One of Canadian motorsport’s pioneer racers who went on to become a famous race official and continued throughout his life to be an all-'round booster of the sport, Wallie Branston, has died at age 90.
An energetic and vigorous man until just a few years ago, Branston had been in ill health recently and that old heart — the heart of a lion — gave out on him Thursday morning.
I have had few heroes in my time but Wallie was one of them. I’ll tell you why: he was national sales manager for Subaru Canada when he was 82. He'd just overseen an expansion of the company's national dealer network when he was asked to retire. As someone who's working well past "normal" retirement age, I can tell you that Wallie was my kinda guy.
He lived, ate and breathed automobiles and he did everything - everything - in racing. His amazing contributions were recognized in 1997 when he was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
He was one of a half-dozen original stock car racers in the Toronto area. He was one of the first stock car racers in Canada to have major sponsorship. He raced on both dirt and pavement and on road courses as well as ovals. He was a performer in an automobile thrill show that scared the living daylights out of the people watching. He raced sports cars and was a rally driver. When Mosport opened in 1961, Branston was the flagman/starter and he did that job for 15 years.
You can't have a more complete automotive career than that.
"I was car crazy," Wallie told me once when I interviewed him for a newspaper story. "My hero was a thrill show driver named Lucky Teeter. I saw Lucky Teeter and his Hell Drivers at the Exhibition in 1934 or '35 and I was enthralled.
"In 1941, Lucky Teeter was going to make one last jump. He was killed and I was devastated."
When Branston was 10, he helped his father rebuild the engine of a 1928 Chevrolet. It was obvious that he had the mechanical knack right from the get-go.
In 1948, Branston and his father attended the sprint car races at the original half-mile-dirt Pinecrest Speedway up on Hwy. 7, near Jane St.
"I was in Heaven, " Branston recalled. "The sprint cars would come up from the States a couple of times a year and it was a thrill to watch those guys. It was the 24th of May weekend and after the races, the announcer asked anybody interested in stock car racing to stick around.
"They had a meeting and said that the sprint cars were coming back in the fall and would we like to race with them on the same program? There was a bunch of us there - Len Hurley, Ted Hogan and some other guys - and we said sure.
"In fact, not long after that we established the Toronto Stock Car Racing Club (a forerunner of the Canadian Auto Racing Society, which united - for a time - the stock car club, the British Empire Motor Club and one or two others in an effort to bring all Toronto-area racing under one banner).
Branston owned a '39 Chev that he'd purchased from his father with money he'd saved up during a stint in the air force during World War II and, with his first wife away at the cottage, he entered that first race.
"I got to Pinecrest and pulled out the back seat and took off the muffler and went racing, " he said - after using adhesive tape to put the number 14 on both front doors ("for my dad's birthday and the day I got engaged").
"Going into the last lap, I was leading but then a wheel fell off and Len Hurley passed me. I nearly won the first stock car race in Canada (or the Toronto area, at least)."
Branston put the wheel back on, re-installed the back seat and muffler and pulled the tape off the doors before joining his wife at the cottage. "You could still see the outlines of the '14' on the door, though, and she looked at me and the car and said, 'I thought you were up to something.' But it was okay; she knew I was crazy."
Without going into great detail, Branston attracted the attention of the Bardahl lubricant company and he became one of the first racers in Canada to receive sponsorship ("they gave me $75 a year and we painted the name 'Bardahl Rocket' on the race car").
During his career, he kept and maintained his race cars ("they gave me parts in return for their name on the car") at BA Motors at Avenue and Davenport roads and later at A.D. Gorrie and Co., a GM dealership on Gerrard Street East.
A fan favourite at Pinecrest and the CNE Speedway, he was also the "human battering ram" on the daredevil "Canadian Aces" team that went up against the Ward Beam Hell Drivers when that barnstorming troupe made its annual stop at the "Ex" in August.
In mid-1956, Burke Seitz, who owned Gorries as well as the newly opened Golden Mile Chevrolet dealership, told Branston that he had to pull the sponsorship. "His shop foreman was stealing parts and marking them down as going to the stock car, " Branston recalled.
"I was only using $2,000 to $3,000 in parts each year, but the books showed I was using $20,000. So that was pretty much the end of the Gorries Bardahl Rocket stock car. But I couldn't afford to keep racing anyway because most of the guys were switching to the supermodifieds and they were spending on one engine what I would spend in two or three years on the stock car. It was crazy."
Branston said not racing made him feel like a fish out of water. But then one day he found himself behind the wheel of a Gorries Corvette in sports car races.
"I did some racing at Harewood Acres and Watkins Glen, " Branston said. "But to drive the sports cars, you had to join a club - those were the rules - and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I joined the British Empire Motor Club and when Mosport opened and they needed a flagman, they asked me."
From 1961 until 1975, during the glory years at Mosport when sports cars, the Can-Am, the Trans-Am, Formula One, U.S. Auto Club stock cars and just about everything else you can think of raced there, Branston was front-and-centre, waving the green flag to start races (the Canadian Maple Leaf flag was used on occasion to start major international events), the yellow caution flags to slow things down and the checkered flag to signal the end of competition.
It was hard to miss him. Attired in black dress pants, white shirt, yellow bow tie and red sports jacket, he pretty much stood out. And his high leaps while waving the checkers are the stuff of legend. When Jack Brabham won the first F1 Canadian Grand Prix in 1967, Branston set an altitude record at Mosport that has never been beaten.
He says the F1 races gave him his biggest thrills. "Jackie Stewart used to call me by my first name, " he said. "It can't get any better than that."
He gave up the starter's job when the time needed became too much.
"I just got tired of giving up all my weekends in the summer, " he said. "I was out there in the blazing sun and I was out there in the pouring rain. I'd say to myself, 'What am I doing here?' I knew it was time to quit."
They took Wallie to the McDougall Brown Funeral Home, 2900 Kingston Rd. East, in Scarborough. www.mcdbrownscarb.ca
- NORRIS McDONALD