PETE VERNAUS, the little Dutchman who ruled dirt track auto racing in Winnipeg for decades, took the checkered flag Tuesday morning, as he crossed the finish line one last time.
Vernaus' daughter Yvonne said her father, who opened Winnipeg Speedway (now Red River Co-op Speedway) for racing on July 31, 1973, passed away in his sleep at the age of 79, at the St. Norbert Nursing Home. He had run the track until he sold it in the fall of 1994.
"You know, he never lost his love for auto racing," said Yvonne Vernaus. "He'd still sit every afternoon in the nursing home, and watch the Speed Channel on TV."
Vernaus, who came to Canada in 1953 from Maatricht, Holland, was predeceased by his wife Tiny in 2005. He is survived by his daughter Yvonne, and two sons, Humphry and Jamey.
The four-tenths mile banked oval, just south of the Perimeter on Hwy. 59, was a family project from the start. Tiny Vernaus ran the concession stand, and beginning at age nine, Humphry ran the heavy machinery that kept the track in racing shape. Later, the youngest son, Jamey, took over Humphry's duties.
On Tuesday's race nights and Saturday specials, Yvonne was the head lap counter, making sure all the drivers completed the required number of circuits.
The track was always a passion for Vernaus, who also ran a body shop in Winnipeg's north end.
"Everything I ever made here (the track) has gone back into the track," he told the Free Press on Aug. 17, 1988.
"We were a close-knit family, and stood behind each other," he continued. "I had to fight a lot of things, but I don't even have to think about it. I'd do it all over again."
"If it wasn't for him, who knows if we would have still had racing," said Jamey Vernaus Wednesday. "Brooklands Speedway was dying, but dad didn't want to let racing die. He was first a fan, then he owned three race cars at Brooklands. Then he went to owning his own track.
"I wasn't even born at the time, but he came home one day and told my mom, brother and sister, 'I bought this land, and we are going to have a dirt track.' They didn't believe him, but sure enough, he did it."
A celebration of Peter Vernaus' life will be held at the St. Vital Roman Catholic Parish, 1629 Pembina Hwy., Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.