When the Eagle Motorplex in Ashcroft kick started its drag racing season on the May 2-3 weekend of this year, it resulted in a reunion of sorts — with a nice Nicola Valley connection.
Veteran racer and retired high school teacher Al Mackay-Smith of Merritt was there, as were no fewer than six of his former students — all graduates of Merritt Secondary School and most of the MSS drag racing program that Mackay-Smith was the ‘driving force’ behind for over a dozen years.
Coincidentally, five of the six Merritt grads on hand in Ashcroft were there to race motorbikes. Mackay-Smith’s son, Matt, was one of those present, and he won the very first race of the new season on Saturday.
Matt, 29, first began putting the pedal to the metal in a motorized vehicle at the tender age of eight and has never looked back. Motorbikes have become a more recent passion.
“I’ve been racing bikes for seven years now,” he said. “I like it a lot.”
With his wife, Nicole, expecting in mid-August, Matt plans to stay local this racing season, and focus on NHRA events throughout the summer at the Ashcroft venue. In the past, he’s also raced on the all-bike CMDRA circuit throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Mackay-Smith has added a traveling and racing partner in fellow Merrittonian Brad Gillis.
While Gillis, 29, never actually raced in the high school drag racing program during his years at MSS, he was one of many students who ‘hung around’ — getting involved with the cars and their motors.
Gillis is currently more well-known as a local stock car racing star who followed in his father’s footsteps at the Merritt Speedway.
“I just started up with bikes at the end of last season,” Gillis said. “Now I’m pretty committed to both. I’m currently building another stock car for the hobby class, and another bike.”
Gillis likes both forms of racing, even though they differ greatly.
“With the stock cars, no matter where you place in any given race, you still get to take part in the next race. In drag racing, you have to win in each round to continue. You have to be extremely consistent. I like the difference.”
A second-place finisher to his teammate Mackay-Smith on Saturday in Ashcroft, Gillis also plans to focus on the drag racing schedule in Ashcroft, and possibly Mission.
“With the stock car schedule as well, I don’t have time for too much else. I’m racing almost every weekend.”
While staying close to home is somewhat of a priority for Gillis and Mackay-Smith, such is not the case for a pair of former Merritt Secondary grads who now call Alberta home.
Dale and Derek Rose (not related) made the long journey from Sherwood Park (outside Edmonton) and Strathmore respectively to be in Ashcroft and race their bikes.
Despite living three hours apart, Dale, 28, and Derek, 26, have formed a partnership called Phoenix Racing, and will be doing the CMDRA series this summer. It will take them as far east as Grand Bend, Ontario.
Dale has been racing for three seasons now, while Derek is a rookie.
“I was up in Edmonton visiting and got talking to Dale,” Derek said. “He was racing his bike at the Castrol Speedway there. He gave me the offer to run his old bike and here we are.”
Interestingly, the motor in Derek’s bike, a modified Kawasaki KZ1100, is the very same one that was in a rail car once owned by Al Mackay-Smith and Rob MacDonald in Merritt and used extensively in the high school drag racing program back in the day.
“It’s all a big learning curve for me,” said Derek, who has been drag racing cars since his seventh-grade year at Coquihalla Middle School. “I have Dale to thank for getting me started with the bikes.
“I thought it was pretty cool that Al and Matt and Adam MacDonald (Rob’s son) were all there in Ashcroft when I did my first race. They were all an important part of me getting started racing years ago.”
Dale, who never did actually race back in his high school days but was always helping out with the cars and at the track, has enjoyed considerable success since taking up bike racing. In his first season of CMDRA two years ago, he finished third in the points standings; last year, he moved up to second. It goes without saying what he has his sights set on this season.
“[Derek and I] will attend all the CMDRA races this season, and picking up a few NHRA and IHRA events along the way.”
Rounding out the field of former MSS students racing in Ashcroft is Eagleplex-regular Tyler Tingle, who now lives in Kamloops. Tingle’s story is as inspirational as it gets. Wheelchair-bound ever since a tragic accident in his teens, Tingle enjoys considerable success racing a snowmobile in the ‘snow-bike’ class.
All six racing buddies will probably be back in Ashcroft on the August 22-23 weekend for the High Desert Nationals.
You can bet that Al Mackay-Smith will be there, too, with a smile at least a quarter-mile wide.