GOPHER DUNES, THE EARLY YEARS
Gopher Dunes. The Early Years 1986 - 2005
A Story About the World’s Worst Farmer
By Mike McGill
“From Humble Beginnings Come Great Things” I researched this quote a little bit, prior to writing this article, just trying to figure out who it should be attributed to. I couldn’t really find anything definitive however. I guess a lot of people have said it and used it over the years and sometimes it fits perfectly. Other times it doesn’t but in the case of Gopher Dunes, it couldn’t be any more appropriate. Originally imagined to simply be a gathering spot for friends to meet and ride dirt bikes on weekends, or perhaps as an ATV race track or rental business to becoming, a world-class motocross and off-road facility it’s been quite a journey for the Schuster family over the last four decades. Undoubtedly, it’s taken a lot of hard work, perseverance and probably even some luck but today Gopher Dunes is one of the top off-road destinations in the country and their round of the Canadian National Motocross Championships has arguably become the crown jewel of the Canadian Series. And this is their story.
The land on which Gopher Dunes is situated is bone-flat, and extremely sandy. Not really what you would consider an optimum landscape for setting up a world-renowned motocross track. Frank Schuster’s parents purchased the land on which the Gopher Dunes track, and trail system is currently situated, from his Uncle back in 1972. At the time it was a working tobacco farm. The original family farm was right next door and the additional property was purchased and made into a single, larger farm. Tobacco was king in Norfolk County back in those days. In fact, at it’s peak, in the early 1990’s, just over 90 per cent of the entire countries tobacco was grown in the area. The broad-leafed, nicotine-laced plant was singularly, responsible for the economic survival of the entire region and for the Schuster family, this was no exception.
As a kid growing up on the family farm Frank Schuster, much like many other local kids, developed a keen interest in riding motorcycles and always had dirt bikes. During their limited free-time he and his friends would gather on the property to ride, work on their bikes, and generally have a good time. Even when Frank was busy working the farm, he always made time to ride. Sometimes when he wasn’t supposed to.“Evenduring my lunch hours” recalls Schuster.“Duringmy half hour break I would often jump on my bike and go for a blast. I always had some sort of track laid out on the property. Sometimes I would crash or have a mechanical issue, and I would be late getting back to work. My co-workers wouldn’t be too happy with me but hey, I had to ride,” chuckles Schuster.
Riding, as it so often does, led to racing for Frank who, while he was extremely busy working on the farm, still tried to make it to some of the local events when he had the opportunity. He would hit all the Southern Ontario tracks like Big Bend, which was quite close to home, just outside of Aylmer, Ontario, Hully Gully, MotoPark and of course the legendary Copetown, when time allowed. One season, that Schuster remembers quite well was 1977.“Yes,it was 1977” he recalls. Schuster goes on to explain that, just like lots of other old motocross racers he remembers important dates in his life by relating them to what bike he was riding at the time.“Iwas riding a 77 RM 250, and the tobacco” he goes on to explain“actuallyfroze early that year and I was able to race the entire Fall Series. That was just great.”
Frank Schuster’s parents immigrated from Europe shortly after the Second World War. Both had lost a spouse during the war years and found each other upon their arrival in Canada. Since this was a second marriage for both of his parents the age gap between Frank and his folks was larger than normal, and Frank was still quite a young man when it was time for them to retire. It was also at about the same time that Frank came to the realization that, in his own words, he was“probablythe world’s worst farmer. There’s got to be a better way to make a living” thought Schuster and along with his wife Barb, whom he had married in 1979, the decision was made to get out of tobacco, in the traditional farming sense any ways, and move the family business in a new direction. In 1979 Schuster Excavating was formed.
Of course, Frank’s new business still relied quite heavily on the tobacco industry. “Tobacco was still big at that time”, explains Schuster“and most of our business in those early years came from doing land renovations for tobacco farmers” he recalls. Frank could also be found on the occasional weekend working the dozer at nearby Big Bend Raceway.“Morefor fun than anything.” At, the same time however, Schuster was developing another vision for his own property, now that it was no longer a working tobacco farm.“Actually,I had been thinking about it for years and it was simple” says Frank.“Aplace to ride, ideally with a dealership attached to it.” And thus, the idea for Gopher Dunes was hatched.
While his plan, as mentioned, did include an on-site dealership Frank had no interest in taking on yet another business. Fortunately, he had become good friends with Dale Vranckx, in the early 70's. They were riding buddies, who would get together to hit some trails or participate in an Otter Valley Rider’s Event every so often. Dale had recently purchased the rights to a Honda dealership in Delhi and the two put together the plan that would see Dale rent the barn on the property from Frank and move his power sports shop "Odyssey Recreation" onto the site in order to compliment the proposed track.
