Rollie MacDonald - The Early Years
CTW.com Exclusive. Interview and photos by Ken MacIsaac; used with permission.
February 9, 2007
Roland (Rollie) MacDonald is a Maritime stock car racing legend. At 62-years young he's been driving in circles, literally, for
over 40 years. He has been a driver and car owner in local racing and beyond. He raced full-time until the late 90s when he
became a part-time racer and full-time car owner for the late Scott Fraser, who lost his life in a snowmobile accident March 2004.
Rollie MacDonald's contribution to the sport of stock car racing was nationally recognized in
January 2005 when he was inducted in the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame. Later that same year he returned to the driver's seat full-time and won the championship on the CARQUEST Pro Stock Tour.
Rollie MacDonald is a native of, and still resides in, Pictou, Nova Scotia. He is a friend and a hero to many a stock car fan and racer, including Maritime motorsports historian Ken MacIsaac who has been so kind as to contribute the following interview and pictures for all of us to enjoy.
Because Rollie's racing career is so full, Ken's interview will be presented in segments - this is "The Early Years."
You've been involved in stock car racing for a long time. Tell me how you got started? I started back in '66. An old Pontiac. Actually built it in '65, but never got to race it. Use to haul it to the race track in a Belvedere I had. It was a brand new car, 2 door sedan, 426 Hemi….with a tow bar (laughs). But before that, I drag raced a bit. Had a '64 Corvette and a Super Sport with a 4 speed, 327. I raced 3 or 4 times a year. I wasn't big into it.
So when Fraser's Mountain started, you got the bug? I'd gone to Riverglade a few times, got the bug there. And when Fraser's Mountain opened, it was dirt. So I figured I'd give that a try. It had to be more fun than going straight, boom and it's over. (laughs)
There's a somewhat famous picture of you in that old Pontiac on top of another car. I think it even made the newspaper back then. I remember that day quite clear. A guy turned crossway in front of me. I drove up on top of him. I forget who it was. We didn't get hurt. Just a racing thing. We built that old thing in my backyard. Look at that black iron pipe (laughs). The first time I went to the track with that car, I had '67 & 7/8th' on the side of her. They said "No, you can't run an oddball number", so I crossed out the 7/8th.
You did most of your racing at Havre Boucher Speedway back then. Any other tracks? Once they paved Fraser's Mountain, I may have raced there once or twice. I remember towing the old Pontiac to Park Falls Raceway once. Don't remember how I did? Never raced at Seabreeze. It was mainly Havre Boucher until Riverside opened.
Rollie in 1967.
Rollie gets a win at Havre Boucher Speedway in the No. 67 Chevrolet; flagman is Ken Brace.
So after that old Pontiac, you had the white '57 Chev? Ya, I ran that car a few years. 1967, '68 I guess.
I always ask Ernie McLean to tell the story of when you went into the trees at Havre Boucher with that car. He still laughs about it. (laughs) I went off the track, down in between 2 trees. The trees fell down on top of the car (laughs). Only time my mother went to a race was that one (laughs). She never went to another one after that. I don't know what happened that day. I went down into the turn, we touched, must have, I certainly wouldn't have driven down there on my own. I went down off turn 1, right down into the bush. Which you probably only had to go from here to that wall before you start hittin' trees (laughs). But man, I started cuttin' trees down, and they fell right back over the car. What a job! They needed Digdon's boom truck to get the car out (laughs).
So in 1969, you ran the Comet? Ya, I ended up with that 'orange crate', Caleb (Dunn's) old car. I can't remember if I bought the car, or the twins (MacEachern bothers from Antigonish)? I remember I had to go to Cape Breton to work, so I didn't have time to run it. So Jack and his brother took it over and hired Doug Adams to drive it. I think that's how it went, I'm not sure. Anyway, Doug ran it a few times, but they weren't doin' anything with the car. Then they weren't getting along, 'cause they weren't running well. One night I was there, they told Doug that they wanted me to drive it. Well…all hell broke loose. Doug didn't want any part of that. So him and the twins had a big falling out. Doug got killed that summer over on the highway by the Heather Motel. The twins felt bad about it too, 'cause they were friends for along time.
The '69 Comet, purchased from Caleb Dunn.
You won some races in that car though? Ya, it was a Comet body on Chev drive train. We won some races.
I remember going to Drag City one night. John Chisolm was there in that Mustang he had. I remember we were coming off turn 4, and that old Comet had that square bumper on the front of it.
