Featured Story Motorsport

‘Superstar’ Canadian racing champion Eppie Wietzes dead at 82

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

It was July 1, 1970, Canada Day, and Eppie Wietzes was suited up and strapped into his McLaren M10B-Chev V8 Formula A racing car, ready to start (from pole, natch) the fourth round of the Gulf Canada Road Racing Championship taking place on a course at Rockcliffe Airport near Ottawa when the Governor-General of Canada walked up and asked if he’d mind getting out so he could get in.

“I didn’t know who the guy was, to be honest,” Wietzes, who died of congestive heart failure Tuesday night at age 82, told me years later when we were visiting at his family’s since-sold Toyota dealership in Toronto. “But he looked important. Then a guy who looked like some kind of a general leaned over and said, ‘It’s Roland Michener, the Governor-General, and he’d like to see what it’s like inside your car. Would you mind?’ And I thought, ‘Well, if he really is the Governor-General, I guess I’d be okay with that. He’d be holding up the race (there were 25,000 people there), but . . . “

Michener was an affable fellow and asked questions and Eppie answered them, pointing out this and that, and finally his Excellency was satisfied and got out. “We shook hands and they took a picture – he had quite a few people around him – and then I got back into the car and I won the race. I couldn’t lose it after that buildup!”

Eppie Wietzes (left) and Bill Brack bring the field down for a start at the Westwood racing circuit outside Vancouver in the 1960s.

Eppie, real name Egbert, Wietzes came to Canada with his family from Holland in 1950 when he was 12. His father, Jan, opened an automobile-repair shop that eventually became a dealership and, beginning with Morris Minors and Sunbeam Alpines, Eppie started a racing career at age 20 that eventually included sports cars (GT40s and King Cobras with the famous Comstock Racing Team of the 1960s and a Trans-Am Series championship in a Chevrolet Corvette), and open wheel cars (two Canadian Driving Championships in Formula A cars, SCCA Formula 5000 and two starts in Formula One). He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993.

Paul Cooke, who ran racing in Canada until the end of 2019 as president of ASN Canada  FIA, knew Wietzes for 65 years. They knew of each other but it was only after Cooke went to work for the Wietzes family garage that they really got involved in racing together. Cooke became his mechanic before being hired by Comstock to be manager of the racing team that Eppie eventually co-anchored.

In fact, it was Cooke who convinced Comstock team owner Charles (Chuck) Rathgeb Jr. to take Wietzes on as a driver. And it wasn’t because they were friends; Cooke – who’s been around – rates Wietzes, F1 pilot Gilles Villeneuve and sports-car star Ron Fellows as the finest race drivers ever to come out of Canada. “Eppie could drive anything,” Cooke told me Thursday. “He had one of those natural talents for that sort of thing. Ron Fellows has that kind of ability too. Eppie, like Ron, was very humble, he was very helpful to people, a very giving person. He didn’t judge people. I would rank Eppie as one of the first heroes of Canadian motorsport, alongside Gilles Villeneuve. They were very similar people. Similar passions and an absolutely similar driving style. They couldn’t drive a racing car without crossing their arms. When did you ever see Villeneuve drive a car in a straight line when he didn’t have to? Eppie was totally reliable. He could race the car as hard as was needed without ever hurting the car. Now look, Ron raced Trans-Am. Ron was a multiple Trans-Am champion – but so was Eppie a champion. If you’re going to be a Trans-Am champion, you know what you’re doing. That’s a tough crowd. To be a champion in that league is a major accomplishment.”

On the Comstock team, Wietzes drove a Mustang alongside Ken Miles (made available by special arrangement with Carrol Shelby) and in 1963 they won 13 races and 35 class victories, dominating everything around them. Eppie’s biggest win that year was the Canadian Grand Prix for sports cars while Miles was second.

