Community passion key ingredient for surviving speedways in Penticton, Merritt | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Community passion key ingredient for surviving speedways in Penticton, Merritt

July 1970, Overall view of Penticton Speedway on Carmi Road during motorcycle racing.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Penticton Museum and Archives
March 07, 2021 - 2:30 PM

Speedways have come and gone in the Interior, but none have lasted longer than Penticton’s.

Kelowna resident Nick Nixon has been going to the speedway since it opened in 1969 by then-owner Don Agur and started racing in 1972.

“If I get an opportunity this year, I’ll go out again this year,” the 73-year-old said. “I’ve always liked racing, even when I was a very young man, I used to go to Haney Speedway in Maple Ridge when I was 12 or 13 years old.”

Nixon drove an old Pontiac, a popular racing choice when he started racing in Penticton.

“We destroyed a lot of them,” he said.

Over the years, he saw the Penticton Speedway improve, and he’s hopeful racing will continue with its new owners, saying that he sees generations of families at the track.

Recently the speedway announced that it will be changing hands, but the new owners said they will improve and persevere the track in the Okanagan. In the Interior, few speedways are left but the organizers, owners and drivers that are passionate about the sport believe it’s a strong, supportive community that has kept them alive.

READ MORE: Penticton Speedway being sold; will remain a racetrack

“I’ve always felt like it was really a family-oriented thing, I’ve raised most of my kids at the speedway and they’ve all turned out to be fine adults,” Nixon said. “We loved it.”

The Penticton Speedway has survived numerous opens and closures of raceways in the Thompson Okanagan, including Tillicum Raceway in Vernon, Kel-Win Speedway in Kelowna, and Scheidam Flats in Kamloops. 

“People just care... I go back to family," Nixon said. “It’s such an involved sport… I just really think that we need something here in the Okanagan for that. There are so many seniors (who) like to see things shut down and I really have a tough time with that, I guess I’m a little more progressive and open-minded, even though I’m in my mid-70s.”

Current owner Johnny Aantjes said the Penticton Speedway has had its ups and downs, but in the 23 years he owned the track, he saw a gradual increase in participation, spectators and corporate sponsors.

People have less spending money for hobbies than they’ve had in the past, and racing cars can be an expensive sport, he said, which is why he thinks speedways have struggled in B.C. over the years.

“The price of land, as it continues to escalate, people find other uses for it. The racetrack industry is not necessarily the most lucrative, but I think the biggest thing in B.C., you have some special interest groups that manage to sway some political body and they manage to change the course of the (future of the speedways),” Aantjes said.

In Spallumcheen, the owners of the Motoplex Speedway closed after complaints from neighbours. In 2020, they applied to the township to rezone the land into an industrial zone.

There's lots of four-wheeled action in Penticton this week as the Penticton Speedway launches its 2016 season.
There's lots of four-wheeled action in Penticton this week as the Penticton Speedway launches its 2016 season.
Image Credit: Photo contributed

The other challenge for the raceways is that fewer people may have a place to work on or store cars as more people live in apartments, he said.

“Hopefully the cities and regional district will realize there’s going to be a need for these places to store vehicles for the purpose of racing or fixing them up.”

READ MORE: Penticton speedway returns for its 50th season

But in Penticton, they have a well-entrenched facility with a strong group of neighbours, Aantjes said.

“So we’re very lucky to have the situation that we have,” Aantjes said. “We’re very thankful for all of what we’ve been able to achieve and for all the people who supported us along the way.”

Merritt Speedway is another track that’s still open in the Interior and has been maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. Dale Calder, president of the Merritt Stock Car Association which looks after the track, said March 31 is the non-profit’s 30th anniversary.

Unlike the Penticton Speedway which is privately owned, Calder said Merritt’s track was built by volunteers and it continues to survive as people remain passionate about racing.

She loves racing so much, she even bought a house about a kilometre away from the track, so she can be close to it, she said. She’s been racing for 43 years.

“It’s just family. It really is a huge family that runs it,” she said.

Roughly 75 to 80% of their racers travel to Merritt from out of town, she said, and in the last four years, there's been a huge uptick in the association's membership.

At their lowest, they had 25-30 cars, and now there’s up to 80 cars, she said, adding that she doesn't know why there's been an increase in interest.

Some of the non-profit’s members are now hoping to reopen the dirt track in Clearwater this May after it closed 15 years ago, she said.

“It’s great to see because we want the sport to last and we see so many of these track closing both here in Canada and in the States, to keep ours going here for 30 years, and then now going back after a 15-year-closure to reopen Clearwater, it’s kind of historic actually,” Calder said.


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