Book cover: The Chequered Past
Book cover: The Chequered Past. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Anyone interested in the history of sports car racing and rallying in Canada will find The Chequered Past, by David A. Charters (University of Toronto Press, 2007) a terrific read. Mr. Charters, an academic at the University of New Brunswick and an enthusiast-racer himself, has created a fascinating resource for people interested in cars and competition in Canada.

Ever wonder why Canada hasn’t produced more Formula 1 drivers of championship calibre? Turns out we didn’t have any racetracks in this country until 1959 (the first was Westwood, in British Columbia), and early on, drivers had to make do with converted post-war airfields on which to race. Our first Formula 1 driver was Peter Ryan (US Grand Prix, Watkins Glen, 1961), a man with unusual gifts as a driver who many thought was destined to be our first champion. Signed by Colin Chapman in 1961 for the Lotus team in Europe, he died during his first season of racing there the following year. Great skills, but insufficient training and experience was Chapman’s succinct explanation for the crash that took his life.

According to Mr. Charters, this was accurate. In spite of a prodigious talent base, we lacked training programs, facilities and cars (even though Bill Sadler’s race cars and prototype Can-Am cars were considered cutting edge). And, as you might expect, there was a lack of development money in Canada.

Much of that was to change in the later decades of the twentieth-century, especially after drivers here (like Paul Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve, Greg Moore) embraced karting as a way into the sport, and sponsors like Players, Molson and Labatt got involved. But initially, getting momentum for motor racing was down to a few individuals in the 1950’s who formed and ran motorsports clubs to operate local races and rallies. In fact, Mosport, the site of Canada’s first Formula 1 race, was built as a club initiative.

While The Chequered Past weaves its way through time toward the professional enterprise that motor racing has become, its real strength is identifying the people, places and cars that formed the amateur foundations of the sport in this country. Likewise, the Canadian Automobile Sports Clubs (CASC), formed in 1951 in Kingston, Ontario, played a pivotal role in enabling enthusiast clubs to raise the bar on safety, race management and the establishment of Canadian race events of “world class” calibre in this country. Mr. Chambers covers this in detail, and pays homage to the key persons and clubs involved at the time.

Poster for a typical 1950s race in Canada; Harewood Acres. Collection: Paul Williams
Poster for a typical 1950s race in Canada; Harewood Acres. Collection: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Picking through the warp and weft of the numerous people, events, vehicles, successes and failures of the early days of amateur and professional racing in Canada, you get a clear sense of how the sport originated in Canada, how it developed, and where it may be headed. The look back is very satisfying, especially if you’re a fan or owner of the cars mentioned, and are interested in people who drove them to their limit.

But note that this is a book about sports car racing and rallying, and not about drag racing, short track racing, or other more “North American” motorsports pursuits. This isn’t an omission; as those very popular forms of motorsports are simply not the subject of “The Chequered Past.” The cars you’ll read about are mostly Jaguars, Austin Healey Sprites, MGAs and Bs, Fiats, Ferraris, Porsches, Renaults, Triumphs, Minis and Fords (from the Anglia to the GT40). Race events covered include the BEMC Sports Car Races, the 1000 Islands Rally, the Shell 400 rally, the original Can-Am series, Formula Atlantic, and the various Formula series, along with just about everyone who had a hand in any part of them.

Academic in structure and approach, Mr. Charters’ book is enjoyable for the general reader, while providing the detail required by a serious researcher. The Chequered Past is a wonderful contribution to the history of motorsports in Canada.

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