Book Review: The Speediest Land
By Phil R.
The Speediest Land Traveller
By Richard McDonnell
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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’
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
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