Story by Mark Rogerson
Over 60 years ago the hot rod movement was quickly sweeping the nation and with it, the new found sport of drag racing. Car clubs were popping up all over and southern Ontario was no different. Actually Ontario hot rodders in many ways were leading the hot rodding revolution in the east through their community involvement and networking of their car clubs.
It’s April 15, 1955 and a very young local hot rodder and president of the newly formed Brantford Piston Pushers Car Club Don Douglas has just finished his interview with Brantford Expositors Jim Harding. Don has just informed the Expositors readers his view...”we may be a hot rod club but we aim to be the most traffic safety-conscious and respected hot rod club around”. Don also let the news paper know his clubs vision...”our ultimate aim is to own a private track of our own, much the same as an airport runway, where under proper supervision and using cars in the perfect conditions in all respects, we can let off steam in a way that will not be dangerous to anyone. This was one of those early statements or sparks for a better description that would inspire other area car clubs to unite in a common goal to start organized drag racing in Ontario.
It didn’t take long before these young hot rodders, drag racers, and car clubs to organize and form the Ontario Timing Association (O.T.A.) by January of 1956. Don Douglas, club brothers Larry Rook and Tom Drummond were soon in the thick of helping get the Kohler Airport track up and going. Don was the tech supervisor making sure the cars racing had passed the safety inspection which consisted of checking the brakes, suspension, taking the hub caps off and checking all the lug nuts just to name a few things. Doug Woodley of the Brantford Piston Pushers recalled that Don took his job very seriously because any type of accident on the new track would be bad for the promotion of drag racing in the province. Doug recalled many a racer complaining that after they had their lug nuts re-torqued in the tech lanes they had a real tuff time getting the nuts off their rims in the future. Larry Rook was appointed official recorder and also helped out with the early timing clocks. You could find Larry most races in the timing tower keeping a sharp eye on the Saturday racing action. Tom Drummond went on to be the track manager.
The O.T.A. had their first official drag race May 21, 1956 at the old Kohler airport about 4 miles outside of Cayuga where it would cost you .50 cents to get in and .50 cents to race that day and if you were under 21 you had to have a notarized permission from your parents. Besides working at the track many of the guys raced cars. Don Douglas and Larry Rook were no strangers to blazing down the 1320 in their own built drag machines. Larry ran a very successful 1934 Ford drag coupe that won often in the altered coupe classes. You could always find Larry’s coupe parked most weekends beside the timing tower for quick access when his class was called to the staging lanes. Don was also racing and was very successful also with his Piston Pusher club member Doug Woodley in their own designed dragster. So successfully that Don, Doug and even Larry went along to cheer them on when they qualified for the 1959 and 1960 NHRA Nationals in Detroit and the first NHRA Nationals in Indy in 1961. They also set the Canadian track record in their dragster class at 138 mph.
From 1956 to 1962 Larry Rook and Don Douglas were a part of the success of organized drag racing in Ontario at Kohler. They helped to organize the first night drags in 1959 when they rented a couple of large search lights from the Hamilton Airport to light up the track but most drivers found out quickly that once they ran past the lights at the other end of the track one could see very little due to darkness. Thank god for the corn field for some that need a little extra cushion to stop. Don recalled how they found old kerosene lanterns in the old airport tower and used those lanterns to light the end of the track plus show the racers the path back to the pits safely. Larry and Don were also part of the group in 1958 that organized Motorcade 59 Rod and Custom Show which was a first indoor car show at the old Hamilton Forum which feature the Allison jet powered Green Monster drag machine from the states and promoted the Kohler track. Over the next years the Kohler track built a respected name for being a great place to race. This reputation soon had many top Americans racing there like Buck Ackerman from Erie PA. with his 130 plus dragster or Jerry Haman of Niagara Falls NY. with his dragster that set the Kohler track record at 133.3 mph. Ted Clifford from the London Free Press once described what he saw at Kohler as...”young bloods with an itchy right foot given a chance to relieve the twitching on a quarter mile strip of pavement near Cayuga where cars scream down an old RCAF runway at speeds near 100 miles per hour.”
By the end of 1962 the O.T.A. was coming to an end and NHRA and even NASCAR Drag Racing was coming into Ontario. Larry and Don at that point approached L.B. Mehlenbacher owner of the property that the track sat on to take over the rent and operations of the track. The O.T.A. was happy to sell the timing equipment to them. So in 1963, Don and Larry opened Kohler Dragway and Ontario drag racing was back on track. These years as many stated were the “golden years” of drag racing. It’s hard to believe but back then across Canada on most summer weekends these new drag racing tracks were drawing over 20,000 fans. “Organized drag racing is the loudest and weirdest-looking sport in the country” stated the Toronto Star Weekly and Don and Larry were at the fore front of this movement. I know both men can tell you they had many challenges along the way from getting insurance, covering the cost of trophies, keeping the track up to date and doing their own grass roots promotions like having a booth at the annual Toronto Speed Sport car Show each year to help show case Kohler Dragways up coming racing season. Don and Larry even recall how they were able to get a cost effective ambulance service at the track by hiring a guy called “Digger” from the local funeral home to drive their hearse as the track ambulance. Soon Don and Larry hooked up with Jerry Haman from Niagara Falls NY. who had raced at the track many times over the years and owned a very successful speed shop business. He would be in charge of track promotions. This really helped Don and Larry to get more recognition from NHRA. This in turn help put the track on the map through out their NHRA Division. Soon they had a lot of the big names of drag racing coming to the track.....Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Don Garlits, Jim Oddy, just to name a few plus jet cars and large points meets. Larry and Don also put on many other track events like truck and bike racing. In some cases when it was a bike racing weekend the guys were having to deal with some of the local bike groups like the Hells Angels. But Larry was quick to say that they never ever had any problems as long as you spoke to the “right guy” and this would be “Big Red” the Hells Angels Road Captain at that time who always keep the guys in line at any track event.
The track did run the NASCAR drag racing colours for one year and this is where Don and Larry fondly recall a fast talking promoter called “Big Ed” who showed up through NASCAR to help promote the image of the track. He was so good he got BP to build a new timing tower for the them and even flew Don and Larry plus track staff down to New York City to meet with NASCAR Officials for a fun filled weekend on the town which got a few of their wives mad. Big Ed also brought in a famous United States Army pilot who’s name can’t be mention due to national security reasons...lol...but as the story goes, this famous American pilot would fly under the Canadian radar and cross the border some week days to inspect the Kohler track. Don Douglas describes seeing this US fighter jet bouncing around the sky above the track on it’s after burners as this pilot would radio down changes he wanted done at the track before the next race weekend. Don said he would be talking with you at one point and then he would say “I have to go now” and he would lite the jet up and would be gone, probably before Canadian officials could catch him unannounced on this side of the border. But as fast as Big Ed had come, he quickly disappeared never to be seen again after that one year.
Around 1968 Larry and Don decided that they would step back from the track and let Karbelt come in and run things with Mehlenbacker but they would stay on to help with the day to day operations of the NHRA sanctioned Kohler Super Boss Dragway. Don Douglas and Larry Rooke would stay on for another decade plus helping to make the track near Cayuga one of the very best. They both have stated that they loved what they were doing over all those years. They said that all the great drivers and personalities were great to work with especially “Jungle Pam “when “Jungle Jim” Lieberman was running at the track in the good old days. I think Larry Rook sum it up best for both he and Don when he said,...”we did a good service for the guys in Ontario who wanted to drag race.”