Remembering NASCAR’s Trip to the Canadian National Exhibition

Today, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series accompanies the NTT IndyCar series to Toronto each July. I live near the track, so it’s an event I make sure to attend each year. It’s the only event on the schedule where IndyCar leaves the United States and there’s been no shortage of drama or action when the Pinty’s Series is involved. Along with the Grand Prix de Trois Rivières, it’s proof that NASCAR can produce incredible racing on a street course, and while getting the Cup cars today with nearly 40 entries would be a logistical challenge, it would be fun, nonetheless.

But at one point in time, NASCAR did make a trek up North to the Streets of Toronto – and the history surrounding it is quite fascinating. This is the story of the NASCAR Cup Series’ legendary trip to the Canadian National Exhibition – and the limited information surrounding it.

Located just outside the downtown Toronto core, Exhibition Place has a reach of nearly 200-acres. With transit taking you straight to the grounds, it’s easily accessible for local residents and hosts over a million people each summer. A month after the Honda Indy, the Canadian National Exhibition plays host to carnival rides, vast food offerings and even a big shopping centre – one where I tend to buy cheap hockey jerseys and obscure video games. Unfortunately, it was announced earlier this month that the CNE would not return for 2020 due to COVID-19 – just the second time the event hasn’t taken place in its 142-year history.

By the 1950s, stock car racing wasn’t new to Canada or Toronto specifically. Racing at Exhibition Place dates back to September 5, 1900, when the first race took place on a half-mile dirt track. According to Wheels.ca, a man named J. Short won with an average speed of 17.85 miles an hour or around 29 kilometres per hour. The Exhibition Grounds was used as a showcase facility for drivers to try and set records and there was even a race between a car and a plane in 1917 – not a fair match, as the car won the battle. It would have helped had the plane been able to move freely around the track.

The first race at Exhibition Stadium was held in April of 1952 with just under 8,000 fans braving the rain to watch Tom Forbes win the inaugural feature event. According to CanadianRacer.com, nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Canada Day event a few months later, with midget racing starting out a few days later on July 5.  On July 31 of the same year, the first NASCAR event – a 300-lap late model race – took place. It wasn’t the top division, but more so what we would consider the Xfinity Series today. Back then, admission for races were $1 for adults, which is about $10 today. Regardless of the time period, that’s crazy to think about these days.

Over time, more events were added to keep the action fresh and consistent. Racing wasn’t allowed on Sunday afternoons in Toronto at the time, so most races took place on Friday and Saturday evenings. Of course, the grounds also played host to the Canadian National Exhibition each summer, leaving the track out of commission at times. NASCAR returned for a handful of late model races over time, with NASCAR’s convertible series making a one-off appearance in 1956. Don Oldenburg won the event, which saw high attrition rates with just 14 of the 21 starters making it past the seven-lap mark.

The 1958 Jim Mideon 500 marked the 31st race of the 51-race schedule that year – and one of just two times the Cup series has ever come north of the border. In 1952, Buddy Shuman won a 17-car battle at a small dirt track called Stamford Park near Niagara Falls, but that’s pretty close to the United States border. By 1958, NASCAR had started to establish itself as a premier racing organization, so getting a race back then was a big deal.

Skipping to 1958, the track, better known as Toronto Speedway, was a third-of-a-mile oval on the Exhibition Place grounds, the same location of the current road track. Specifically, the track was housed right around where BMO Field is today, home of the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC – somewhere in the infield between turn five and turn nine and 10 today. 

Races would take place for a couple of decades, with the paved oval eventually forming in 1952. Early races would attract around 20,000 fans per event for just $1 admission, and even local radio stations would cover the races live. There wasn’t much competition for Toronto sports during the 1950s, especially in the summer, so sports writers gave special attention to events that we’d consider minor to this day. Eventually, NASCAR drivers were invited to take over in 1958, marking a historic event in auto racing in Canada.

According to local newspaper reports, around 10,000 spectators packed the stands at the small venue on July 18, 1958, designed to look and race like the famous Bowman Gray Stadium that still operates – and produces crash-filled events to this year – in North Carolina. It started off with three heat races for the 19-driver field made up purely of American drivers. The field had Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Jim Reed, Shorty Rollins and Rex White, among others. But what people didn’t know they were witnessing was the start of a legendary career – the world was introduced to the driving styles of the King, Richard Petty. At 21, he was the youngest driver in the field, piloting the No. 142 Oldsmobile. He started the race in seventh, but was bumped out of the way by his father, Lee Petty, and was out of the race after 55 laps. Imagine that – it’s your first top-level race, you’re known as a talented up-and-coming driver, and your own dad takes you after becoming impatient. Richard was credited with a 17th place finish. The King went on to win seven championships and 200 race victories, so he turned out OK, I’d say.

