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Western Speedway fueled lifelong dream of Langford track legend Andy Cottyn

‘I have experiences that money can’t buy,’ Cottyn would have done it all again in a heartbeat
Taking down the bleachers board by board is Andy Cottyn, who built the wooden structure at Western Speedway. (Photo submitted)

After the closing of the Langford and Shearing speedways, Andy Cottyn decided he needed to look for some land where he could build a race track to provide for local auto racing enthusiasts. His own interest in auto racing spanned back to the 1930s when he worked at the old Langford Speedway as a lap recorder.

In the fall of 1952, the entrepreneur set out to look for land and bought a 62-acre site on Millstream Road for $12,000. With no money, he sold his logging equipment, got a loan from the bank, and a loan from his brother George to help start his dream. He sunk every penny he had into the track and he and his son George cleared 30 acres of land for the future site of the speedway.

That time was financially tough for Cottyn, he worked in the bush through the winter months to pay the bills, put food on the table, and pay taxes.

Speaking with the Goldstream Gazette in March 1998, Cottyn recalled when people used to come around asking him what he was doing on the site. He simply told them he was building a race track. This was before the days when there were any regional district, municipality, or building regulations.

Cottyn wasn’t quite sure how to go about building a speedway, so he began by touring other speedways in the United States to see if he could bring home some good ideas – which he did. The original speedway was dirt and measured a large 3/8 of a mile.

Construction on the original grandstands, which had a seating capacity of 3,500, began in January 1954. Cottyn then began working on the concessions, the tack’s retaining walls, and parking area. At the time, paving the track was out of the question because of his limited budget.

Looking back at the name of the speedway, which was originally going to be called the Cottyn Bowl, he decided because of all the dust the dirt track would create, people would end up calling it Cottyn’s Dust Bowl. He settled on Western Speedway, which turned out to be quite fitting for the area.

The big day came on May 22, 1954, when Western Speedway opened its doors for the first time. It was a Big Car race (sprinters), with almost 3,000 cheering fans looking on. Opening night was a panic, at least that’s how Cottyn recalled in the 1998 interview with the Gazette. While he was installing the last set of lights, Bob Simpson, a top sprint car racer at that time, went whirling by him on the track during time trials.

Top drivers from Greater Victoria and the United States were on hand for that first race including Simpson, Del Fanning, Jack Spaulding, Dave Cooper, Ron Douglas, Ray Pottinger, Digger Caldwell, and Bill Heller. The track record was set at 2:30 by Simpson, who finished second in the main event behind winner Fanning. Cooper became the first stock car champion at season’s end, an honour he was to capture four of the first five years of the speedway’s operation. Competing in the stock car class that first year were Billy Foster, Digger O’Dell, Gerry Sylvester, and Dick Willoughby, to name a few.

Foster began his racing career at Western Speedway, winning many of the big races in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before going on to Indy fame.

Some of the other local drivers who got their starts at Western Speedway in the early ’50s were Jim Steen and Bill “Bullit” Smith.

The types of cars that raced in the early days of the speedway were quite different from what is seen on the track today. The speedway had both sprint cars – which were Indy-type racing cars constructed from the ground up – and stock cars such as 1932, 1933, and 1935 Ford coupes with the fenders chopped off and racing on the street tires.

In comparison to today’s standards of a race car, some of the early cars were quite primitive in design and lacked roll bars and other safety equipment. Even so, the cars were raced at nearly 80 miles an hour and remarkably, drivers were able to walk away from most crashes without serious injury.

Races with female drivers competing in “Powder Puff” derbies were occasionally held, although it would be years before women would be allowed to race in regular competition at Western Speedway.

In 1957, Cottyn had the track paved, constructing a flat oval with the size reduced to 4/10 of a mile, as it is today.

Although Cottyn never raced cars, he had the chance to run a novelty race once with track announcer, Bing Foster, in borrowed cars. He admitted once that he was so far ahead of Foster that he slowed up and waited for him. Cottyn recounted in 1998, but “Foster ended up beating me.”

Western Speedway was successful and well respected for the 12-year duration Cottyn owned it and in 1961, the Daffodil Cup was instituted, bringing the distinction that Western Speedway was a top-notch track.

By 1964, a complete change was seen in the types of cars that raced at Western Speedway. The open-wheeled, chopped down stock cars were replaced with models that resembled street cars. This brought on more participation, drivers, cars and more spectators.

Cottyn decided to sell in August 1966. Selling to a group of local businessmen and racing enthusiasts, it then became known as Western Speedway 1966. President of the new company was Geoff Vantrieght with Reg Midgley as vice president, secretary Ron Mayell, and a board of directors including Grant King, Tony Mortel, Frank Willie, Bob Vantreight, Jim Johnstone, Peter Mortel, Cliff Horwood, and the Vancouver Island Track Racing Association. Cottyn retained shares and continued to be involved by sitting on the board of directors from 1966 until the mid-’90s.

In the late 1970s, Cottyn played a major role in the building of the new steel and cement grandstands, which still remain today. At the time, the project cost $250,000, making it one of the most ambitious privately financed undertakings in Vancouver Island sports history. The grandstands were dedicated to Cottyn during an opening race of the Langford oval in 1979.

But there were a few speedbumps along the way. Vancouver Island Track Racing Association (VITRA) was the sole sanctioning body for Western Speedway from 1954 to 1991, except for a short period during the ’60s.

In 1966, a rift flared up between VITRA and the speedway management and when the differences couldn’t be resolved, VITRA chose to run their shows for the year at Grandview Bowl in Nanaimo. This resulted in the formation of a new association to race at Western Speedway. Called the Victoria Auto Racing Association (VARA), it had 54 cars registered by mid-season. By the fall of 1966, VITRA, wary of making the long trek over the Malahat to race in Nanaimo, had returned to Western Speedway. Subsequently, VITRA and VARA became co-sanctioning bodies until 1970 when both clubs merged as VITRA.

Inducted into the Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame during its inaugural ceremonies in September 1984, Cottyn is known for leaving his mark on Greater Victoria and the West Shore communities. In September 1998, Cottyn died at age 92. He is remembered for giving far more to the sport of auto racing than he ever took. When asked by the Gazette in 1998 if he would have still built Western Speedway, if he had the chance to do it all over again, he replied, “Oh hell yes. I wouldn’t change my life. I have experiences that money can’t buy.”

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About the Author: Goldstream News Gazette Staff

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