Featured Story The Passing Show

Why I changed my mind about Billy Foster

Written by Norris McDonald

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for the Toronto Star about how I was filling in the time during the coronavirus quarantine. I talked about some of the books I was re-reading and the DVDs I was watching again. If you’re interested, here’s the link.

A book by Bob Kehoe, that I purchased online about the late Canadian racing star Billy Foster, arrived in the mail after that column was published and after reading it, I have changed my mind about something significant: the first Canadian to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Foster, who was killed while practicing for a NASCAR Grand National stock race at Riverside International Raceway in California in January, 1967, was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993 as “the first Canadian to race in the 500” because of his start in the world’s most famous race in 1965.

About four or five years after that, I became aware of a gentleman who was retired and living in Havasu Lake, Calif., named Harold (Hal) Robson. I was told he’d been born in Canada and I thought, well, that is news indeed.

It took awhile but I finally tracked down Mr. Robson and we had a swell chat. It turned out he was the brother of George Robson, who had won the 500 in 1946 (only to be killed several months later in a race at Atlanta), and that he had been born in Toronto. George had been 3 when the family arrived in Toronto from England and Hal was 11 when the family moved again, this time to Los Angeles.

Hmmm, I thought. So Foster couldn’t have been the first Canadian because here was Hal Robson and he’d started the 500 in 1946, 19 years earlier. That got me researching everything I could find about Canadians at Indy and, as of today, Foster is the seventh racing driver born in Canada to make the field for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

And there’s the rub: the rest were born in Canada but living elsewhere when they raced at Indianapolis.

Here’s a quick look.

  1. W.H. (Wild Bill) Turner was born in the Parkdale area of Toronto but went to Buffalo as a young man to work in the motor trade. He raced in the 500 in the very first one, 1911, while he was living in Denver, which he put down as his address.
  2. Pete Henderson was born in Orangeville (I wish people would stop going into Wikipedia and changing this) and spent his childhood in Fernie, B.C., where his father owned the Fernie Free Press weekly newspaper. He went to Drake University in Iowa and started his racing career there as a riding mechanic. He listed his address as Danville, Iowa. He drove in the 500 in 1916 and 1920, both times as a Danville “boy,” as the Des Moines Register called him
  3. Ira Vail was born in Montreal and his mother took him to Syracuse, N.Y., when he was three months old. He raced at Indy five times beginning in 1919 and called Syracuse home.
  4. John Duff was born in China to Canadian parents, who were merchants there. There is some question as to how much time he spent in Canada as a child; some say he spent several summers visiting relatives in the Hamilton area and others say he lived with them year-‘round till he went back to stay with his parents as a late teenager. In  any event, he left home in China to move to England and became a Bentley dealer. He won the 1924 24 Hours of Le Mans before going to Los Angeles. He raced in the 500 in 1926.
  5. Ronald Griffith (Bon) MacDougall (or McDougall) was born in Winnipeg and went to Chicago as a young man where he designed pinball games. He was also in that 1926 Indy 500.
  6. Harold (Hal) Robson was born in the Mount Forest (Weston) area of Toronto and was 11 when the family moved to Los Angeles. He became a champion sprint-car driver and is an inductee of the U.S. National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. He raced in three 500s, starting in 1946.
  7. William A. (Billy) Foster, Victoria, B.C. Foster qualified sixth for his first 500 in 1965 (he was sidelined by a mechanical problem, so didn’t finish) and was the U.S. Auto Club Rookie-of-the-Year that season. He was Mario Andretti’s best friend.

I’m reading about Foster, and how he won the famous CAMRA Series for supermodifieds the first year it operated (it stood for Canadian American Modified Racing Association and he was up against drivers like Art Pollard, Tom and Jerry Sneva, Eldon Rasmussen and Jim Malloy) and how Victoria native Grant King and transplanted Albertan Rolla Volstedt of Portland had conspired to get a Canadian into the 500 and tried Eddie Kostenuk first (also from Victoria, by the way) but when he couldn’t get the car up to speed they sought out Foster and he made the race and I came to a conclusion.

Billy Foster, while not the first Canadian-born driver to make the field at Indianapolis, was the first to enter the race and drive in it as a Canadian. His name is on the entry list as being from Victoria, B.C., and his name is in the official results as being from Victoria, B.C. The others were from Denver, Danville, Syracuse, Los Angeles and so-on but Foster was always from Victoria, B.C., and that’s good enough for me.

Billy Foster was – and always will be – the first Canadian racing driver to make the field for the Indianapolis 500.