A Remembrance of a Race That Almost Didn’t Happen
I’ve been going to races for more than 50 years, and during that time I have never seen an event anything like the Formula Atlantic race held in Hamilton, Ontario on August 7, 1978. In a word, it was a fiasco. And I was there in the eye of the storm.
That this event would turn into a debacle first became apparent a few days before the race weekend. The promoters started to erect their new-style ‘patented’ steel barrier system and it was obvious that their scheme was a total failure. Without effective barriers in place there would be no race. It seemed that nothing could save this event – so, the mere fact that the race eventually happened is remarkable in itself.
In retrospect, the makings of this fiasco went back a long way – probably right back to the original idea for the street race, which was hatched by a Hamilton group that called themselves Triess. In hindsight, someone probably should have pulled the plug weeks, or even months, beforehand and saved the sport and the many people touched by this failed event from a lot of aggravation and bad press.
When PRN’s Tim Rutledge heard that I had been involved with this remarkable event, he asked me to write about it. Using the Canadian Motor Sports History Group Internet forum, as a source, I was able to collect quite a bit of research material. From the newspaper stories written at the time, it is clear that there were many different versions of the ‘truth’ of what happened on that weekend. I am not prepared at this late date to try to set the record straight with a definitive, totally-documented report. All I can do is relate the impressions and reflections from my perspective – fuzzy as they may be – of that remarkable weekend.
On the Wednesday before the race weekend, I was summoned by George Chapman (the Burlington Auto Club’s Chapman, not the Chapman who was the national driving champion), who was the head of the race day organization, to come to the site. When I got there I saw that they had started to erect the novel barrier system that turned into a disaster. The barrier consisted of steel boxes that were weighted down with water-filled plastic bags. Some sources claim that these barriers were not built to the originally submitted (and approved) specifications – these ones had no diagonal bracing and collapsed when the water was dumped in, so it simply spilled onto the street. Quickly, a decision was made that the only way to salvage the day was to reinforce the steel boxes with wooden braces and fill them with sand or slag from nearby steel companies.
Fast forward to Sunday- the first day of the scheduled two-day event. When I arrived on site – I was promoted to clerk of the course during the weekend because Chapman had become too ill to continue – I found that, while most of the barriers had been put in place and filled with ballast, much of the specified debris fencing was not in place, and what was there was not up to minimal safety standards.
Given that the cars were supposed to be going out on the course in a couple hours, the marshals were in place at their stations. One of the first people I encountered was Ernie Strong, a Watkins Glen marshal I knew, who angrily barked at me, “You don’t expect us to do this, do you?” he said, pointing at the debris fencing. I put my arm around his shoulder and replied, “If you don’t do it, we’re not going to have a race, are we?” With that, they got to work.
Newspaper reports had made much of the supposedly unrealistic demands of the insurance inspector, Tom Findlayson. From my perspective, as clerk of the course, I had the responsibility to not send any cars out on the circuit until I was satisfied that it was safe (I later came to realize that my powers as clerk of the course of a series event like this were secondary to those of the Atlantic Series director, Bob Hanna). But Hanna and the FIA representative, Robert Langford, also had the same safety imperative. I quickly realized (as did Hanna and Langford, no doubt) that Findlayson, with his power to refuse the insurance coverage, had the strongest hand and that he was prepared to play it. Realizing this, I knew I could sit back and wait until he was satisfied.
I already thought that Larry Russell, the general manager of Triess, was the principal villain in this whole sad affair. More evidence came from the way he tried to unfairly scapegoat Findlayson for insisting the circuit measure up to minimal safety standards – making the unfounded claim that the insurance representative kept upping the ante when all he did was insist that his original list of required ‘fixes’ be completed. To my mind, Findlayson, like the rest of us, tried to find the absolute minimal safety standard that would allow the race to proceed.
Meanwhile, the spectators, some of whom had bought tickets, assembled wherever they could find a vantage point. Even after the disaster of Sunday, they showed up again on Monday. The organizers plan for a cut-rate public address (PA) system resulted in no PA at all, so we had no way of informing the would-be spectators what was happening. On Monday morning, fearing that the event would be cancelled completely and the nastiness that that decision would likely create, I put together an evacuation plan for the marshals and the race operations group. Fortunately, we never had to invoke it.
Originally, the cars were supposed to be out on the track at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The event was originally planned to cover two days – Sunday and Monday of the August Civic holiday weekend. It wasn’t until 3 p.m. on Monday that we finally got the go ahead to start. According to the original schedule we were supposed to begin with the Formula Atlantic race. What to do now?
In consultation with Hanna, who had obligations to Honda as well as to Ford (for the Atlantics) he insisted that we go ahead with an abbreviated version of the two-day schedule. We complied with his request and sent the vintage cars out along with the Hondas for their practice and races. These races went off without incident.
But these preliminaries, combined with a practice and qualifying session for the Atlantics meant that we weren’t able to start the race until about 8 p.m. – leaving us with only a few minutes before darkness fell.
