Beloved Westwood track lives on in racers' hearts

Al Ores helped build the sport of car racing in British Columbia. So much so, his efforts are being honoured by the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame when he’s inducted as a builder on Feb. 28.

But the 85-year-old mechanic and racer can’t bring himself to visit the site where most of that building took place.

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Almost 30 years after it was closed to make way for a golf course and luxury homes, the loss of the Westwood Motorsport Park on Coquitlam’s Westwood Plateau still cuts deeply into the heart of the province’s racing community.

“It was something very special,” Ores said of the 2.9 km track that sliced through the woods on the southern flank of Eagle Mountain.

Westwood was the first purpose-built permanent road racing course in Canada. It was constructed and operated by the Sports Car Club of British Columbia (SCCBC) to support grass roots racing and help develop young racers who were looking to step up from the go-kart track nestled inside Turn One of the eight-turn circuit. One of its most famous graduates was the late Greg Moore, who worked his way up from the karts at 10-years-old to Formula 1600 and 2000, Indy Lights and then won five races in four seasons in the Champ Car World Series before he was killed in a racing accident in California in 1999.

Ray Stec, who served as the president of the SCCBC three times, said while Westwood was geared toward the amateur racing crowd of local hobbyists and weekend warriors, the track’s unique challenges attracted some of the sport’s biggest names, like former Formula 1 world champion Keke Rosberg, Indy 500 winners Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan, Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott, as well as Gilles Villeneuve and Michael Andretti in the formative years of their illustrious careers. Even the legendary Stirling Moss visited.

“The setting of the track was very technical and quick,” Stec said, recalling the often rainy conditions that made navigating the 15-degree banking of the first corner or the hump halfway along the long backstretch that was known as Deer’s Leap especially precarious and teeth-clenching. “The luminaries were all impressed with the facility. Nobody had negative comments about it.”

Ores said the ability for amateurs to rub shoulders — and paint — with top professional racers was part of Westwood’s magic.

“You were just the average guy talking to these big time racers,” Ores said.

The hobbyist nature of the track also made it a family place, where the racers tried to keep their costs down by enlisting family members and friends to work in the pits, count laps, and keep time.

Ores said his four kids grew up at the track, helping out by bleeding brakes, or keeping time from the bleachers. All of them went on to take driver’s training at the track and his late son, Mike, raced for a stretch. Some of his grandchildren remain active in the sport.

“We were involved so much,” he said. “We lived up there the whole time in the summer.”

Westwood’s first official race was held on July 29, 1959. It attracted more than 20,000 spectators. Open-wheel Formula Atlantic cars raced there regularly from 1971 until it closed, as did sedans from the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am series, the Players GM Challenge series and even high-powered Porsche 911s. Motorbikes, including ones with sidecars attached, held races there, and modified mud buggies churned around before the track was paved.

Ores recalled ploughing his way through two-foot snowdrifts to open the gates to the track so the Canadian military could conduct winter maneuvers there.

But as Vancouver’s urban sprawl began extending eastward towards Coquitlam, Ores said the racing community sensed the end of Westwood was nigh.

“We knew we were going to have to move,” he said, adding efforts to establish a new facility in the Fraser Valley inevitably ran into resistance.

“Even to the last year or two, we were still hopeful that the winds of politics would change and people would realize the value of the track being there,” Stec said.

When the checkered flag fell for the last time in August, 1990, it was a tough moment, said Ores, who was among the crew of volunteers who helped dismantle the track after it closed.

“We got so hooked being up there, it was like an addiction,” he said.

Stec said membership in the SCCBC plummeted from about 350 to 80 in the aftermath of Westwood’s closure. And while the club is back to around 350 members now as racers rent track time at Mission Raceway, it’s not the same.

“Racing has fallen out of the top of mind of people,” Stec said, adding the demise of high-profile events like the Vancouver Molson Indy, along with the declining interest in driving amongst young people hasn’t helped.

The Westwood track is memorialized in some of the Plateau’s street names, like Paddock Drive, Carousel Court and Deer’s Leap Place, that wind amidst the multi-million dollar homes and exclusive townhomes. But, Stec said, aside from a delivery he once made to the area, he’s had no inclination to revisit past glories on those streets.

“I just can’t bring myself to go up there,” he said. “Once the door closes, you can’t.”

Ores said he’s only visited once, to attend a friend’s memorial at the golf club. 

“I went on the balcony and saw part of the pits, the way it was, and turn one, and that’s it, I don’t want to go back there anymore,” he said.

• Other athletes and builders with a Tri-City connection being honoured by the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame include Centennial secondary graduate Bruce Wilson, who played several seasons in the old North American Soccer League as well as for Canada’s national soccer team in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He captained Canada’s only appearance at the World Cup, in 1986. Former Coquitlam Adanacs’ playmaker Alex Carey and Port Moody resident Eric Cowieson, who won three Minto Cups and still holds the record for most games played in the Mann Cup will also be inducted at a banquet on Feb. 28 at the Metrotown Firefighters Club in Burnaby. For more information about the induction banquet, as well as a link to purchase tickets, go to www.burnabysportshalloffame.ca

 

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