For the first time in the 14 year history of the event, the 50-Lap Rick Woolner Memorial Open-Wheel Modified event at the Varney Speedway Motorplex will be held under OSCAAR sanctioning to honour the late-modified driver. The 14th annual Rick Woolner Memorial race will run Saturday, August 11, 2012 at Varney with the regular drivers on the OSCAAR tour all scheduled to be in attendance. In anticipation of the event, the entire OSCAAR organization would like to reflect on the life and racing career of accomplished driver Rick Woolner.
Born February 4, 1953, Woolner began his racing career in 1983 in the street stock division, later upgrading to the sportsman/late model classes before becoming heavily involved in open-wheel modifieds. Throughout his career, Woolner raced all over Ontario and in the northeastern United States, amassing 55 feature wins and over 170 heat wins. However, Varney would always be Woolner’s home.
Starting out as car #88, Woolner switched to his infamous #08 and English-style numbers with the transition to his open-wheel modified.
For one season in 1994, Woolner piloted a late model in the NASCAR Pro Stock Division at Holland Speedway, NY. The following year, Woolner would begin a modified division at Sauble Speedway accompanied by long time crew chief Greg Gibson, now the crew chief for OSCAAR Modified regular Gary McLean. Woolner would dominate the season at Sauble, earning nine consecutive features at one point in the season.
In 1999 as the points leader of the Ontario Modifieds Association Thunder Series, Woolner’s health began to degrade in early June with what appeared to be symptoms of bronchitis. The diagnosis for the lifetime truck driver and smoker would later be upgraded to lung cancer. Woolner’s sister, Julia Stewart, recalled the end of what would be Rick’s final race.
“He basically fell out of the car. He couldn’t do it anymore. He just didn’t have the strength. That was the last time he was in the car,” said Stewart.
Woolner’s health began to deteriorate quickly, allowing him to visit the race track just once more in July before he would eventually succumb to the cancer on August 22, 1999. Although he would not live to see it, Gary McLean would emerge the champion of the Thunder Series, largely due to the lead Woolner had built.
McLean recalls that Woolner was both respected and feared on the race track, as he was never afraid to move another racer to gain a spot.
“The gruffest guy you’d ever want to meet. He’d give you a scowl that would melt ice from a distance,” said McLean. “You could guarantee that if somebody spun him, the next lap the guy was going up over the wall. It was just kind of the way he dealt with it. He would think nothing of it.”
Stewart acknowledged Woolner’s tougher side as well.
Said Stewart, “He was a really colourful driver. If you ticked him off, you knew you ticked him off. But, then he’d sit down and have a beer with you after. He’d do anything to help another driver.”
Although he was tough as nails on the track, McLean explained that Woolner certainly had a softer side.
“He was a pretty big-hearted guy, he just didn’t ever want to show it. After he passed, it got to be a pretty big deal this memorial race,” said McLean. “He liked to keep his distance, he liked to intimidate. Nothing was good enough, but winning. That’s just the way it was with him. They did quite well with that, they won a lot of races.”
McLean, who now pilots the same chassis driven by Woolner in his final modified seasons, tells of what he calls the ‘defining moment’ of his interactions with Woolner. A 1993 invitational modified race at Barrie Speedway saw the two paired against each other to battle at the front of the field. McLean, a newcomer to modified racing, held off Woolner for a number of laps without fear of being moved.
Said McLean, “Under caution he pulls up to the inside of me to give me the ‘look who’s behind you’ type of thing. I gave him a big grin and a thumbs up out the window. He gave me a rub and I just chuckled. That’s Rick for you.”
On the ensuing restart, Woolner drove hard in to turn one to get underneath McLean’s car. As a result Woolner broke the timing chain in the engine to end his night. Following the race, McLean recalled the situation in the pit area.
“The seas are parting because he’s got the look. He stands there giving me the look for about 30 seconds. Then he sticks his hand out and says ‘you did a good job kid, keep up the good work.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather right about then,” explained McLean. “To me that’s the defining moment of my dealings with Rick.”
McLean believes that event was at the top of the list of reasons Woolner asked McLean to complete the 1999 season for him.
“One of the reasons he called me, and I was probably too stupid of a kid back then to know any better, but I didn’t intimidate real well. He said that was something you had to have in a race car driver,” said McLean. “That two months he was sick enough not to be in his racecar and I was kind of in there for him, I came to understand the man a whole lot more.”
According to his sister, racing was always at the top of Woolner’s priority list and the family understood his commitment.
“Everybody knew in the family knew you couldn’t schedule any events, birthday parties, weddings, any events, and expect him to be there if it was going to be a race night. It was a known fact. He loved racing. He lived for his racing.”
McLean has won nine of the first 13 memorial events and is the only driver to win more than once. Other winners of the event include Jason McLellan, Pete Walker, Brian McLean, and Justin McLellan. Saturday, McLean will challenge for his 10th win in the event and his fifth OSCAAR victory of 2012.
“We’ll make it ten (wins). We circle this one on the calendar every year, mostly because Greg (Gibson) and Rick were best of friends. It’s a way to honour Rick and to thank him for putting me in that car and pairing me up with Greg. It’s been a pretty cool deal, it’s worked out really well for both of us,” said McLean. “Nothing but winning was good enough for him so we come loaded up for this one.”
McLean will have stiff competition from uncle Brian McLean, who also competed against Woolner.
Stewart explained that she is thankful for the dedication McLean and Gibson have shown to Woolner’s former car and continuing it’s excellence, as well as OSCAAR’s desire to help continue the tradition.
“It’s amazing that it has been carried on this long. I appreciate the dedication that Gary (McLean) and Greg (Gibson) and there pit crew put into that car to keep it going,” said Stewart. “I was surprised. The way it was explained to me, OSCAAR wants to make this the ‘Daytona (500)’ race for the Mods. I think it’s awesome.”
OSCAAR President Dave Gainforth expressed the gratitude of the entire OSCAAR organization to be a part of the storied event.
Said Gainforth, “It is a great honour for OSCAAR to carry on the 14 year tradition of the Rick Woolner Memorial race. This is the premier event for the modifieds as they honour one of Ontario’s all-time great modified drivers. OSCAAR looks to preserve the history and help build this race into a must see racing event in Ontario”.
“I think the OSCAAR thing is definitely a big deal because it’s going to bring new life. The guy was a great racer. It’s good to honour him that way,” added McLean.
The event itself has become a family affair for the Woolners. Stewart continues to maintain “The Rick Woolner Memorial Group” on Facebook, while Rick’s son John has previously flagged the annual memorial race. Stewart’s daughter, Tanya McDougall, the 2011 Varney Speedway street stock champion, has traditionally used her race car as the pace car for the event.
Woolner continues to be survived by his wife Gayle, sisters Julia and Sandra, brothers Mark, Mike, and Randy as well as daughter Connie and son John.
OSCAAR is excited and honored to have the 14th annual Rick Woolner Memorial apart of the inaugural OSCAAR Modifieds schedule. The 50-lap event goes Saturday, August 11 with racing set to begin at 7:00pm. The OSCAAR Modifieds will join the Four Cylinder, Street Stock, and Train divisions for a full card of racing.
By Clayton Johns (@cjohnsmedia
Past Rick Woolner Memorial Champions:
1999- Jason McLellan
2001- Gary McLean
2002- Gary McLean
2003- Peter Walker
2004- Gary McLean
2005- Gary McLean
2006- Brian McLean
2007- Justin McLellan
2088- Gary McLean
2009- Gary McLean
2010- Gary McLean
2011- Gary McLean
2012- Brent McLean
2013- Gary McLean
2014- Gary McLean