The next year, 1964, saw Eppie suffer his one and only serious injury. Cooke said Comstock had arranged to buy two Shelby King Cobra racing cars and had arranged to pick them up in Seattle before taking them to the Westwood racing circuit near Vancouver, scene of the first Canadian championship race. Westwood, which is now a housing development, was a hilly, twisty circuit that featured one particularly challenging corner called Deer’s Leap. The track went almost straight up and then, on the other side, veered to the left. It truly was a blind turn.

Eppie Wietzes had one bad crash in his career, at Westwood in British Columbia in 1964 when he flew off the track, breaking his leg. It took marshals and organizers two hours to find him in the forest.

According to Ralph Luciw, a racer, race organizer and a friend of Eppie’s for many years, Wietzes went out in the unfamiliar King Cobra and was really on it as he flew toward Deer’s Leap. He also was alone on the track. “Eppie got to the top of the hill and flew – literally flew – straight off and deep into the forest,” said Luciw. “When he didn’t come around, the marshals and eventually the whole Comstock team and just about everybody else who was there that day went to look for him and it took them two hours to find him. They were looking where a car would have gone off to the left but he’d flown off straight ahead and landed deep in the forest. He broke his leg and his season was over right then and there.”

But he was back in the saddle in 1965 and from then until the end of 1967, when Ford pulled out of racing in Canada, Wietzes and Comstock (Ludwig Heimrath Sr. was also a team driver) kept on winning, first with the King Cobras and then the GT40s. After a year of inactivity in 1968 (Rathgeb had no option but to close down the Comstock team when Ford left), he started racing in the Formula A Series sponsored by Gulf Canada in 1969 and in two years won two Canadian championships. He then spent six years in the SCCA Formula 5000 Series in the United States, driving a number of different McLarens and Lolas, with support from Castrol and a Toronto couple, Jim and Joan Clayton, winning just one race but always finishing near the top.

 

Retired Toronto motorsports writer Dan Proudfoot said, after learning of Eppie’s death, that he always felt the F5000 years were Wietzes’ finest. “Mario Andretti and Brian Redmond were winning championships and Eppie was always Top Five. Pretty good company,” Proudfoot said.

Canadian racing champion Scott Maxwell, the first Canadian (with fellow countrymen Greg Wilkins and John Graham) to win a class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, agreed. “He was our guy, our Canadian guy,” in the Sixties and early 70s but particularly the F5000 years, Maxwell said. “There was Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Brian Redmond and then the next guy in line was Eppie Wietzes. He was almost there, not quite in the lead but often ahead of some very, very big names. I mean, we had Bill Brack and George Eaton and all the mega Formula Ford stars coming up, including Gilles (Villeneuve), but at that point in time, he was the Canadian star. He did a couple of Formula One races; I still think that 1974 Grand Prix when he drove the Brabham in Canadian flag-Labatt 50 colours was one of the best-looking racing cars I’ve ever seen. The car wasn’t all that hot mechanically but it looked really good.

“I was 10 or 11 and I ran the old scoreboard at the top of the tower inside Corner 10 for that ’74 Grand Prix and I watched Eppie drive every lap in the car because it was gorgeous. They had 80,000 at that race and they’d all come to see him because he was our superstar. I got to be good friends with his son, Mike, in the 1980s. We were racing Formula Vees and I’d go, ‘Holy cow, your dad is Eppie Wietzes,’ and he’d roll his eyes because to him Eppie was just his dad. But for me, that was super cool. Eppie was a legend because when he was on his game, and we didn’t have a lot of guys at the international level in those days, he was among the best in the sport. He held the flag up high for Canada.”

Comstock team owner Chuck Rathgeb and team manager Paul Cooke made arrangements with Team Lotus owner Colin Chapman for Wietzes to drive a third Lotus in the first F1 Grand Prix du Canada in 1967.

