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Craig Fisher, 82: Canadian drove for Penske, finished first and second in same race

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Photo Caption: In a publicity photo taken at Nathan Philips Square back in the 1960s, Craig Fisher sits behind the wheel of a Comstock Racing Team Ford Mustang with Eppie Wietzes on the far side of the car. Courtesy, John Wright

Story filed by Norris McDonald, with additional information supplied by Jeremy Sale of Toronto and an interview conducted by John Wright of Kitchener.

Craig Fisher, a Canadian racing driver of note in the 1960s, has died at age 82.

For a time, Fisher was one of the top sedan racers in North America, winning several CASC and SCCA class and overall championships. A former member of the legendary Canadian Comstock Racing Team, Fisher – with co-driver Mark Donohue – became the first Canadian to win a Trans-Am Series race at Marlboro Speedway in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year.

Driving a Roger Penske-prepared Camaro, Fisher and Donohue scored a class win in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1968, finishing third overall. Remarkably, Fisher co-drove a second Penske entry with two other drivers to second place in class (fourth overall).

As well as being one of the few drivers – possibly the only one – to finish first and second in class in the same race, Fisher was also the first driver to score Trans-Am points for both the Chevrolet and Pontiac divisions of General Motors.

Fisher drove everything, from Chevrolets, Abarth-Simcas, Pontiacs, Sunbeams, DKWs, Fiat-Abarths, Shelby cars and Mazdas to Lolas, Fords and Ferraris.

In 1964 he really got going in the sport by driving a Sunbeam Alpine for Rootes Motors, competing with teammate – and future fellow inductee of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame – Eppie Wietzes. In 1966 he was a co-driver with Wietzes at Sebring in the Comstock Racing Team’s GT40. The team withdrew from the race after an accident in the sister GT40 claimed the life of Vancouver driver Bob McLean.

Later that year, Fisher started racing a Trans-Am Camaro for Terry Godsall out of Gorries Chevrolet-Olds in Toronto. The car was race-prepped at Gorries by the late Doug Duncan for Fisher to drive in the 1967 Daytona Trans-Am, which was held as part of the 24-hour race. Fisher brought the car home second.

His success and talent attracted the attention of Roger Penske, who teamed him with Donohue later in ’67 to win at Marlboro. He finished the season sixth in points. The following season, he was fourth in points.

His professional career started to wind down after this, although he drove Fiat-Abarths for American racer Al Cosentino’s team for several years, frequently showing up bigger cars with more horsepower.

Gary Magwood, a champion race-driver of that era, driving school owner and instructor and a former Toronto Star Wheels columnist, has fond memories of Fisher.

“Craig was an awesome talent behind the wheel,” Magwood said. “He never looked in a hurry, yet would quickly be lapping at record speeds. H was a shy and quiet gentleman who, on a few occasions, could let his mask slip and party hardy.

“He was an invaluable resource for me when I was developing the Labatt Road Scholarship back in the late 80s and one of my most valuable instructors when I started up DrivAbility.

Craig arrived just as racing drivers had to be “media savvy” as well as fast. Think Jim Clark and his contemporaries … win the race, wave from the podium and head for a cold beer without having to answer a bunch of superfluous questions.

“He was also an amazing instructor and provided me with a huge amount of input…”

Several years ago, Fisher sat down for an interview with John Wright. Here is an edited version of their conversation:

In the early days of his racing career, Craig Fisher raced just about everything he could get his hands on, from used DKW Monzas at Harewood Acres to Abarth Simcas at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant to the Ferocious Comstock EXP at Mosport. He also raced at tracks across the USA and in the U.K.

JOHN WRIGHT: Where were you born?

CRAIG FISHER: I was born in Edmonton in 1936 and my father (who was a coal miner’s son and an Oxford scholar) was an English professor and taught at Emmanuel College, Victoria University, at the University of Toronto.  Before the Second World War started, he volunteered to go into the army and he became an artillery captain – in the 8th Army, I believe. I was really raised by my mother and my grandmother. I was sent to Upper Canada College at my grandmother’s insistence but when my father came back from overseas he put a stop to that and I went to a public school.

