Toronto residents are lucky to have three road courses (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Toronto Motorsports Park and Shannonville Motorsports Park) within a 90 minute drive of the city. There’s also the ovals such as Sunset Speedway and Varney Speedway among others. Within Toronto, there’s only 3 days of racing when the Honda Indy rolls into Exhibition Place in July. But it didn’t always used to be that way. Decades before the Molson Indy was even an idea, there was plenty of racing at the old Exhibition Stadium, which was located near Turn 4 of the street circuit at Exhibition Place.
BMO Field, which opened in 2007, is actually the fifth stadiums built at Exhibition Place, Structures to hold sporting events were built in 1878, 1895 and 1907, but all were destroyed by fire. In their time, each of the Exhibition Stadiums hosted races. Finally the CNE Grandstand (also called Exhibition Stadium) was built out of concrete in 1948.and became home to short track oval racing in Toronto.
In 1952, a 1/3-mile paved oval was inserted into Exhibition Stadium and a ‘golden era’ of motor racing at Exhibition Stadium began. The Exhibition Stock Car Racing Association raced on Tuesday and Friday nights. Admission was $1.00 for adults and $0.50 for children, and big crowds meant big payouts, as the race purse was a percentage of tickets sold. Races ran rain or shine, as the large, covered grandstand providing an elevated viewpoint. Races were popular too! 7,981 fans showed up on a rainy opening night on April 22 1952 with crowd size peaking later in the year when 19,616 race fans showed up on July 1 1952 for a pair of 50 lap races.
The stock cars remained popular throughout the 1950s and the drivers became heroes. Then in 1958 came the event that saw it claim a slice of NASAR history, when the Grand National Series rolled into town. Among the starters was a 21-year-old Richard Petty, making his main series debut. He ran well until being given the ‘chrome horn’ by his own father, Lee Petty, who went on to win the race.
Exhibition Stadium contracted the Argonauts to play home football games in the stadium starting ini 1959. Construction on the stadium to allow space for a football field changed the track configuration, reducing it from a one-third oval to a quarter-mile oval, and much narrower only 28 feet wide, but on a positive note, the wooden barrier around the track was replaced with a steel guardrail. For nearly a decade, racing and football shared the stadium.
But, NASCAR never returned, and attendance at the weekly races declined. In 1966, complaints from the Argonauts that their field was being damaged by race cars finally got the racers kicked out. The oval track was paved and used for track and field after the poorly attended 1967 season. It would be 24 years until oval track racing returned to Exhibition Stadium.
In 1989, the SkyDome opened and the Blue Jays and Argonauts abandoned Exhibition Stadium for the snazzy new dome. The CNE stakeholders needed regular events to fill up Exhibition Stadium, and in 1990 launched a racing series to provide that steady stream of revenue. Exhibition Stadium already had a covered grandstand, instant-replay scoreboard, and was public transit accessible in the middle of a the city of 2,000,000; the “Bud Stocks” should have been a slam dunk.
Regular racing on Thursday nights (Late Models) and Sunday afternoons (Midgets) were scheduled to run rain or shine in the tradition of the earlier CNE racing, but it was not possible due to the speed of race cars. Although the racing was good, promoters did little advertising and only 3,000 to 6,000 fans showed up for most races. Nearby Parkdale residents began complaining about racing noise and increased traffic, but the lack of attendance at the races spelled the end of racing in Toronto. Exhibition Stadium was demolished in 1999 and stock car racing at the CNE was dead again.