Picture a carnival-type atmosphere. The air is electric with excitement as thousands of people pack into the grandstand sporting the colours of their favourite racing teams.
Below the stands, on the paved 643-metre oval track, adrenaline is pumping through the crew members and drivers as they prepare. Being there is an addiction to them, a high they can’t find a fix for anywhere else.
This is what it felt like to be at the Western Speedway at the height of its popularity, said Langford Coun. Matt Sahlstrom. Back then, he said, Langford was “just a small town with a big show.”
Built by A. J. Cottyn and opened in 1954, the speedway is the oldest in Western Canada.
The first time Sahlstrom saw it he was four years old. His uncle drove him by one day and, if his memory serves, he was absolutely entranced. Not long after, his dad got hired as a ticketer and what resulted were 42 of the best years of Sahlstrom’s life.
“It was our lives back then,” he said. “You couldn’t drive down any street in Langford hardly without seeing a race car.”
Matt Sahlstrom stands in his garage full of vintage cars and old Western Speedway memorabilia. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Sahlstrom’s first gig came when the STP motor oil guy showed up at the track. A hot new product, the guy wanted stickers promoting the oil put on the race cars, and Sahlstrom got the job. Next, it was working the concession stand, ticketing, flagging, track side announcing and then managing. And, for 15 odd years in there, Sahlstrom raced.
He bought his first car – a 1956 Ford with a six cylinder engine – for about $250 at age 16 and was lucky enough to have his engine built in the garage of one of his favourite drivers, Tony Johnson.
Sahlstrom said he’ll never forget his first race. “I thought my heart was gonna pop out through my ribs,” he said. He was instantly hooked on the adrenaline.
“There’s a lot to be learned at the speedway for young people,” Sahlstrom said. “When you get a race car as a kid, you got no money left over to be blowing on drugs and booze and doing stupid things. All your money goes into that race car.” The biggest lesson though, is speed where it belongs. Sahlstrom fears there will be an uptick in accidents after the speedway goes.
Newspaper clippings are among the memorabilia kept of Roy Smith at the Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Similar to Sahlstrom, Gary Smith – son of the late NASCAR driver Roy Smith – got his start young.
“I think I was about a week or a week-and-a-half old when I first went out to the racetrack,” Smith said with a chuckle. At age three, he was barreling around in go karts and by 18 (1986) he was taking part in his first official race.
An endurance race of 200 laps or two hours, whichever came first, there were 117 cars on the track to start, Smith said.
“It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “They started at the start line and went halfway around the track.”
Smith came in fourth. Like his dad, he also went on to become a NASCAR racer. Still, some of his fondest memories remain at Western Speedway.
He and Sahlstrom said the first time CASCAR came to the speedway in 2001 – it was broadcast live – stands out in their minds. Smith said that night he was the only racer from Langford and it felt like all of Greater Victoria was behind him.
“The whole grandstands were cheering for me,” he said.
It’s not a sound easily forgotten. Dave Ferguson, who’s been crewing since 1972 and now serves as president of the Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame, says the crowds would get so loud, even in the pits you could hear them over the sounds of the cars.
“Just phenomenal,” said Norm Wilcox who also crewed through the mid to late 1900s before helping to found the hall of fame and Old Time Racers Association. “It was just tremendous.”
Excitement emanates from the men as they talk. They could go on for days.
But, the time of the Western Speedway is likely drawing to a close. A proposal to rezone the historic property was passed by Langford’s planning, zoning and affordable housing committee on Feb. 8 and the developer plans to turn it into residential housing and a business park.
“Yeah, it’s disheartening,” Smith said. “There’s so much history and so many great race car drivers that have come out of this town. Even if they get a new track it’s not going to be the same.”
The developers have proposed that the speedway continue until the fall of 2022 and are including a $2.5 million allotment to go toward building a new track somewhere else.
Track announcer Rocky Horne interviews flagger Matt Sahlstrom before he introduces the drivers for the Canada 200 in 1994(?). (Courtesy of Matt Sahlstrom)
“We’re losing a lot of our culture and heritage,” Sahlstrom said. “The speedway, that’s where everybody went. It was true in-person entertainment.”
He hasn’t set foot on the track since 2006 when he stepped down as general manager, noting that the speedway is akin to a cigarette addiction. “If you’ve ever smoked and you quit, you don’t even want to smell a cigarette,” Sahlstrom said. “You need to go cold turkey.”