WRIGHT: You and formal education were not on friendly terms.

FISHER: I would prefer to say I lacked motivation.  In my Grade 9 year, my father passed away. He was only 43! I did Grade 13 twice but in my second year in Grade 13 I got high marks and went into Engineering Physics at the University of Toronto.

WRIGHT: You soon found the real world of work. Where did you first work and how did where you work make racing attractive to you?

FISHER:  I guess you could blame my lack of university fees and my uncle for that as he was always giving me these English car magazines like Autocar and The Motor and I would put them inside my school texts and read them when I was supposed to be studying something like history. At any rate, I went to work for Werner Ornstein who owned British Motors Canada Ltd. He was also the DKW importer. He was Austrian and had a temper. He had been a Jewish tank commander during the war and he became my substitute father.

I started by washing cars and then I went to Mechanics Trade School and got my MVRA, an  inter-provincial mechanic’s licence.  One instructor was Keith Douglas and he was tough on us. By the way, I drove for him when I drove for Comstock; he turned out to be a really nice guy. In trade school , he was very tough. I got my Interprovincial License and then Ornstein had me train the dealers in the DKW dealerships.

WRIGHT: What were your duties in training the dealers?

FISHER:  I would go way up north to some place like Ansonville, Ont., where even the phone lines ended, or to Fred’s Car Sales in Belleville to train dealers in servicing DKWs. There were some pretty raunchy dealers; colourful gents.

WRIGHT:  So then, let’s get racing. Your first race-track car was a street DKW, obviously, as in Canada,  just about anything with an engine was being raced in those days.

FISHER: That’s right. I started out doing gymkhanas, hill climbs, rallies and an old-time version of what is now called  “Time Attack.”  I used a Morris Minor, a Jowett Javelin and eventually DKWs and Abarths.  I bought a used DKW and raced it at Harewood Acres, a track west of Toronto and Hamilton.

WRIGHT: What was your next car?

FISHER: I bought a DKW Monza. It looked like a mini 300SL and was a fibreglass plastic bodied sports car. I raced it at Green Acres (a track on the shores of Lake Huron) and through Quebec. Eventually I raced the Rootes Alpine against the privateer Alpine of Eppie Wietzes.  You know it didn’t hurt that I spoke German at Ornstein’s as I had studied German in high school. I sure picked it up fast at Ornstein’s shop because no one would speak English to me in the workshop.

WRIGHT: I would like to know about the 1962 Pontiac Catalina you raced and your races against Bill Brack in the Mini Cooper S. There were so many others in the “Mini Battalion” – Grant Clark, Gord Brown and Brack, to name but three.

FISHER:  If the stars and gods had aligned I would have gone from the ex-Denny Coad Rootes Alpine to the Miss Whiz Lola of Francis Bradley and maybe even to a Lotus 19 like the one Stirling Moss raced. Next I raced my own new 1961 red Jaguar 3.8 Mark Two with wire wheels and whitewalls which I had purchased through Jim and Alice Fergusson who also sponsored Ed Leavens.

 

The 1962 Pontiac came about through Terry Godsall and the boys. This car was an American ‘wide track’  Pontiac, which had a 400 series HO Pontiac engine and four speed and it was prepared well although it suffered from oil cavitation problems. It won several overall placings, much to the astonishment of the establishment. They were astonished that the big Detroit iron could go around a track like Mosport or Green Acres.  That Catalina had chains on the hood and capped sewer pipes for side exhausts.

Paul Kitchener (left) and the late Craig Fisher.

By the way, I was always chased around the track by a horde of Minis and in later events by a Pontiac GTO! We were faster on the ‘Big Bore’ straights but highly modified Minis like Bill Brack’s were faster in the corners!  We became known in the motoring press as ‘David and Goliath.’

Next, I raced a 1957 Chevrolet prepared by Henry Pitts for Terry Godsall on local tracks like Le Circuit and Mosport.   Incidentally that car led me to a greater hook up with Terry Godsall’s venture into the Trans-Am.  I also raced a used Abarth-Simca 1300 prepared by Luciano Vidotti and ‘very gently’ sponsored by Ornstein for whom I worked.

