo says, “the only thing on your mind is getting around the car in front of you. There are three ways to do it: outpower him (go faster on the straight-aways); outdrive him (go faster in the corners); or outsmart him (watch his eyes in his rear view mirror and try to get him to make a mistake).
“Tempers have been known to flare,” Bennett says, “but nobody holds any grudges.”
The inscription on Jim Chamberlain’s Chrysler coupe—“Old Car, Old Driver, Oh Oh”—illustrates the OTRA spirit.
“We’re here to have fun,” says “poor old one-eyed” Bennett.
First published in Senior Living 2006. Text and photos © Leslie Prpich.