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Can-Am champion raced on a shoestring
For much of his career he was self-financed, but a sponsorship finally allowed him to perfect his car and led to his greatest victory
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, November 18, 2017 – Page S12

Horst Kroll, who died on Oct. 26 at the age of 81, won the CanAm motor-racing championship in 1986 when he was 50 years old, an age when most auto racers have retired. The only other Canadian to win a Can-Am championship was Jacques-Joseph Villeneuve (Gilles Villeneuve's brother), when he was 29.

In Can-Am racing, which ran from 1966 to 1987, the cars were behemoths with much larger engines than Formula 1 vehicles.

Mr. Kroll's car had a 5-litre engine that generated more than 550 horsepower. After his most celebrated victory in more than 20 years of racing, he quit and went back to running his car repair shop in West Hill, in Scarborough, Ont.

Horst Kroll's life was shaped by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. He was born on May 16, 1936, in Kreuzwalde in Silesia, which was then part of Germany. The family moved west to Saxony and lived there during the war.

A woman gave the family refuge in a house near Dresden. They were there when the British and U.S. bombing force dropped 3,900 tonnes of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the city from Feb. 13 to 15, in 1945, causing a firestorm. It was a controversial raid on a target of little strategic importance. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill eventually questioned it.

Horst was eight years old when the attack occurred. He later remembered hiding in the basement of the house, which was about 50 kilometres from Dresden, and feeling the ground shake from the explosions. "When I went outside it was night, but the flames from Dresden lit up the sky like it was the sun," he told friends many years later.

When the war ended, Horst, his two sisters and his mother, Elisabeth, became refugees, fleeing westward, away from the advancing Soviet Red Army. They eventually settled in East Germany.

His father, Emile Kroll, was in the German Army and died of tuberculosis several years after returning from the war. Horst finished eight years of school and then took a three-year apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. He worked in a local garage and then in, 1955 or 56, decided to leave East Germany. The police stopped people from leaving, but it was before the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961. He made up an excuse to get out, saying he was going to an auto show in West Germany.

"I left everything behind except what I could carry. I left friends, relatives and I had no money," Mr. Kroll told an interviewer in 2002.

In West Germany, he landed an apprenticeship at a Porsche factory in Stuttgart. He worked building the Porsche 356, the original Porsche sports car, which was a derivative of the Volkswagen Beetle. Mr. Kroll would say he knew the car so well he could repair one blindfolded. He ended up servicing VIP and executive cars.

After two years in West Germany, he sneaked back into East Germany to see his family. "The Vopos [East German Police] caught me. They kicked me out. I only had five hours visiting my mother."

He might have been forbidden to leave, but he lied to the police saying he had a fiancée back in West Germany, according to his daughter, Brigit Kroll.

Volkswagen, which sold Porsches, sent Mr. Kroll to Canada to work in Toronto, specializing in servicing the Porsche 356. He made an effort to learn English, though he always spoke with a soft German accent.

His friends were other young Germans who were interested in cars and racing.

Mr. Kroll joined a German racing team and started racing Porsche 356s at a track at Saint-Eugène, near Montreal. By 1963, he was ice racing, then competing at Harewood Acres, a track just west of Toronto. He started out driving a Porsche 356; then he moved to a Formula Vee, which looked like a small Formula 1 car but was not as powerful.

The Vee stood for Volkswagen, and the Formula Vee ran on a Volkswagen engine. Mr. Kroll built his own Formula Vee and was also racing a Porsche Speedster. He was winning race after race.

"Sometimes I would come home with six trophies in a weekend from Harewood," Mr. Kroll said.

At this stage, he was still working at Volkswagen Canada and he could experiment with souping up the VW engine for his weekend race car.

"I would work late at night at Volkswagen of Canada and build an engine. I would test it, and if it wasn't right, I would tear into it and do it again, until I got it right," Mr. Kroll said. Not only did he race the Formula Vees, but he went on to build 18 of them and sold them to other drivers after he left Volkswagen and opened his own shop.

Peter Felder, a racing manager and admirer, said it was Mr. Kroll's intimate understanding of the workings of the engine that made him such a great race driver.

"He had a phenomenal mechanical mind. He knew the engine. He also had focus and concentration when he was driving," Mr. Felder said.

During the mid-1960s, Mr. Kroll raced a Porsche 356 Carrera, the fastest version of the early Porsches; all Porsche 356s are valuable today, but a 2-litre Porsche 356 Carrera sold this year for $517,000 (U.S.).

In 1968, Mr. Kroll won the Canadian Driving Championship. For the next two decades, he raced all over North America, from Mosport near Toronto to Saint-Jovite at Mont Tremblant, and in California, Texas and Wisconsin. He raced on a shoestring, financing his own cars, as he found it difficult to find sponsors.

"At races, my father would go through what the other race teams threw away," said his daughter, Birgit, who accompanied her father to many races. "Sometimes, other drivers or mechanics would come by and tell him there was a good camshaft in the garbage bin."

Mr. Kroll raced on a tiny budget until he got a sponsorship from Chipwich in the 1980s, which allowed him to perfect his Can-Am car. In 1984, he came third overall, then second the next year, before winning the championship in 1986.

Mr. Felder says Mr. Kroll could have done better if he had had more money.

"The trouble is he couldn't afford to crash. It was his money. If it came down to it, he would have to back off in the final corner," Mr. Felder said.

When he was off the track, Mr. Kroll drove in much the same way he did when he was racing. He went fast and cut the edges off corners. He received a lot of tickets, but more than once the officers who stopped him let him off because they were race fans.

Once he and his girlfriend, Connie Beadle, were driving two Porsches - a 356 and a 911 - back from California when they passed a police speed trap, on the other side of the road in Oklahoma.

"I saw he spotted Connie and was wheeling around to come after us," Mr. Kroll told a reporter. "I told her if she ever saw me flashing my lights to take the next exit."

She did, and they made it to a motel.

"We checked out in the middle of the night and kept going on back roads."

At one point the 25-year-old 356 had some engine trouble, but Mr. Kroll repaired it in a hurry.

Mr. Kroll was devastated some time later when his companion, Ms. Beadle, died in an automobile accident.

For many years, he ran a car repair service on Kingston Road in Scarborough. He was a great mechanic, but not a great businessman.

"Horst's lot was jammed with cars because he was a terrible salesman. If someone came in and tried to haggle over the price, he refused to deal with them," said his friend, Dan Proudfoot, an auto journalist, who recently wrote a series of articles on the restoration of two of Mr. Kroll's Porsche 911s that he never managed to sell.

Mr. Kroll loved cats. He took in strays, and they lived all over his garage, some of them sleeping in one of his old Can-Am race cars.

Mr. Kroll leaves his daughter, Birgit; his wife, Hildegard, from whom he had been separated for many years; and his sisters, Renate and Krista.

To submit an I Remember: Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Associated Graphic

Racecar driver Horst Kroll is seen in a Kelly Porsche. In 1968, Mr. Kroll won the Canadian Driving Championship. For the next two decades, he raced all over North America, in places such as Toronto, California, Texas and Wisconsin.

Horst Kroll

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