The race went ahead anyway and chaos ensued almost immediately. Cars were sliding on the sand and dirt left on the circuit from the barrier filling. Any on-track incident required us to send out the pace car for a full-course yellow (something unheard of in those days) to give the course workers protection. Unfortunately, the pace car was a tiny Fiesta provided by series sponsor Ford and the brakes on the car were soon smoking under the strain. Hanna vetoed my idea to replace the Fiesta with the stronger Honda Accord that had been used to pace the Honda Series race.
It was obvious that the race would never go full distance. Clearly Hanna’s goal was to hang on for 60 per cent of the 73-lap distance – the defined minimum distance for full points. By now, I was burned out and had left race control in the capable hands of Bob Brockington, who had been promoted during the weekend to deputy clerk of the course. As the laps counted down, slowed by caution periods, the sun sunk lower behind the buildings. Even though we were not close to the magic 60 per cent, I urged Hanna to stop the race. He replied that the street lights had come on - but we both forgot that there was an unlit alley on the circuit back behind us. Finally, it was so dark that we had no alternative but to throw the checkered flag and call it a day – about six laps short of the 60 per cent goal.
Despite all the troubles this Atlantic Series had that year, there was a pretty remarkable field of drivers. Future F1 champion Keke Rosberg won the Hamilton race over Price Cobb, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan.
After the race, I stepped into the back of the press room to hear Rosberg’s remarks. He said, “I slowed down at the end because it was just too risky to keep up the speeds. I don’t know how many more laps we could have gone before we wouldn’t have been able to see anything.”
Because the race was cut short, only half points were awarded, but an appeal by Fred Opert, owner of Rosberg’s car, resulted in full points being awarded. This put Rosberg into the championship lead but he failed to start the only points race after that – at Montreal – and Howdy Holmes, who had been knocked out of the Hamilton race became the 1978 Formula Atlantic champion.
The next afternoon I flew off to Austria for the Grand Prix; Rosberg was on the same flight. It wasn’t until much later that I heard about the massive unplanned cleanup operation necessitated by the use of sand in the barriers. Apparently much of the sand had drained down into the storm sewers, requiring an expensive cleanup operation paid for by the city. By now the hapless Triess organization had to be bankrupt, facing at least a $250,000 loss on the sorry event.
In my opinion, this event should have been cancelled in mid-June a couple of months earlier. At that time, the Triess group went to the Quebec race to meet with Labatt’s and asked them for a big bail-out cheque. This move should have set off the alarms but they got the money. In the week before the race, Labatt’s wrote another big cheque to provide enough cash to keep the event from being cancelled at the last minute. Despite their efforts, Labatt’s was rewarded with a fiasco.
As I see it, the bad guys were the promoters, the Hamilton-based Triess group who made extravagant, ambitious promises and totally failed to deliver on them. When it became obvious to everyone that they were in trouble, they tried to pin the blame on the insurance inspector and anyone else who they could point a finger at.
Chris Waddell, now a journalism professor at Carleton University, wrote a report for Pete Chapman’s Autosport Canada and Chapman wrote an editorial. Both of their commentaries from the day are consistent with my picture of the situation, yet Russell, even after the race fiasco, had the gall to write a rebuttal making all kinds of spurious claims that the enterprise had been a success and that many other would-be race organizers were still interested in their ideas.
The CASC Ontario Region had been contracted to provide the actual race organization and Chapman built a strong organization with officials from various member clubs and using the CRCA as the marshalling crew. Its mandate was to receive a ready-to-go circuit on Sunday morning and to run the race event. Notwithstanding the failure of Triess to provide a circuit until Monday afternoon – which only happened after many of the race-day volunteers pitched in to make up for Triess’ failure to provide a crew to complete the preparation of the track – they did their job.
Hanna, who was the executive director of CASC National and of the Formula Atlantic Series, played a key role in all this. At the time I was critical of him, thinking that he should have been more decisive and forced this crippled operation to be aborted long before it became such a public embarrassment. Now I realize that he had been juggling several priorities and that Hamilton was only one of the balls he had in the air at the time. He was trying to salvage the whole Formula Atlantic Series in the face of the loss of Mosport and St. Jovite – the two most important tracks in Canadian motorsport in those days – and the difficulty in getting American tracks to join the series. The Hamilton race, with its concept of portable barriers held out the promise of becoming a blueprint for a series of city-centre events that could expand the Atlantic series across Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, Hanna’s efforts to build the series were frustrated by the complete failure of the Hamilton event.
At the same time, Hanna was acting as a midwife for the new street circuit at Montreal (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) which was being built to replace Mosport as the new home of the F1 Canadian Grand Prix. Just seven weeks after Hamilton, I was in Montreal as a CASC Steward for the Atlantic race which was run there as a try-out in preparation for the Grand Prix. This time it worked. The only problem I remember was the PA. They had contracted the same guy who had failed to get the PA going in Hamilton – but the PA was up and running when F1 came to Montreal two weeks later.
The success of the Montreal race and the survival of the Atlantic Series – which expanded to ten rounds in 1979 – in retrospect has to be seen as vindication of the quiet, self-effacing role Hanna had played during such turbulent times, particularly in Hamilton in 1978.