1957 photo shows Six Mile House-sponsored #4 1932 Ford stock car with Frank Morris (from left), Ted Mackenzie, Bill Sim and driver Gerry Sylvester. (Bud Glover/Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame)

1957 photo shows Six Mile House-sponsored #4 1932 Ford stock car with Frank Morris (from left), Ted Mackenzie, Bill Sim and driver Gerry Sylvester. (Bud Glover/Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame)

Memories race as Western Speedway approaches its finish line

‘It was life to us:’ Vancouver Island racers, crew will never forget what the track gave them

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.”

Track announcer Rocky Horne interviews flagger Matt Sahlstrom before he introduces the drivers for the Canada 200 in 1994(?). (Courtesy of Matt Sahlstrom)

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.

Matt Sahlstrom. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)

“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.”

Now, with the speedway’s days numbered, he’s not sure if he’ll go back for just one more taste.

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

jane.skrypnek@blackpress.ca

RELATED: Developers’ proposal on track for rezoning Western Speedway property

RELATED: Western Speedway racing legend ‘The Flying Plumber’ turns 98

LangfordWestern Speedway

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

As part of Earth Week, Ucluelet Rotary Club member Ryan Wackett will be handing out free Clean Up Packages with grabber picker up tools at his shop Westcoast Connect from April 10 to 23. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet Rotary honours Earth Day with week long community clean up

“Let’s spring into action and clean up our beautiful communities!”

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour closures coming to Hwy. 4 between Port Alberni and Tofino-Ucluelet

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

B.C. Centre for Disease Control maps showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 4-10. (BCCDC image)
Parksville-Qualicum passes Nanaimo in new COVID-19 cases

Greater Victoria had more new cases than any other Island area: B.C. Centre for Disease Control

A screenshot from a Nuu-chah-nulth healing song and performance created in collaboration between Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso. (Screenshot from YouTube)
WATCH: Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation brothers produce COVID-19 healing song and performance

Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso share dance and inspiration.

Ucluelet locals Rachael, Caroline and Tom enjoy refreshments on a sunny Monday afternoon at a picnic table dining area set up by the District of Ucluelet to help residents and visitors support local businesses while staying outside. (Andrew Bailey photo)
Ucluelet chamber launches bingo contest to support local restaurants

Four Ucluelet Co-op shopping sprees are up for grabs in #Ukee2go competition.

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Local carpenter Tyler Bohn embarked on a quest to create the East Sooke Treehouse, after seeing people build similar structures on a Discovery Channel show. (East Sooke Treehouse Facebook photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. carpenter builds fort inspired by TV’s ‘Treehouse Masters’

The whimsical structure features a wooden walking path, a loft, kitchen – and is now listed on Airbnb

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

Most Read