Of course, an undertaking of this magnitude would require a tremendous amount of work, and planning, along with the cultivation of some great relationships. Someone who, played an integral part in helping Frank along with his proposed project was the late Dan Van Londersele. Van Londersele was a Norfolk County Councillor and Real Estate Broker and Investor. He was heavily involved with the local community and was a big factor in navigating Schuster through all the zoning permits, and red-tape that was required prior to opening the Dunes.“I’llput it this way” states Schuster quite simply.“WithoutDan, it never would have happened. There is so much that goes into to something like this that, as a young and inexperienced person, you never even think of. Dan was a wealth of knowledge, and really went to bat for us on many occasions. He was a true professional and a great guy.” Van Londersele didn’t just help with the initial venture either, as he became a great friend of the Schuster family and was always willing to help with many different things over the years, right up until the time of his passing in 2004.
The actual physical construction of the track began in 1986 and the first order of business was to build the municipality ordered sound barrier around the perimeter. In fact, the sound barrier, minus a few minor touch-ups has remained in the same spot since 1986. The original track consisted of much smaller obstacles than the ones people have become used to seeing in the last 10 to 20 years. In fact, the original track was laid out with the thought of it being an ATV only layout.“Onething that you need to remember” states Schuster.“Youroriginal vision for something almost always changes over time.” And Gopher Dunes is no exception.“Itwas supposed to be an ATV rental track originally but as is usually the case, it just kept morphing.”
It must be noted that motocross wasn’t Frank Schuster’s only interest at the time. He also tried his hand at Trials, Hare Scrambles, and even dabbled with street bikes a little bit. Honda had just come out with their 3-wheeled ATV’s at the time and Schuster developed a keen interest in them when they became popular in the early 80’s. In fact, as a grand opening promotion Frank and Dale kicked things off with a fundraiser in year one which saw each of them take turns riding a Honda ATV non-stop for 24 hours straight. The first real event at the Dunes. An ATV three-wheeler race took place on July 6th, 1986. I had the pleasure of witnessing this event first-hand, and as I recall, was quite impressed with the skills of one Chuck Collins, a pro moto-crosser in his own right, who handily, schooled the rest of the field on his Honda ATC 250. As most are probably aware, the 3-wheeled ATVs proved to be incredibly unstable and extremely dangerous. Their popularity was short-lived, but they played a large part in the formative years and history of Gopher Dunes.
Motocross bikes hit the track at Gopher Dunes for the first time in 1987 and the first official CMA Sanctioned motocross race took place at the Dunes later that same year. This began a regular run of CMA Sanctioned events that continued at the Dunes right up until 1991 when the main sanctioning body for motocross in Ontario switched to Mark Stallybrass’ new organization the CMC, which eventually came to be known as the CMRC in 1994. It must also be noted that Hamilton’s Steel City Riders hosted their first Club race at the Dunes, in 1987 as well, and have been holding one or two events a year at the track ever since.
1991 really was a transition year for Gopher Dunes. The political landscape of Canadian Motocross was changing and after a lot of thought and consideration Frank made the switch from CMA to CMRC. The price for a practice day ride, rose one dollar from $5 to $6 and that season, 91, was also the year that the iconic Wiseco Pavilion was constructed. Who among us hasn’t ducked under the trusty pavilion to avoid a sudden Spring shower or attend a riders meeting or two over the years? Wiseco has been a long-time sponsor of Gopher Dunes and continues in that role to this day, both with the Dunes and the GDR Race Team. Speaking of sponsors, the two major corporate relationships that Gopher Dunes has cultivated and maintained over the years have been with Honda and Suzuki. In fact, due largely to the inherently unsafe nature of the Honda 3-wheelers, Frank, in conjunction with Honda, has been conducting riding schools and safety training on site since year one. After several years of working with Honda through the 90's and early 2000's Gopher Dunes began a long exclusive run with Suzuki from 2005 to 2011. In 2012, amid a changing economic landscape, the Schuster’s and Honda Canada rejoined forces and continue to work together both at the facility and on the Race Team to the present.
