News & Media


Retro Racing: Former champ White recalls early Canada years

August 16, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Rex White and Richard Petty at Riverside International Motor Raceway in 1963. (Smyle Media)

Lee Petty knocks future King out of way in Cup debut en route to win at Toronto

If you want proof that racing history tends to repeat itself, look no further than the last time NASCAR's premier division visited Canada.

Just like two weeks ago at Pocono, rain played a major role in determining the winner of the 1958 race at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition Stadium. Just like last week at Watkins Glen, the tall, lanky fellow in the cowboy hat they call the King was in Victory Lane, but only to share in the excitement. And the overwhelming opinion of the media in attendance? The race was "boring," even though the winner intentionally wrecked his teammate because he was too slow.

Jim Mideon 500

Results
Pos.DriverMake
2.Cotton Owens Pontiac
3. Jim Reed Ford
4. Shorty Rollins Ford
5. Johnny Mackison Mercury
6. Billy Rafter Ford
7.Rex White Chevrolet
8. Tiny Benson Chevrolet
9.Bill Poor Chevrolet
10. Bob Duell Ford
11. Howard Phillippi Ford
12. L.D. Austin Chevrolet
13. Ted Chamberlain Chevrolet
14. Al White Ford
15. Peck Peckham Chevrolet
16.Neil Haight Chevrolet
17. Richard Petty Oldsmobile
18. Lennie Page Ford
19.Dick Walters Ford

According to the results from 54 years ago, Rex White -- the 1960 national champion who lives near Atlanta Motor Speedway -- won the pole and led 71 laps of that race, although that's not exactly how he remembered it in retrospect.

However, he does remember racing at least three times in Canada: once in 1956 in the Sportsman class, two years later at the 1/3-mile asphalt stadium track in Toronto, and a third race which he won at an oval near Montreal.

White recalled the first time he went across the border from Buffalo, N.Y.

"Going to Canada was quite different," White said. "I had never been there. You had to record all your tires and wheels. If you blew a tire, you didn't want to throw it away up there because you'd have to pay a duty on it when you came back.

"I don't think you even had to show a driver's license. You could just walk right across the border."

In 1952, Buddy Shuman won a 200-lapper on a half-time dirt track in Niagara Falls, Ontario, just across the United States border. That remained the only time NASCAR's Cup division had ventured outside of the contiguous 48, until promoters in Toronto decided to invite America's best stock-car drivers to headline the Jim Mideon 500 on July 18, 1958.

Because the record books don't show that specific race title, it's unclear who Jim Mideon was or what the 500 stood for, but according to newspaper reports, nearly 10,000 fans packed the grandstands that evening. After three heat races -- won by Shorty Rollins, Lee Petty and Cotton Owens -- and several shorter races involving local drivers, the feature race was a 100-lap event on a track White described as being nearly a carbon copy of Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"It was a track around a football field that was as flat as it could be, in a big stadium with a huge crowd," White said. "They were very enthusiastic fans. It was quite interesting to go there and race, I thought. It was almost identical to Bowman Gray, only it was a little bigger. But it was about the same width. It was very narrow and passing was a hard thing to do."

What complicated matters was a heavy rain that occurred between qualifying and the race. Without the benefit of jet dryers, NASCAR officials had to dry the track as best they could -- and eventually decided to go ahead and start the race even though it was still very damp.

The record book shows that White led the first 71 laps, but he believes it was Owens who was the class of the field early.

"One thing I remember about that race was it rained, and we tried to run in the rain," White said. "Of course, we were running treaded tires back then and Cotton Owens got some retreaded tires from Towel City Tires in Kannapolis, N.C.

"It just so happened that the treads on those recaps, they worked good in the rain. Then when it dried out, he wasn't as good and Lee won the race. Cotton wound up second."

In a race which took all of 46 minutes to run, Petty led the final 28 laps and took home the first-place purse of $575. And the whole thing might have been relegated to the dust bin of history if not for one interesting fact: it was Richard Petty's Cup debut.

Having just turned 21 that summer, Richard had driven in a Convertible race the week before. So Lee loaded up a well-worn Oldsmobile backup car, put a "1" in the front of the No. 42 and towed both cars to Canada.

"Richard was just barely old enough to go racing," White said. "I don't remember exactly too much but Richard done pretty good for his first time out. For as long as Richard had been around the sport, all he had to do is get in the car and turn the steering wheel. He already had the training for years, watching his dad. It made it a lot easier for him starting out than a normal young kid."

Well, "pretty good" might be stretching the truth just a bit. The future King's first race was definitely memorable, but not necessarily in a good way. His father, in a hurry to catch the leader, became impatient with the driver of the slower No. 142 Olds and eventually knocked him into the wall and out of the race after 55 laps.

All in all, White still loves watching racing every weekend, particularly when the Nationwide Series heads for Montreal, since he has fond memories of his win there. And some funny memories, too.

"The street signs were in French and we couldn't read them," White said. "We were going down and getting stopped at the stop lights. And at one, this guy starts talking to us in French and broken English and jabbering away. I thought there was something wrong with him.

"Anyway, we took off and went to the next stop light and he went and caught us. What happened was the promoter had put a guy on the street to tell us where to stop and get free breakfast. Of course, I couldn't understand him and we went on to the race track.

"The announcer announced it all in French. I asked [NASCAR official] Johnny Bruner where I qualified, and neither one of us could figure it out. Turns out he was saying I won the pole."