That Abarth Simca was the first car I ever trailered.  I always had great glee catching the rich drivers in Ferraris in that car.  Then, when I was asked to drive for Comstock, I was offered a  drive in the Comstock EXP and being young and stupid I said yes.

WRIGHT: The Comstock EXP followed up the Mark V Comstock Sadlers which were mid-engined but the EXP was a front engined special. Tell us about driving that car.

FISHER: It would tend to break the rear tie rods quite often. It was either because of bump steer or the tie rods were overstressed.  An odd feature of that car was that it had ‘front-end components’ at both ends.

WRIGHT: Chuck Rathgeb was the larger-than-life boss of Comstock and had a volatile temper but he was also a tremendous organizer. Is that how you saw him?

FISHER: I don’t remember the temper but he was used to doing things efficiently.  His favourite expression was ‘Pissy Ass’d’  this, ‘Pissy Ass’d’  that. He could put things together, there’s no doubt. When I joined the team along with Eppie Wietzes, Paul Cook, the team manager, said we had our choice of cars. Eppie got the Cobra and a Shelby Mustang and I got a notch back Mustang and a homemade Shelby GT350.

WRIGHT: You told me that you got into trouble in one of your first races for the Canadian Comstock Racing Team at Harewood Acres. Tell me about that.
FISHER:  I got into trouble, that’s right, because I passed Eppie at Harewood. I knew nothing of what is now called ‘team orders.’

WRIGHT: Tell me about Sebring in 1965.
FISHER: Chuck Rathgeb – and probably Ford of Canada – decided to go to Sebring and Ford gave him one GT40 for Eppie and me and the other came from Ford Advanced Vehicles in England. It was to be driven by Bob McLean and Quebecer Jean Ouelllet. We went down to test. But, it was pouring rain!  Corner One, you would fill up with water and at by the end of the lap it had drained out, only to fill up again! During the race it was treacherous. Eppie and I were in one car and Jean Ouellet and Bob McLean were in the other GT40.  Bob had been racing Gorries Cars and in the race, Bob went off the track and was killed just like that. There is a photo of the car in flames leaping in the air, shedding parts all over the place.

WRIGHT: After that tragic event, how did you hook up with Roger Penske and Mark Donohue?

FISHER: Well, there was the Godsall connection. I guess you could say that it seemed Roger and Terry were as thick as thieves at times.  For example, when Roger needed four Webers for his Grand Sport Corvette, Godsall gave them to him. The negotiations were all quite complex and it depended on connections, to be frank. However, Roger grew to like me because I was quick and not hard on the equipment.
WRIGHT: Roger Penske is a motivator of his team members.
FISHER: Well, he used me as a ‘foil’ for Mark. He would pit us one against the other. At Marlboro for example, Roger asked Mark,” Why is the ‘Fish’ faster through such and such a corner? Pick it up” Of course this had the desired effect! It was never turned the other way.

WRIGHT: Can you describe some of the other drivers you drove against and with? For example you moved to Pontiac and were partnered with Jerry Titus.
FISHER: Did you know that Jerry was a trumpet player in New York City way back when?  I stayed at his home in California for a time, but I could tell he didn’t exactly approve of me and that was okay because I didn’t exactly approve of myself. I have to say that I doubted my abilities at times.  He also did some stunt driving in Hollywood films and eventually he drove a McLaren Mk 6 in the Can-Am. That was a car I hoped I would get but it didn’t happen.

WRIGHT: In closing, you have a recipe for a fast lap at Mosport. Can you go into some detail for getting a fast lap there?

FISHER: Well, I won’t go over the entire track but we’ll focus on a couple of corners. You know the turns that collect the most drivers are Two and also Four because it’s a version of Two. My recipe is attack ‘Two’ two thirds from the left – approaching the bridge and turn in earlier. I call it into the ditch; jump off the cliff and stare at Corner Three – aiming with advanced eyes and accelerate without fear.  Stock car people will tell you that ‘the gas is your friend’, and so get on the gas . . .

 

 

 

 

 

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