Man, I hooked into his driver's door, and I ripped every piece of sheet metal off the side of that car (laughs). John was some wild at me that night. He's probably still mad at me (laughs). That beautiful Mustang, built by Holman-Moody…. us racing old junk (laughs)… just ripped that body off… (laughs). But other than Drag City, I don't remember travelling to other tracks. I was working long hours building that refinery in Cape Breton, so I didn't have a lot of time. Just mostly ran at Riverside.
So after the Comet, you ran a Chevy II. Tell me about that car? I had a Franklin quick change rear end. One of the first around here. Hanley wanted it. He had a good car, and I really didn't have a car as good as his, so I traded the quick change for his car. That was a good car. We won some races with it.
Rollie (67) leads Bobby Allen (66) and Junior Hanley (10) at Riverside in 1970.
There was bad wreck at Riverside during that era, when Bobby Allen hurt his back? I went into the wall hard with that Chevy II of Hanley's. I think Hallahan and I got together in turn 1. I hit the wall head on. Just pushed the whole side of it in. It bounced back off the wall, pointed towards the traffic. They were all coming towards me. Everyone was coming into the turn bumping and banging into each other trying to stay away from the wreck. Bobby got bumped and he drove right up over my right front. It went over my roof and right clear into the guardrail. Some of his tire marks were on my roof. He just got airborne. He hit the top of the guardrail hard. Another 6 inches he would've went right over the top. Probably would've been better if he did. So when he hit, she came back down on the track. That's when he broke the vertebrae in his back. I didn't get hurt at all. But his Javelin was a mess, mine was twisted. That old frame in my car was fish plated. I remember taking it down to the twins (MacEachern's Auto Body) and putting it on the frame machine. They tried pulling it out and they couldn't straighten it. Hanley had it all plated. Really strong. We had to remanufacture the front end. We didn't know a whole lot about cars. We got it back to where we thought it should be. It ran alright after that.
So what happened to that Chevy II? I was still working a lot in Cape Breton. After the refinery, I went to Wreck Cove to build dams. Had two trucks down there working for a couple of years. Had no time for racing. I sold the Chevy II to Jim Wright. He ran it at Riverside. I was out of racing for a few years, until I hooked up with Peter Sutherland.
So that would be the Dodge kit car era? Ya, 1976 to 78 I think. The kit car came from Petty. Peter and I went down to get it. It was like a rolling chassis. Body was on it. We still had a lot of work to do to it once we picked it up. But that first year, we didn't win a race with it.
Rollie (43) in the Petty kit car on the outside of Skip MacKenzie (12) at Riverside in 1976. Jim Hallahan and Frank Fraser behind.
What about Sydney? Oh that's right. We did win a 50 lapper on opening night down there (Bud's Speedway). Got wrecked in the second 50 lapper. I tore the right front wheel off. I was passing somebody on the backstretch, or I got squeezed or something, hit the pit opening with the right front. Tore it right off. That 50 lapper would be the only race we won that year.
You won a bunch of races the following year though? Ya, but before that, the car would always just react terrible. Run 10 or 15 laps good, then it would all go to hell. We contacted Petty and told them our problem. Then one day they phoned us. Told us they "found something in the rear and we know you're having trouble with handling." Anyway, there were some pipes that were attached to the spring shackles that were causing the handling problems. They told us what to do. After that, we won 21 races in a row. The car ran perfect. Prior to that, it was loose in one corner, pushing in the next. It was all over the place. Anyway the car was awesome after that.
Tell me about that big wreck at Atlantic Speedway. We were coming down for the last lap. Junior Kelly was leading it. I wanted to keep my win streak alive. But we never had any brakes on that car. I drove it all that time with no brakes. I mean, we had brakes for 5 laps, then that was it. But anyway, we were coming down the front chute. Kelly was ahead of me. I was right on his bumper. We got to turn 1, he caught a lapped car. Kelly went around him on the high side, I went around on the low side. When Kelly went high, the lapped car pinched down on me as I was goin' underneath him. Turned me straight into the wall. I was hammer down of course, goin' for the win. When I was comin' off that corner, I remember sayin' to myself "how am I gonna get stopped with Junior on the outside". I remember thinking that, plain as day. Guess I'd use him or whatever (laughs). Anyway, we didn't have to worry about that. But I hit the wall a ton, 'cause I had no brakes to slow it up. Brakes wouldn't stop nothing. When I went through that fence, it just caved everything in on the driver's side. The car wasn't built right. I mean, there should've been an extra pipe from behind the driver's seat, from the door to the other corner. We sent Petty pictures of the car after that, and they changed it. They added the bar to the kit. There were no frame rails in those early kit cars. You can imagine a unibody frame rail. It was like a piece of bent pressed steel, about 1-16th thick. That was all that was in them. I guess the only thing that made us run good back then was the lightness of the car. Wasn't much to them.
