Kirkfield Park track — Leavitt had the track rebuilt so racing could be held rain or shine

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Under Sawin’s direction, an overall plan was conceived for the construction of the horse racing track at Kirkfield Park. By 1905, a stable to accommodate 30 horses had been built, while a mile course was laid out and covered by dirt.

With the death of Sawin (his first name was not given and sometimes his last name appeared as Sewin) in 1906, Charles W. Leavitt, who had been the engineer in charge of the new Belmont track, of Triple Crown fame, in New York, took over construction of the track.

“He, after a study of the soil in the vicinity, confirmed the selection of the site already chosen, and as Mr. (Rod) MacKenzie’s ideas coincided with his — that is, to have the best track money could procure, Mr. Leavitt had the work already done (under Sawin’s direction) almost entirely obliterated, and started to rebuild from the base up in such a manner as to secure a track always fit for racing, rain or shine, fast and springy, and easily kept in condition ...” (Winnipeg Tribune, May 29, 1908).

MacKenzie was the owner of the Kirkfield Park property.

Races at the new horse track began in the summer of 1907.

By 1908, the site was projected to eventually include a one-mile running track, a half-mile harness track, a mile steeplechase course with water jumps, a club house, grandstand and stables, although not all such facilities would be built.

In 1910, a statement by the Winnipeg Automobile Club, reported in the March 19, Free Press, indicated the race track was “exactly one mile in circumference and possesses beautifully banked ends of ample width, together with a finishing straight that is all the heart can desire.”

An article in the September 11, 1911 Free Press reported that a number of drivers had been out to inspect the track before an auto race was scheduled. “J. Carr, who will drive the Chalmers 30, was at the Kirkfield grounds for the first time last night, and was loud in his praise for Winnipeg’s mile track. He states that it is fully equal if not better than the Brighton Beach (Brooklyn in New York City) track where so many records have been made ...”

Photos of the track in the same newspaper on September 7, 1912, seem to show spectators crowded around the track, with some standing or seated in cars to view races. None of the photos indicate the presence of a grandstand.

In fact, according to an article about upcoming car races in the September 25, 1909, Free Press, “although the want of a grand stand will be felt by the crowd there is room enough for everybody to get a good view of the races.”

But in 1914, a grandstand was erected for a motorcycle championship meet. The Kirkfield Park track grandstand was 600 feet long and four tiers high, “which will do away with the discomfort of having to stand all the time,” according to the August 8, Manitoba Free Press.

Over the years, the race track had cost MacKenzie over $100,000 to construct.

A September 3, 1925, report in the same newspaper stated that the original track was built using “imported material, with the drainage over the full circumference and large concrete outlets at the extreme ends of the track ...

“Another bright feature is the width of the track. At no point is it less than 90 feet wide, which is twice that of River Park.”

When the Kirkfield track existed, horse and motor vehicle races were also held at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition grounds in the city’s North End and River Park in St. Vital.

Barney Oldfield actually made his first Winnipeg appearance on July 20, 1907, at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition grounds immediately north of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards. The next day, the Manitoba Morning Free Press reported that Oldfield had established a new Canadian mile record. “Oldfield’s exhibition mile clipped a second and a half off his Canadian record for half mile track (the exhibition grounds had a shorter track than Kirkfield Park), made at Toronto. His machine is not one which would commend itself to the ordinary automobilist, being merely a single tiny seat fixed on a framework which carries the tremendously powerful engine and wheels ... With a rolling start he made the half in 39 1/2 (39.5 seconds); the mile in 1.191/2 (one minute and 19.5 seconds); the one and a half in 1.58, and the two in 2.38.”

In order to pay Oldfield’s appearance fee, the organizers of the automobile exhibition charged — in addition to the 50-cent ticket to enter the grounds — an extra 50-cents to see the racing from the railing and another 25-cents for grandstand seating.

It was reported that the extra charges didn’t go over well with spectators, since they expected their exhibition grounds 50-cent entry ticket to provide admittance, as was the case for all other special events, but they did enjoy seeing Oldfield thunder down the track.

In its early years, the use of the Kirkfield track was divided between horse racing in the summer and motor racing in the fall. By 1907, the Winnipeg Automobile Club had a partial lease on the track. In North America, many communities had dirt horse racing tracks that were easily converted into automobile racing courses, since each already had some form of crowd control fencing or even a grandstand.

An article in the October 26, 1908, Winnipeg Tribune described the Kirkfield track as the best in North America for auto racing. “That the track, after the recent heavy rainfall, was in such splendid condition was due in no little measure to P. McDermott, the caretaker ... with him looking after it the sporting fraternity can always rely on the Kirkfield track being in the best of shape.”