The race itself took just 46 minutes to run, which wasn’t adnormal at the time. Rex White led the first 71 laps of the race, but Lee Petty led the final 28 laps and never looked back. It was Petty’s fifth win of the season and 35th of his career, en route to his first of three championship titles, while doing so at the age of 44. Now, granted, he was the only driver to race at least 50 events and back then the competition was very poor, but you can’t deny Lee’s impact on the sport as a racing pioneer. 

Lee won $575 for his troubles, with the race holding a purse of just $4,200. The event…. Wasn’t well received. In fact, in the Toronto Star column of the event, the Cup race had just a single paragraph compared to the 10 for the local short trackers. In John MacDonald’s article, he referred to the event as the “supposed highlight” of the race card, adding that “the spectators, enthusiastic about the regular stock car races, seemed bored by the late model cars” run by NASCAR’s best. Could it be because a fight in an earlier heat race for the local drivers provided more entertainment than the caution-free Cup series event? Perhaps, but it marked the final time the series raced in Toronto, with the top division never returning to Canada again.

But after the NASCAR event, plans started to get more complicated for the future of racing at the CNE. Late in 1958, the Toronto Argonauts football team signed a deal to use the infield space as a playing surface for 1959.  The track required some extra adjustments to meet the accommodations – most notably decreasing the size of the track to 28-feet wide. The drivers struggled to adjust to the narrower surface, with reports of widespread crashes plaguing the events the following season. The turns were widened by two feet later on to help combat the concern. In 1960, the track was finally given permission to race on Sunday’s, much to the delight of the organizers that tried for many years. Over the next few years, the track continued to see a variety of new events, with the series hosting major sprint, hobby and midget events often. In 1964, the super modifieds that dominated the track for over a decade were replaced with a stout late model series. It also played host to the USAC Midgets, which hosted the “Toronto 500” on a couple of occasions. In fact, Mario Andretti failed to make the main field for an event in 1965, so the competition was stout.

But as the years went on, race dates continue to drop and fans could start to see the beginning of the end. The oval at the CNE would remain open until 1966 when it was announced that the area of the speedway was to be replaced with a track-and-field coursr. There was some hope that the cars could run at the Coliseum just near where the track was located, nothing came out of it. All of a sudden, racing at the CNE was over – until the 1980s, that was. On July 20, 1986, the first Molson Indy housed a crowd of 60,000 people, with Bobby Rahal edging out Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti for the first victory.

In the late 1980s, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts having had control of Exhibition Stadium, there was talk of bringing racing back to the 17,000-seat facility, The City of Toronto helped make it happen, and nearly a million dollars later, the facility welcomed back stock cars for the 1990 season. Weekly racing included the CASCAR Late Model Series, the return of midget and hobby stock racing and even endurance events, monster truck shows and demolition derbies. Two mainstays in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, Kerry Micks and Mark Dilley, were among the competitors that raced in the late model series, with Randy Latour taking the title.

I wasn’t around to see races back then, but many fans took a liking to the track – but that wasn’t enough to save the rebirth of the facility. Advertising was scarce, with many events failing to host even 1,000 fans. There was still hope that racing could return in 1991 and 1992 as originally planned, but local fans started to complain – mainly about the noise, which is understandable given the fact it was close to some neighborhoods and increased traffic in the area didn’t help. In early 1991, after watching the track lose money due to poor attendance, the City of Toronto pulled the plug on what could have been a successful return of amateur racing to Canada’s largest city. There was an attempt to bring back racing in 1997, but to little interest – there’s next to no information about the return, and even diehard Canadian racing fans forgot it happened. At that point, stock car racing in the big city was dead – until CASCAR returned to the current IndyCar track in the late 1990s.

In July, the parking lots and local roadways around the grounds are populated by IndyCar, but in recent years, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series has been a highlight of the show card with close-quarters action and victories from some of the country’s top drivers, including Alex Tagliani, Kevin Lacroix and Andrew Ranger. It’s been a hot topic for debate – could NASCAR’s Cup Series race on a street course? There would be heavy logistical concerns with spacing, both in the garage and on track, but I’d love to see it – just not at the expense of the Honda Indy.

The Exhibition Stadium will forever be remembered as the original home of the Toronto Blue Jays before the MLB club moved downtown. But it’s great to think about NASCAR, and stock car racing in general, had such an important impact on the early days of sporting events on the CNE grounds. 

To read more about the event, check these links out:

http://racersreunion.com/community/forum/stock-car-racing-history/17015/rex-white-remembers-canada

https://theex.com/main/entertainment/stage,-talent-and-stunt-shows/the-ex-race

http://www.canadianracer.com/cne.asp