As a mechanic, Walter Bitz was the best around. Tell him something couldn't be done and he'd go out of his way to prove you wrong. In the heydays of the Prince George Auto Racing Association, he was a magician under the hood and an innovator in the truest sense of the word.
Put Bitz behind the wheel of a car, and it was a different story altogether. As much as he liked to think he could drive, he was an absolute disaster behind the wheel.
Friends of Bitz have been swapping stories about him ever since he passed away in early February after a short battle with cancer. Bitz, who had been living in Kamloops for the past 14 years, was 70 at the time of his death.
Bitz moved from the Lower Mainland to Prince George in the late 1960s and was a mainstay at PGARA for more than a decade. He started out as a mechanic for Frank Cook but soon decided he wanted to be a driver instead.
One of Bitz's first cars was a 1964 Chevelle. One particular weekend at PGARA's Ferry Avenue track, he was all set to jump into the cockpit when he got some perturbing news from his wife, Linda. She told him quite bluntly that she wanted to race the car.
A decision was made -- whoever could run the quickest lap in time trials would get the honour.
Linda put him to shame.
"Even in traffic, Linda could outdrive Walt," said PGARA legend Bert Prest. "He was called Mrs. Bitz by the guys. Walter was 10 times the mechanic than he ever was a driver."
Ultimately, Bitz was forced to admit to himself that he should be holding a wrench in his hand, not a steering wheel. He ended up going to work for Prest and, with fellow crew members Bob Stephenson, Bill Smith and Gerry Miller, they won a string of season championships.
In those days, Prest was driving a 1966 GTO assembled by Bitz. The car was one of the fastest in Western Canada and Bitz was a major reason why.
"We did stuff that nobody had ever done at PGARA before," Prest said. "We put a windshied in my car -- a straight glass windshield, not like they use now -- but we were the first car to run with windows, first car to run with coil springs. It made a huge difference. The technology that Walter could come up with was unbelievable. When Walter built you a motor, my God, he had every bit of horsepower in that thing that you could get."
Bitz also made major improvements to the roll cage in Prest's car.
"He changed the design of the cage to make the car handle better," Prest said. "There was so much stuff like that."
After several seasons of dominance, Bitz said he was 'tired of making a hero' out of Prest and went back to driving. Of course, that didn't last long. Soon, he was fine-tuning engines again, this time for a guy named Colin Kinsley.
Bitz, a perennial winner of PGARA's mechanic of the year award, wasn't exactly modest about his abilities either. He used to strut around with his chest puffed out, much like a rooster, and would make sure everybody around the track knew he was the master.
"He used to shoot off his mouth all the time about what he could do but the little guy could back it up," Prest said. "He was so cool to be around. You'd go to drivers' meetings or the parties and Walt would be talking steady to the other drivers and mechanics, telling them how bad he was going to kick their asses."
Gene Sagmoen, PGARA president from 1968 to 1973 and a long-time flagman for the association, also remembers Bitz as being a big talker. But Sagmoen also said Bitz would do anything for anybody -- even to his own detriment.
"He was a hell of a mechanic and I can remember one time he went over to help a guy named Bernie Lewis get his car running and then Bernie went out and beat him in the main event," Sagmoen said with a laugh. "And that's just one thing. I could go on for days. You just can't say enough about guys like him because he was always thinking about what he could do to make the club better."
Bitz was predeceased by Linda and by son Danny. He is survived by children Cherie, Troy, Neil and Lori, 11 grandchildren, and by his second wife, Connie.