These cars handle really well,” says David Holmes sitting behind the wheel of his 1961 MGA, “which makes them a great race car.” Holmes changes gears and the car accelerates along the winding gravel roads of Woolwich, just north of Elmira. It’s easy to see why Holmes – a competitive racer of MG’s for the past six years – loves the convertible so much.
“They’re great cars,” he says of the MGA, a sports car produced by the British Motor Corporation from 1955 to 1962. “Beautiful, dependable, and they’re fun to drive.”
Holmes was named the winner of the Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen racetrack in Watkins Glen, NY in September, and he was also awarded the Copper Bucket this season, which goes to the racer who best represents the spirit of vintage racing, a title voted on by other MG vintage racers.
Holmes now owns seven vehicles that are spread out among three different garages in town, from the 1961 MGA to a blue 1958 Austin A35. Both cars look like they belong on the streets of London rather than Elmira.
One of his most recent acquisitions, however, has a very special place in his garage. It is a 1949 MG TC that was once owned by Canadian racing legend Tommy Hoan – known as the “Giant Killer” – who raced from 1950 to 1953 in Ontario as well as the United States.
“He won a lot of races,” says Holmes of Hoan. “He was known for being a daring and exciting racer.”
Holmes bought the car about three weeks prior to the Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada (VARAC) vintage racing festival at Mosport back in June, where he had the opportunity to meet Hoan and even drove around the track with him.
“It’s right-hand drive; I still sometimes almost get in the wrong side,” he muses.
The classic car cannot make a return to the racetrack, though – at least, not in Canada.
“It’s not suitable to race in Canada because it doesn’t have a fuel-cell, which is one of the requirements,” he said, adding that the fuel cell is a safety measure which uses a sponge inside to prevent gas from leaking out of the car in the event of an accident. He does plan on taking the car to the United States to race next season, though, where fuel cells are not required.
There are a lot of other safety measures that go into converting these old sports cars into roadworthy racers. Holmes says that the car must be structurally sound, it must have a roll cage or a roll bar, and be equipped with a five-point harness that needs to be replaced every five years. The cars must also have an electrical shutoff accessible from the outside of the car. Finally, racers must wear a fireproof suit, gloves, shoes, a helmet and a balaclava.
None of the safety devices standard today were part of Holmes’ early enthusiasm for racing, developed when he was growing up on the family farm in Mississauga.
“When we were kids, we had old junkers. We had an awful lot of fun, and I always thought I wanted to get back into it,” he explains of his current passion.
Unfortunately for Holmes, the costs of racing were too much for him once the realities of life – such as raising his three children – came to bare. He moved to Elmira about 30 years ago to work at the golf club, and about eight years later he started his own excavating business called Digger Dave.
And it wasn’t until about six years ago that he got back behind the wheel of a racecar after a head-on collision forced him into retirement.
The idea of racing was always in the back of his mind, however. One day while he was on his computer he found an image of an old MGB – a slightly different model than the MGA he owns now – and found it stunning.
“It turns out it was from Caledon, and to make a long story short I bought the car, brought it home and put it in my garage.”
The next morning, Holmes came out to his garage and looked at the car he had just bought. ‘Are you crazy!?’ he asked himself. ‘You’ve never driven a racecar!’
He took the car to Mosport, where he saw another MGB very similar to his racing along the track. He went down into the pits to meet the driver, and was shocked by the driver’s age.
“My god,” he thought to himself. “He’s older than I am! Maybe I can do this.”
Holmes got on the phone with his son, Evan, and the two of them drove up to Mont Tremblant near Montreal later that year to get their racing licenses. It was a three-day course consisting of in-class sessions and on-track classes that taught the basics of steering, passing and braking.
He passed, and got his racing license at the age of 59. The two of them now race together as Holmes Racing; Evan drives a 1968 MG Midget.
In his first two races that season, Holmes says the engine blew both times.
“Getting the bugs out of a racecar takes a long time,” he notes. “Everything has to be absolutely perfect on a racecar. I completely rebuilt it and had the motor rebuilt.”
Holmes does his own repairs now, and his garage is a testament to that. The floor of his shop is littered with the parts of a 1959 MGA, which he also races, as well as Tommy Hoan’s 1949 MG TC. Hoan’s car was clocked at over 100 miles per hour back in the 1950s, though Holmes doubts he could get it up to that speed again.
Not that he would know anyhow – the speedometer doesn’t work.
Functioning gauge or not, it’s the speed that drew Holmes back to the sport after decades away from racing. That’s why he always had it in the back of his mind.
“There is nothing like it, the adrenaline you get from a weekend of racing is absolutely rejuvenating,” he says. “It’s exciting, it’s an exciting sport. I’ve never participated in anything like this before.
“The challenge is going full-out around a race track, keeping it on the track and going through corners as fast as you can.”
Holmes pauses for a moment, smiles, then adds, “and getting around the track as fast as possible.”