Sports

Merrittville Speedway adds two names to Wall of Fame

By Bernd Franke, Postmedia News

Lee Webber, left, congratulates Neil Sharp after their names were added to the L. St. Amand Enterprises Wall of Fame at Merrittville Speedway Saturday night in Thorold. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

Lee Webber, left, congratulates Neil Sharp after their names were added to the L. St. Amand Enterprises Wall of Fame at Merrittville Speedway Saturday night in Thorold. BERND FRANKE/Postmedia News

Lee Webber was a fast driver but he was an even faster learner when he was racing Dwarf Cars at Merrittville Speedway.

 

The Hamburg, N.Y., native didn’t begin competing in what has evolved into the Mod Lite class until 1999, when he was already 55 years old.

Early on he earned the nickname Doughnut for his penchant for spinning around the powerful motorcycle engine-powered racer in Turn 4.

Not longer after Webber’s debut on the Saturday night circuit, it was Doughnut who took the cake, and enjoyed the last laugh, when the time came to award points championships at the Thorold track.

Webber, who paced the fledgling division in points in 2000 and 2001 before retiring from racing following the death of his beloved wife Rose, attributed his overnight success to life lessons learned decades before while growing up on his family’s farm.

“I’m self-taught, because I grew up on a farm,” he said. “When I was 12 years old I was racing a 1947 Chevy business coupe in the field.”

“That taught me a lot about throwing a car sideways.”

Webber, who along with long-time car owner and supporter Neil Sharp was named to the L. St. Amand Enterprises Wall of Fame at Merrittville, wasn’t just a weekend racer when he was dominating the competition in his very short, though highly successful, career.

He recalled a lot of hard work, much of it trial and error, went into developing a race plan. Paying close attention to such variables as tire pressure, traction, weight transfer and setup on an ongoing basis could be painstaking.

“Like any sport you have to work hard to get to the top,” Winger said. “It isn’t something that I spent one day a week with.”

“I worked on that car several evenings to get it to where I wanted it be.”

“If you can take a car at 80, 90 miles an hour and just throw her sideways and hold control, complete control at that speed, then you’re going to be a winner.”

Winger didn’t return to racing after Rose, his wife of 37 years, lost her battle to cancer.

“It was a ‘we’ thing, she was behind me a 100 per cent,” he said. “When she passed away, my heart wasn’t into it any more.”

“It wouldn’t be feel right to be here without her.”

Rose Webber played an instrumental role in promoting the division at Merrittville after the New York Dwarf Car Association expanded into Canada. She took pictures and hosted social events in the pits with the hope of boosting the division’s popularity and getting more local drivers involved.

The Rose Webber Memorial race at Merrittville Speedway honours her memory.

Webber, 73, is retired after operating his own construction and trucking business in Buffalo. He lives in North Carolina and recently exceeded 90 miles per hour in a Corvette outracing his son on the asphalt track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Behind-the-scenes booster

Unlike his fellow inductee at Saturday’s Reunion Night ceremony, Neil Sharp spent his Wall of Fame career supporting racing behind the scenes.

The 82-year-old patriarch of a racing family now in its third generation is still helping grandson Justin Sharp, a competitor in Merrittville’s Sportsman division.

He’s not as actively involved in the pit crew as he once was.

“My back went out on me last year and I haven’t put a wheel on the car since last year.”

Neil Sharp’s involvement in racing, either as a car owner or sponsor, dates back to 1962 when he and Kurt Uhl, his business partner in a BP service station on Geneva Street in St. Catharines, helped Stan Friesen build a car.

“Stan was my driver and Kurt was the fixer-upper,” he recalled of the No. 52 that was painted BP green and yellow.

Since then the list of drivers Sharp has worked with has been a who’s who in racing at the Thorold speed plant. In addition to Friesen, notables have included Hughie Tripp, Davey Moore, Harvey Hainer, Doug Gordon, Todd Gordon and now his grandson.

Neil Sharp competed in crew chief races and a “couple of times” in the U.S. during the 1980s, but he never spent Saturday nights at Merrittville wishing that he was behind of a wheel that he either co-owned or sponsored.

“No, because I knew they could do better,” he recalled with a laugh.

“All my drivers always did a good job for me.”

Driving the race car during the week, when it was stored at a 10-acre grape orchard in Virgil, was another story.

“We had a farm and any time I wanted to I could take the car down Line 5, and that’s two miles.”

bfranke@postmedia.com