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May 27, 2006

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Book Review: The Speediest Land Traveller

By Phil R. Elliott

The Speediest Land Traveller
By Richard McDonnell
Copyright 2005
Granville Island Publishing
$22.95 US
$27.95 CDN

In the last few years, I haven’t read too much other than about motorsports. I’m not complaining, after all, it is a major part of my life. And, dragracing hasn’t been my only love. In fact, my first indoctrination to racing was to Seattle’s only major sport in the ‘50s – unlimited hydroplanes.

When I became more attuned to the available types of motorsports in the northwest, and that one of the finest facilities in the world – Pacific Raceways – was only a dozen miles from where I lived, I became a ruthless race fan. I was willing to do virtually anything to go to events there, from drag races to enduro go-karts. I somehow was able to attend major road races sanctioned by the USRRC, and its later evolution – CanAm. I saw early TransAm events, and Formula 5000. I attended radio station-sponsored RaceFests that encompassed all types of racing run at Pacific Raceways – in one day! It was where I was introduced to foreign stocks and figure-8s, a localized version of rallying, dragboats on display, motorcycle road racing and a dozen other things. Of course, those racefest events were full of a wide variety of drag cars as well.

Later, I traveled to other tracks all over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, watching all manner of events including Sprintcars and Midgets as well as those other styles mentioned above.

So, when my longtime pal Gordie Bonin called and told me about a new book called The Speediest Land Traveller, sub-titled, “A History of Alberta Auto Racing,” I was enthralled. Author R.D. “Dick” McDonell, who like Gordie, hails from Red Deer, Alberta, was nice enough to send a copy for my perusal.

In the ‘70s, I made many trips to Alberta to see races, mostly at Edmonton International Speedway for NHRA points races. I remember standing on a very moss-covered piece of asphalt taking parachute photos and knowing that I was in the middle of turn one of the road course, where a few years earlier, all the TransAm and CanAm stars had scrambled for position in front of huge crowds. I also remember knowing that EIS, easily the greatest multiuse facility in all of Canada, wasn’t going to last much longer. Just like so many other tracks, the very populace that had supported it for years had become an urban sprawl that was all-too-quickly absorbing it.

With all that has gone on with me, it has taken nearly a year to read the book, but it has not been for lack of desire. Each time I’ve been able to read a page or a chapter, it has been terribly exciting to me.

Certainly that has to do somewhat with the familiar names and territory – I’ve met or know many of the people McDonnell chose to cover, and have been to quite a few of the venues described as well.

Besides that, instead of a book of cold historical facts about obscure faceless names, The Speediest Land Traveller is “chatty,” full of anecdotes about Alberta racing from its earliest days. It also covers the politics of a hundred years of racing and those folk who use racing for a variety of motives and results. It covers the gamut from comedy to tragedy.

The early stories include several about importing such luminaries as Barney Oldfield to fairground horsetracks in exactly the way those matchrace exhibitions were run in the states.

Throughout the book, there are chapters about tracks and promoters that have come and gone, the latter split equally between the loved and hated categories, as well as a couple that might be considered rather unscrupulous. Quite typical, actually.

There are full chapters on drag folk like Dale Armstrong, Gordie Bonin, Terry Capp/Bernie Fedderly, and Gary Beck, and especially the strips in Calgary and Edmonton (the latter just part of a huge multi-use road race complex).

There is extensive coverage of CAMRA and other oval and road racing series. This is a region that supported many, many major events in all types of racing, and they are all covered here.

I also enjoyed the chapters on figures from other types of racing that I’ve encountered such as Frank Janett, Eldon Rasmussen, Trevor Boys and Allen Berg, and on many I’d never heard of as well.

Each chapter gives readers insights into the ups and downs of trying to make a living in the unforgiving realm of racing.

Richard McDonnell covers nearly a full century of racing in a very entertaining manner. In his epilogue, one can feel the passion for a lost love, as nearly every track in Alberta has disappeared due to progress. He sadly, almost angrily, closes with lines like, “the greatest drag and road race drivers in the world are not likely to compete in our ‘small market’ cities.”

He describes the “zenith of Alberta racing” as the ‘60s to ‘80s when world championship drivers and ramifications came to Alberta with regularity. McDonnell’s line, “Large population centres across North America lusted for what we had,” sounds a bit like bragging, but he’s right. For those that didn’t attend an event at Edmonton International Speedway have no idea just how ahead of its time the facility truly was.

I really enjoyed The Speediest Land Traveller by Richard McDonnell, and recommend it to all western Canadian race fans, as well as any history-minded race fan from anywhere. The book truly parallels nearly every other region, in that racing rides waves of popularity then meets demise due to literally thousands of reasons. Elements of life – including racing – change everywhere, and McDonnell sums the scenario very nicely.

There are several ways to buy The Speediest Land Traveller by Richard McDonnell. There are mail order forms on his website Alternately, the book is available through Chapters bookstores. In Alberta, many independent bookstores carry it as well. If all else fails, just call McDonnell at (403) 347-6567, and he'll arrange some way to get it delivered.

Phil R. Elliott

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