It was also right around the time of the Wiseco Pavilion construction that young Derek“Digger”Schuster started making his presence known around the track. According to Derek his earliest memories consist of him playing around on the sand hills surrounding the track with his sister while his grandparents looked on and the bikes and ATVs whizzed by in the background. Derek’s parents were of course busy working the track and this is how it went for the Schuster family back in those days. Derek got his first three wheeler when he was three years old and it wasn’t long before he became a regular fixture at the Dunes bombing around behind his dad wherever he went and eventually taking over the role of head money collector at the track on practice days. He was good at his job too, I must say, and this is speaking from personal experience. He was virtually impossible to evade. Just when you thought your riding for the day was going to be free, he would roll up on you out of nowhere with his little money bag strapped around his waist and clipboard in hand. The point being, is that it’s always been a family affair at Gopher Dunes. Frank, his wife Barb and the kids Derek and Kait all put countless hours of work into the facility and have been key to its success over the years. While it’s been a lot of work there are absolutely no regrets according to Barb.“One important thing I must say” states Frank’s better half,“is that in the over thirty plus years that we have owned and operated the Dunes, it’s the people we’ve met and the friendships we’ve formed over the years are irreplaceable, and have made it all worthwhile.”
Having grown up on the property Derek Schuster has probably turned more laps than anyone at Gopher Dunes, but there are a few other notables that could possibly lay claim to that title as well. Brad Lockhart was a very prominent local rider in the early years and eventually bought Odyssey Recreation, the on-site dealership, from Dale Vranckx in the mid-nineties, and ran it at the location up until 2002, before moving it a couple of kilometers to the north. Lockhart was a legitimate podium threat in the Canadian Nationals in the early 90’s but after a few serious shoulder injuries derailed his racing career, he decided to turn his talents to the business side. According to Derek,“Brad is likely the only one who would be close to myself in laps logged around the track over the years.” Derek also credits Lockhart with being a big influence in his own racing and even in business sense.
Doug DeHaan is another name that comes up as a long-time regular at the Dunes. DeHaan, a consummate Pro, who rode for multiple Canadian Factory Teams over the course of his career spent many years racing and practicing at Gopher Dunes throughout his amateur and Pro career. Other top-level Pro’s that both Frank and Derek bring up when speaking of the Dunes in their pre-national era, include the one and only Ross“Rollerball”Pederson, Carl Vaillancourt, Doug Hoover, Jeff Surwall, Jim“Hollywood”Holley, Mike Harnden and Jean Sebastien-Roy during his privateer Kawasaki days to name but a few. That’s quite an impressive list, and I’m sure there are probably a couple of prominent names missing.
No history of Gopher Dunes would be complete without the mention of the legendary mudbog, or mudfest events as they are now referred to, that having been taking place at the facility, virtually since it opened. Frank agrees that the mudbogs have been a big deal at the Dunes over the years.“Wekind of lucked into that.” Explains Schuster.“Themudbogs had been taking place at another location for years but right around the time we opened, the municipality shut them down at the former location. We picked up the ball and ran with it.” The mudfest has been a regular, and extremely popular fixture at the facility ever since.
One of the biggest investments the Schuster’s have made as far as the track goes was the installation of the state-of-the-art irrigation system in 2004.‘Thatwas probably the biggest thing we’ve done over the years” states Schuster.“Itreally took things to the next level.” The installation of the sprinkler system was no small upgrade and set the Schuster’s back close to 100K but, in Schuster’s words was“thebest thing we’ve ever done, as far as an improvement to the facility.” It was imperative in the progression that needed to take place for Gopher Dunes to hold it’s first CMRC National in 2005. And it’s quite a sight to see on a beautiful summer day when the crew fires up the sprinkler system and rainbows fill the skies over the track.
In speaking with Schuster it’s pretty easy to tell that this whole endeavour is a labour of love for him and in a day and age when tracks all over North America seem to be constantly at odds with their surrounding neighbors Gopher Dunes has been able to accomplish what many others have not and developed a strong working relationship within the community.“Therelationships we have developed are a big key to our success,” comments Schuster.“We’vebeen able to make Gopher Dunes into a tourist attraction for the area. The local hotels, motels, grocery stores, restaurants and more know that when the National comes to town they are going to see a big spike in their business, and it doesn’t cost them a penny. It’s a good feeling to know that what we’re doing here isn’t just a feather in our cap, but it helps out the whole community as well”
Over the next several years improvements and changes continued at the Dunes. Starting in 2005 the National Weekend became a yearly showcase event at the facility. Derek Schuster began to play a more prominent role in the day to day operation and plans for a Race Team began to take shape. The first twenty years had been quite a ride for the Schuster’s and plenty more excitement lay ahead in what can only be described as a wonderful family success story, and another colorful chapter in the history of Canadian motocross.