While Maxwell mentioned that 1974 Grand Prix, the one many people remember with fondness was the first Formula One Grand Prix of Canada held at Mosport in August, 1967. Ford, which sponsored the Comstock team, and Imperial Tobacco, the sponsor, wanted a Canadian in the race, so Comstock owner Rathgeb and Paul Cooke, who knew Team Lotus owner Colin Chapman, arranged to rent the team’s spare car for Wietzes. Eppie made his F1 debut alongside three-time world champion Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill, who eventually won two, and while Clark was friendly and helpful, Hill was cool and standoffish.

“To that point in my career, I had never raced an open-wheel car,” Eppie told me in conversation one time when the late Len Coates and I sat down with him for coffee. “So I was at Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and I’m almost lying flat down in this car and those great big front tires in front of me are going ba-lub, ba-lub and I’m thinking this is sure different from what I’m used to, which is sitting up behind the steering wheel and not even seeing the front tires.”

The day was miserable. There were 55,000 people there and just before the start it began to pour. At half distance, or so, it started to clear up and Clark, who was back in the pack, suddenly got the bit in his teeth and looked like he was going to win. He was in the lead when it started to teem again and he eventually had to drop out with a wet ignition. Two other drivers, Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert, also had ignition difficulties and Siffert, in fact, didn’t even start because his spark plugs were too wet.

During one of our visits, Eppie got a kick out of telling me what happened during the race when a spectator came to both his and Clark’s aid.

“After it started raining again, toward the end of the race, Clark’s engine conked out at Moss (Corner – Turn 5 at Mosport). Communications weren’t that good in those days and nobody (in authority) knew. I think the marshals down there were busy watching the race because nobody reported what happened. Anyway, Clark was out of the car and looking at the engine when a guy climbed over the fence and took off his shirt and gave it to him so that Jimmy could dry off the plugs and get going. And that’s what happened.

“Two laps later, my engine stopped at just about the same place. So I got out of the car and I was standing there and this guy came running up and gave me his T-shirt and told me to dry off the plugs and the engine would start. I thought the guy was a nut. I said, ‘How do you know?’ And the guy said, ‘I gave my shirt to the other guy and it worked for him so you should try.’ I said, ‘What other guy?’ He said, ‘Clark.’ So that was good enough for me. I did what he said and the engine started and away I went. But then the engine stopped again, this time in front of the pits, and the Lotus mechanics came on the track and gave me a push and so afterward I was disqualified for outside interference. Nobody said anything, not even me, but Clark could have been disqualified too.”

Eppie Wietzes sits in the pits in his Lotus at the first F1 Canadian Grand Prix at what was then Mosport Park.

That wasn’t the only time Wietzes was involved in a controversy during a Grand Prix at Mosport. In 1973, Eppie was selected by Mosport officials to drive a safety (or pace) car in case of an accident after confusion during a race held earlier in Europe resulted in the death of driver Roger Williamson. What follows was an unfair black mark against his name that lives to this very day: how Eppie Wietzes pulled out of the pits and in front of a car that wasn’t leading the race and, as a result, unfairly influenced the finish.

First, the race. All were on rain tires when the race started. Then it cleared up and everybody went into the pits for dry tires. Unlike today, an F1 team only had two or three mechanics for two cars so it took awhile to change the tires. And they could only work on one car at a time. So some drivers stayed out while the pits were jammed up, cars fell off jack stands, a driver might pit and find his teammate already in there so would go through for another lap or two and, to sum everything up in one word, it was chaos. And while all this was going on, Jody Scheckter and Francois Cevert crashed and a furious Cevert had gone over to Scheckter’s car and was whacking him on his helmet. I am not making any of this up.

When the crash happened, Wietzes was in the safety car, a Porsche, along with a fellow named Peter Mackintosh, who was Bernie Eccleston’s right-hand man in the Formula One Constructors Association and the top F1 guy at the Grand Prix.

“Many people said what happened was my fault,” Eppie told me once, “but that’s not true. Peter was the guy in charge. It was my job to drive the car and he told me where to go. When he said, ‘Now,’ I pulled out of the pits and onto the track.” In so doing, he pulled out in front of Howden Ganley, which made things even more chaotic.