Apparently, rain — at least in moderation — made the track better for races as wet conditions kept clouds of dust from forming and obscuring the view of both racers and spectators.

On race days, the track was “plowed, disced and harrowed before one of the big city steam rollers gives it the finishing touch ...,” according to a July 25, 1914, Free Press report.

Horse races at the Kirkfield track ended in 1912, according to later accounts, following MacKenzie’s failure to convince the city to take over the grounds for its annual industrial exhibition and his failure to have the Manitoba Jockey Club based at the track. But  1913 newspaper articles indicate the track was still being used to train race horses.

Overall, public enthusiasm for horse racing was being transferred to auto and motorcycle racing. The Kirkfield track soon afterward became primarily the domain of gasoline-powered machine races.

J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal in their book, American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed: “The (auto) races were easily promotable and accessible to anyone, as compared to the European racing by factory teams for the benefit of the aristocracy ... Oval tracks with controlled audiences made racing profitable for promoters and track operators ...

“The dirt ovals made the audience fans of the race rather than the cars, racing becoming more entertaining than technically interesting.”

But there is a mention in 1917 that the track was again used for horse racing. The August 1 Free Press of that year reported that a horse race meet was held by the Manitoba Jockey Club at the Kirkfield track, although it wasn’t too successful due to poor track conditions following a heavy rain. It seems this was the last time that the Kirkfield track was used for horse racing.

Oldfield and company arrived days before the 1912 event to prepare their racing cars. Fritsch told the press that car racing was a dangerous game, but held drivers in a “fascinating and magnetic spell” (Free Press, August 31, 1912).

Certainly, when Oldfield was involved, auto racing was extremely dangerous — not only for himself, but for spectators. By 1912, Oldfield had killed eight spectators crowding the fences around tracks when his vehicles were involved in spill-outs.

Fritsch rated Oldfield as “the best auto race driver that ever sent the ‘high powered boys’ as he calls them, thundering around a dirt track.”

Oldfield’s high-powered car developed such speed that Fritsch said that spectators had to hold their breath to contain their fear for the driver’s safety. He said spectators trembled in anticipation that he may fail to make a turn “where grim death is always staring and grinning.”

Of course, it was his role to hype the races to the ticket-buying public.

For race day, the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company set up special streetcar service, commencing at 12:30 p.m., “in addition to the ordinary Kirkfield Park, St. Charles and Headingly cars, all of which pass the entrance to the track” (Manitoba Free Press, August 31, 1912).

In addition, parking was provided for those who drove vehicles to the race track.

A special police force was also organized for the event to keep the track clear of over-eager spectators. Winnipeg Automobile Club manager A.C. Emmitt “draws attention to the danger incurred by anyone attempting to view the races from the bends on either end of the track. With enormously powerful cars that are racing in the big events there is always a possibility of a car leaving the track and should any crowd be gathered on the bend a serious fatality would result and spoil the meet.”

“Wild Bill” Fritsch also warned people to give the track curves a wide berth.

He said spectators encroaching on the fences around the two bends of the track were gambling with their lives. “It means a crash through the fence or turning turtle,” Fritsch told a Free Press reporter, “if the gods of Fortune are untrue to you, and while travelling at the terrific speed at which Barney drives his 300 horsepower Christies down the straightaways, I have seen him hit into turns at such tremendous bursts of speed that I felt that nothing would stop him if a tire blew at the time.”

Blown tires were common in early auto races, since the poor-quality rubber used had a tendency to peel off due to the friction generated, which weaken the integrity of tires. One writer described the tires as nothing more than oversized bicycle tires made of rubber compounds similar to those used in rubber bands or pencil erasers. Despite vulcanized, pneumatic rubber tires being available in the early 1900s, tire technology didn’t really catch up to the other developments in racing cars for several decades.

Obviously, spectators ignored such warnings, as newspaper photos from the era do show crowds at Kirkfield hugging the fence as cars or motorcycles roared by.

On Labour Day 1913, the danger of being too close to the fence were emphasized by a series of mishaps. On September 1, an audience of 3,500 people lined the fence for half of the track’s circuit, while the overflow sat in automobiles to watch the racing.

The Assiniboia municipal police, along with special constables hired for the day, were assigned to keep order.

The next day, the Free Press reported that two ragged and long holes in the race track fence were made by an “automobile, fit for nothing more than the junk heap, another one with the spokes of three wheels entirely gone and the fourth in a bad state of repair, two more cars with wrenched and twisted wheels and steering gear: one man (a racer) ... lying on a bed of pain at St. Boniface hospital; another one ... nursing serious burns to his left arm ...”

The Tribune reported that a total of 120 metres of fencing had been demolished by automobile crashs.

(Next week: part 3)