If we rewind the clock to the mid ‘80s, Southwestern Ontario was booming with tracks for its riders to race on. There was the ageless Moto Park, Hully Gully, Wheatley, a rough sand track in Wilberforce, Big Bend was still on the schedule, Copetown, and a rocky track just outside Acton apply named “Leathertown”. Now, I might’ve missed one or two but I’m sure you get the point. With all of these different tracks made up of varying soil conditions, you could say that Ontario riders were spoiled rotten and the last thing they needed was another track to ride. However, the Schuster family in Courtland, ON had other ideas and in 1986 Gopher Dunes Raceway was born.
After hearing only rumours regarding the new track called Gopher Dunes during its first two years of operation, the first time I actually travelled there to race was in 1988. With the undulating Big Bend track also being in the Tillsonburg area, I expected this new Gopher Dunes track to also have some elevation changes to it. Obviously, when we drove up the driveway it became clear that this was not the case. Just like it is every race day, the track on that day in 1988 was prepared perfectly by Frank Schuster and his crew, and I remember thinking during practice that there was no way that the Gopher Dunes track was going to get that rough. Well, fast forward an hour or two and by my first moto the track was filled with bomb holes and big sandy berms. It was without a doubt the roughest track that I had ridden in Ontario, and with its endless depth of soft sand, only the strongest and bravest could survive on it.
Since those early days on the Ontario race schedule, we’ve definitely witnessed some memorable moments at Gopher Dunes. Through the 1990s there were numerous provincial two-stroke battles on the rough track. One battle, or incident might be a more accurate description, was in 1998 when former 1984 500cc Canadian Champion Mike Harden showed up and laid a big whipping on the then current crop of pros in the opening 250 moto. Well, after 200 tear-offs were used by the riders chasing Harden and trying to get by him, it was revealed soon after the checkered flag that Harden was using a full paddle tire, which is why he was able to stay in the lead. Well, you can imagine how this stunt went over, and sadly Harden was DQ’d. Never again was a paddle tire used in a race at Gopher Dunes.
In 2005, the CMRC Pro Nationals came to Gopher Dunes, and with it an entirely new set of memories. There have been multiple unbelievable rides by Ontario legend Kyle Keast over the past decade; you can also throw Matt Goerke into that category too as he has also been a sand whisperer. With the long national motos and the race taking place in July, just finishing a gruelling 35 minute moto on a hot Gopher Dunes day has sometimes been a win in itself. Oh yes, for what this track lacks in elevation changes and big jumps, it certainly makes up for in making riders suffer when they ride it. Since the national series began visiting Gopher Dunes, it quickly was labelled as the roughest track in North America.
Another aspect of this multi-use facility is that it has also become a training school for many riders over the years. Riding schools have been taught there by some of the best instructors in the business. For the past few years, Honda Canada has run their Red Rider program out of Gopher Dunes, and we’ve also got to watch the Honda Canada Racing GDR Fox Team, from its beginning to the present day track owner Derek Schuster. For a relatively simple sand track in the tobacco belt of Ontario, the Gopher Dunes track is an ever-evolving facility with the long term vision of any successful enterprise.
This past weekend, the track (as it’s done for many years) hosted the opening race of the Ontario motocross season. With CMRC, AMO, TVR and SCR events planned all season long, Gopher Dunes is a lot of things to a lot of different riders and racers. Oh, and don’t forget that they’re open for practice almost every day with their main track, mini track, and their extensive trail system.
What is my best memory of this famous track? Well, it’s not one particular battle or one race that stands out, it’s actually two things that happen at each race event there. My favourite part of going to Gopher Dunes is arriving in the early morning when the summer mist is still hanging over the perfectly groomed track and then walking the track at the end of the day after the last bike has crossed the finish line. Each and every time, that contrast between the peaceful, surreal setting in the morning, and the whooped out, rutted war zone that the track resembles at the end of the day, well, that simply amazes me! I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years has in store for the toughest track in North America.