Not since 1912 when the outlawed racer Barney Oldfield broke the world one mile, and half mile land speed records at Calgary’s Gridiron raceway had so many people showed up for an automobile race. Many of the participants drove their cut down Model Ts to the track that day. Ted Reynolds was just completing the 155 mile drive to Calgary when the last of the cars were pulling up to the starting line. He simply drove on to the field and started racing.
This was the first race of many sponsored by the Calgary Alberta Lion’s Club. Similar fund raising races, also sponsored by service clubs, were taking place in many other cities around North America. Devastation caused by the war in Europe left countless children homeless. The Lion’s Club decided that pari-mutual betting on Model T races would provide an entertaining way to raise funds for the war orphans.
The inaugural outing took place at the Victoria Park ½ mile horse race track on Labor Day 1941. Having little experience with this type of venture the Lions decided on a 100 mile race around the narrow track. Thirty-three cars pulled up to the starring line. It was anybody’s race. Many of the cars had only weeks before been pulled from farm fields and stripped of non essential parts in preparation for the event. At this first race there were few rules. Cars were to use stock T equipment. Tops were cut from sedans and coupes and all the glass was also removed. It was ok to “underslung” the axles to lower the chassis. Many participants removed almost all the sheet metal leaving only the chassis, steering wheel and gas tank. A crudely sculpted 15 gallon drum made a suitable bucket seat. Standard gasoline was mandated although some of the drivers complained of the strong smell of ether in the pit area.
Safety equipment was nonexistent. Many drivers wore leather flight helmets and most wore goggles to keep the dust and mud from their eyes. Willy Wokcnitz a Magrath farmer wore his trademark Derby hat which amazingly stuck to his head for the whole race.
Only a few of the drivers had previous racing experience. That, combined with the narrow track and the lack of weight on the rear wheels provided a thrill a minute for the 12,000 anxious spectators. Spinouts were common. W. Dufresne of Suffield hit the fence on lap 23 but managed to pull his car back on the track and take third. W. A. Wocknitz winner of the second place prize did not realize that he had completed the required number of 200 laps and continued on, crashing near the gate on the east end of the grandstand knocking down a spectator, William Hammill Jr. Both were taken to the hospital. Wocknitz fractured his kneecap. The winner, Leading Aircraftsman Norman Price of the No. 2 Wireless School averaged 33 miles per hour for the 100 mile trip. The Calgary Herald reported that at the end of the four and an half hour race very little of the infield fence remained standing.
After the opening day mayhem the Lions changed the format to three 15 mile heats with a 10 mile final. The heats provided cash prizes of $50 for first, $35 for second and $15 for third. The top three in the final received, $100, $75, and $25 respectively. Gas rationing during the war meant that drivers had to use their own rationing coupons to fuel their racers. There was no organized racing circuit. In addition to the big races in Calgary and Edmonton, races were held in a number of towns in Alberta. One race was even held on the snow in Bannf.
It wasn’t long before the good drivers with well tuned cars could be counted on to win or place in most of the races. Few were willing to share their engine building secrets. After Model T racing was replaced by the “big cars” the fellow who won most of the races, Tom Villetard, admitted that he had raised the compression of his engine slightly by machining the rods off center. Stan Reynolds mounted his intake manifold upside down and connected a sheet metal funnel to the carb inlet for ram air induction. His high lift cam had overlap duration half way between stock Model T and the cam from a Gipsy Major airplane. Other tricks were tried with varying degrees of success to squeeze more power from the Henry’s little engine.
Following the war Stan went into business and used his savvy to collect old cars and farm equipment. At one point he had more than 1,500 cars. A few years ago he donated a substantial part of his acquisitions to the Alberta government as the seed collection for the Reynolds Alberta Museum. The hundreds of cars that remained along with an aircraft hanger and dozen or so semi-trailers full of parts were put up for sale.
In January of 2010 Harry Lillo and I (Robb Wolff) took a day off and headed north to the Reynolds collection to see what treasures we could uncover. We had each done this several times before. Neither of us needed more junk but we had both convinced ourselves that the once in a lifetime opportunity would soon end. On an earlier trip we had seen a Reynolds dirt track racer hidden away in one of the buildings. Before we reached Wetaskiwin that cool January morning we had convinced each other to organize a few of our parts into replicas of the no-frills racers from the 40s. Early in 2010 Harry organized a meeting of like-minded souls and several of us began racer projects. Competitive racing is not in the cards but we looked forward to putting on a few dirt track demonstrations. At the 2010 Lethbridge Swap Meet a fellow T enthusiast coined the name “Barnyard Cruisers” and it stuck.
In 2016 the Barnyard Cruiser group under the name Alberta Fairground T Racers put on a number of dirt track demonstration around Alberta to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first Model T dirt track race in Calgary.