Remnants of the 1976 Atlantic Speedway wreck in the kit car.
Remnants of the track after the wreck.
But you got hurt in that wreck? Broke my sternum from the seat belts. I was black and blue on my whole left side. They couldn't believe it at the hospital, that I had no broken bones, I mean, I was a big guy back then. I remember laying in that hospital bed in pain, my whole left side just bruised all to pieces. It wasn't so much the guardrails that caused the damage, it was the posts. I took three of them out, and they all hit the driver's door. That's what made it cave in. It was like 'Boom!…Boom!…Boom!'. I tell people I was like a piece of meat in that car. I remember that night, my arms were just flailing, you couldn't hold on to nothing. Wherever that car was going….thank god the seat belts held. But, it got over pretty good because it knocked down the signs. When it went through the wall, it came back out on the track pointing the other way.
So that was it for you that year? We didn't race anymore after that. That wreck was in early August. Peter went back down to Petty's in the fall and bought another car. And you know what? That car was no good either. We couldn't get it goin'. It had the pieces welded in that we told them about on the first car, but we still couldn't get it runnin'. I think we only won 2 races that year. One of the best races we run that year was at Riverside for the 250. Probably because they had a better tire to run on. The guys who came down from Ontario were running on Goodyears. We were running the McCreary treaded tires, hockey pucks. But we bolted those Goodyears on and man, I'll tell ya…. I remember goin' down the backstretch and turning the wheel left for the turn, and the car drove right into the infield (laughs). It had that much traction. I couldn't believe it. I never drove on a tire like that before. We had a good car that day too. We qualified fourth in time trials. Hanley set the record that day, but we weren't far off. But anyway, we were running 3rd in the first 125 with 15 to go. 110 laps in she spun a bearing in the motor. Peter was so disgusted. He built all the motors. Never had any motor problems in those Dodges the whole time. Peter had enough after that and he sold the car.
The second Petty kit car for MacDonald, at Atlantic Speedway in 1977.
A win for MacDonald in kit car #2, Atlantic Speedway 1977.
MacDonald leading Junior Hanley (72) in the 1977 Riverside 250.
Did Peter get back into racing after that? Never again. Never spent another nickel on it. He would never be involved with a Chev. Peter's a big Dodge man. Still is.
So after the second kit car, was it the 66? Bobby (Allen) had a heart attack in '78 I think. I don't think he drove after '78. Anyway, I drove 'Ole Yeller', the yellow Camaro in 1979. I didn't even work on it. I was working away somewhere. Donnie (Robertson) would do all the work on the car. I would go up to his house on Friday nights. Try to help him get it ready for Saturday. But I only raced it one year. Donnie gave it up. Too much work for one guy. He didn't have much help. I can't remember how we did that year, but I remember hitting the pace car in Riverside with it (laughs). I came off turn 4 and lost 'er. I was running up front somewhere and wanted to keep my spot. I kept my foot in it. Tried to get it straightened out, but somebody touched me before the start/finish line. I went down through the infield. Of course, the only thing they had back then was those big ole tires. I went right down through the pits and hit one of those tires. When I hit, it broke the tie rod and I had no steering. Broke it off one side. And the first thing I hit was the pace car. It was parked down the end of pit road. Hit it head on. Just like a magnet. You couldn't have lined it up better (laughs). There was over two grand in damage on that car. Lot of money back then. Imagine it wrote it off. I didn't just tap it (laughs). I think that's the last time I drove that thing. I think Donnie fired me after that (laughs). I'm not sure how it went.
Rollie drove Bobby Allen's No. 66 during the 1979 season. Here he leads Junior Kelly at Riverside.
So you didn't run much after that until Mascar started? No. Racing was on a down for a few years until Mascar started up. Hanley built me a car for that year. I remember when I picked it up, he had it all painted up for me. That was the first Hanley car I ever owned, other than the Chevy II. Anyway, the first race was at Riverside. I got wrecked that day, not bad though. I got spun around, someone hit me in the door. But I've had a race car ever since. Other than when I sold my car last summer. Other than that, every year since then. I've had a lot of fun. Met a lot of really good people in racing.
A few words from Ken MacIsaac
Rollie has been one of my heroes in racing for many years. An extremely humble and modest man. You can tell from our chat that he talks openly about his wrecks, moreso than his many wins over the years. Stay tuned in the coming months for more with Rollie, including the Mascar years, the A.C.T. tour, Busch North, and of course Scott Fraser.
From 1969 at Riverside...
New Glasgow newspaper, 1976.
Sydney newspaper, Bud's Speedway grand opening, 1976.
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