When the race was finally over, some of the officials and many people in the crowd were convinced Jackie Oliver had won. Others, including Ganley, said it had been Emerson Fittipaldi. In the end, it was determined that Peter Revson was the winner – which Ganley disputes to this day. If you are interested, here is a link to my interview with him conducted just a few years ago.

https://norrismcdonald.ca/howden-ganley-tells-his-side-of-the-1973-grand-prix-of-canada/

As you can imagine, the news of Wietzes’ death rocked the Canadian motorsport world.

I received an email Thursday from Scott Goodyear in Indianapolis where, as Race Director FR/F4 of SCCA Pro Racing, he’s preparing for their first races of 2020 in two weeks at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He wrote:

“The news of Eppie’s passing was very sad news. I didn’t race against Eppie or work with him in any manner, but he played a role in my career at the very beginning.

“I was a teenager racing go-karts and wanted to start racing cars. Not knowing anyone in the race car business at that time, I got on the phone and called two guys I hoped would take some time and talk to a kid with a dream. I called Ludwig Heimrath Sr., and Eppie Wietzes.  Both agreed to speak with me so I made appointments to visit them both at their respective car dealerships. As Eppie’s Toyota store was just up the road on Yonge Street from my dad’s business, (Winner’s Circle Ltd., a go-kart, snowmobile and motorcycle dealership) I ventured up to see Eppie first.

“Not knowing what to expect, he was so helpful and gracious with his time to someone he’d never even heard of before. I recall I had my note pad with me with my questions as I sat in front of his desk asking questions – almost like a reporter. As a young aspiring racer, just to have the opportunity to speak to someone you read about in racing was terrific. The fact that he lived in the same city and down the street was unbelievable. For me, Eppie was my idol: he raced cars and drove his red Ferrari Daytona around town. To a young kid, Eppie was a rock star.

“We say goodbye to a Canadian racing legend.”

In my conversation with Cooke, he’d made an observation I found enlightening. He said that of all the qualities he looked for in a good racing driver, the one that stood out for him was an ability to remain calm under fire and, while accepting responsibility for what was happening on track, offer constructive criticism to the team.

“What’s your reaction when you see a driver climb out of the car and take his helmet off and throw it back into the cockpit?” he asked. “Your impression is that the guy’s a jerk who’s out of control. There were two drivers in my life I admired who would never, ever do that – Ron Fellows and Eppie Wietzes. Eppie would get out of the car, and he’d say, ‘Well, it’s going okay, handing well, got some jump – but maybe if we did this, or that, I could go a little faster.’ So he would praise the team so everybody felt good and then he’d make a suggestion of how they collectively could do better, Ron was like that too.”

Eppie Wietzes spent his winters in Florida as he got older but was a frequent visitor to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, a place he knew well, every summer.

Fellows posted a statement on the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park’s website, where he’s co-owner, when he learned of Eppie’s passing.

“We are saddened to learn that Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame racing driver Eppie Wietzes has passed away at the age of 82. Eppie raced everything from open-wheel cars to sports cars, and raced for Team Lotus at the first-ever F1 Canadian Grand Prix at then Mosport, in 1967.

“Eppie became a fixture in the popular L&M Formula 5000 Championship, which was where I began following his career. He then won the Trans Am Series Championship in 1981, a title I tried to duplicate in the 1990s.  As the saying goes, ‘To have no heroes is to have no aspiration.’ Eppie was a hero of mine and I feel privileged and grateful to have gotten to know him.

“Our sincere condolences go out to his wife Barb and the entire Wietzes family. God speed, Eppie, and thank you.”

Eppie Wietzes leaves his wife Barbara, children Marlene, Michael and Douglas and a brother, Bert. He was predeceased by his sister, Greta.

There will be a small, private, family funeral. Bert Wietzes said Thursday that a Celebration of Life will be held, once the COVID-19 quarantine is lifted.