Northern Ontario drag racers put the pedal to the metal

Kirkland Lake’s Northern Thunder drag race was postponed due to the pandemic — but contestants recently got the chance to burn rubber
By Nick Dunne - Published on Aug 29, 2020
The Northern Thunder drag race was held in Kirkland Lake on the weekend of August 21. (Nick Dunne)



KIRKLAND LAKE — A Ski-Doo and a motorcycle pull up to the racetrack, which has been hastily converted from an airport strip, as the track official waves them toward the signal lights. The racers wait for the previous speed demons, a turbo-charged vintage Chrysler Plymouth and a Ford truck, to return from the end point and collect their time cards. The lights flash red, then yellow, then green. Engines scream as tires and tracks spin madly, catching the paved surface. Within a few seconds, the vehicles have sped a few hundred metres down the track. As they turn back, a beefy Dodge Challenger lines up with a long, narrow dragster.

a blue muscle car
The super-pro category consists of dragsters and full-bodied cars that can race from 6.30 to 8.99 seconds. (Nick Dunne)

The smell of gasoline and burning rubber, the rumbling of souped-up engines, and the cheers of a physically distanced crowd offered a smidgeon of normalcy for the attendees of Kirkland Lake’s Northern Thunder drag race on the August 21 weekend. Although the event had been postponed due to the pandemic, Northern Thunder organizers eventually managed to finagle a weekend of racing and family fun, with the co-operation of the town of Kirkland Lake and the health unit.

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Cars, trucks, trailers, and campers
Cars, trucks, trailers, and campers gather at the Kirkland Lake airport strip. (Nick Dunne)
children sit in a golf cart wearing earmuffs
A family watches the speeding cars from a golf cart. (Nick Dunne)

“It was a big thing for a lot of people cooped up all summer,” says Northern Thunder president Blair Preston. “A lot of racers were happy to go somewhere and see everybody again.” While Northern Thunder typically takes place over the Father’s Day weekend, COVID-19 pushed it back. The organizing team had to present a plan to the town of Kirkland Lake and to the Timiskaming Health Unit outlining proposed security, signage, and physical-distancing measures. Preston says he was pleased to make the race happen this year: “Things came together and ran pretty smoothly.” First- and second-place finishers in each class split a quarter of the admission revenues; third- and fourth-place finishers went home with trophies.

a red truck
A vintage Ford truck makes its way to the racetrack. (Nick Dunne)

Jack Bardgett was excited to get onto the track for the first time this season. His Volkswagen Beetle hadn’t gotten rusty — but he had. “Car did good. Driver was out of practice,” says Bardgett, who runs an appliance store in Elliot Lake. “Once you get out of practice, it’s really hard to get back in.” He prepared for two weeks: tuning the car, readying the trailer, and making sure he had the tools he needed. Though most of his season has been cut off, there are some events coming up in North Bay that he’s looking forward to. “I love racing,” he says. “It’s the adrenaline rush.” The anticipation on the track, waiting his turn, and then going full throttle in his buggy.

man stands with yellow Volkswagon Beetle
Jack Bardgett with his Volkwagen Beetle. (Nick Dunne)

James Gaudreau came from Sudbury for the event. He’s has been racing since 1997, when he started out with snowmobiles. “Drag racing’s been in the blood,” he says. Hobbyist and professional racing is often a family affair, with relatives joining in on crews and sometimes even racing themselves. “My boys come out with me most of the time. I’ve got my grandson involved and he’s got a junior dragster,” Gaudreau says, referring to a smaller and slower dragster designed specifically for kids. “He just loves it.”

a woman leans against a hearse
Ailsa Hickey races her hearse in the street-car category. (Nick Dunne)

Ailsa Hickey caught the racing bug later in life, thanks to her brother-in-law. She races with a hearse in the street-car category, which includes stock vehicles with no modifications. People are often surprised by how fast a hearse can go, she says — and by the fact that she uses it to get groceries. “It holds all kinds of stuff; it’s comfortable to drive,” she says, adding that other cars tend to give her more space on the road. Hickey says she appreciates the opportunity to race: “I haven’t been going out to town except when I really have to. This pandemic has upended the season totally.”

a red car
Before lining up, the crew performs one last check of the so-called funny car, a vehicle specially designed for drag races. (Nick Dunne)
pickup truck
A track official readies the starting line at the Northern Thunder drag race weekend on August 22. (Nick Dunne)

Hickey, who also participates in the odd demolition derby, is nostalgic for the bygone days of more informal drag races. “When I grew up, we raced down country roads, but it’s a totally different world,” she says. “There’s no country road, even in the country.” For her, racing offers some respite from the frustrations of daily life in the pandemic. “It’s fun! You just punch it down,” she says. “You know how you get frustrated in a traffic jam? Well, this kind of stuff takes the edge away.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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