Wallie Branston

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Wallace King Branston 

Born: October 11, 1923 (Toronto)
Died: November 7, 2013 (Toronto)

Member: Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (1997)

 

As Jack Brabham crossed the finish line at Mosport to claim the inaugural Formula One Canadian Grand Prix race in 1967, the mad, leaping figure on the track in the rain waving a soggy checkered flag was Wallie Branston.

The red-jacketed flagman was close enough to the Australian winner’s car to be drenched by the rooster-tail spray of water from the open-wheeled racer.

ImageTwo hours, 40 minutes, 40 seconds earlier, Branston had waved a green flag to begin the historic race in a downpour on the winding course at Bowmanville, Ont.

He had been Mosport’s starter and flagman since it opened 1961, holding the post for 15 years.

Branston’s love for cars and racing came at an early age, he once told Norris McDonald of the Toronto Star. At age 10, he helped his father rebuild the engine of a 1928 Chevrolet, showing a mechanical aptitude that would be put to use in the years to come. He was enamoured with such trick drivers as Lucky Teeter, a former gas-station attendant who led a troupe of daredevil Hell Drivers until he was killed in an accident in 1942.

He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, being trained as an airplane engine mechanic. After the war, he worked at the same job for Trans-Canada Air Lines briefly before returning to automobiles. He was a longtime representative in Toronto for Bardahl, the oils and lubrication manufacture, and for automobile manufacturers, ending his career with Subaru Canada.

After the Second World War, Branston began racing stock cars at Pinecrest Speedway, a quarter-mile concrete oval north of Toronto on Highway 7 near Jane Street in York Township (now Vaughan, Ont.). He was sponsored in part by Bardahl.

ImageIn 1954, he raced in a Nascar Sprint Cup Series event at the Monroe County Fairgrounds at Rochester, N.Y., his contest ending on lap 52 of 200 when he crashed his ’53 Oldsmobile. The race was won by the legendary Lee Petty.

He also competed at Oakwood Raceway and, most famously, at the Canadian National Exhibition, where the Star once announced in a headline, “Branston is matinee idol of CNE stock car addicts.” 

After winning his fifth race early in the 1953 season, the Star’s Jim Proudfoot recounted how it took 20 minutes for the victorious driver to extricate himself from the winner’s circle, as he signed autographs, shook hands, and accepted congratulations.

“This is something new, anyway, that’s for sure,” Branston said.

The CNE stock car races were a popular, inexpensive entertainment. The stocks zipped around a one-third mile in front of the grandstand in which patrons sat protected from the elements. The stocks were kings of the fairground for about a decade until the Toronto Argonauts football team moved into the facility. As well, the move towards elite supermodified vehicles put the squeeze on the old-time drivers. “Those guys were spending more on one engine that I was spending in an entire season,” Branston once said.

A longtime director of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, he was inducted himself as a pioneer stock driver in 1997.

In the 1950s, Branston also took part in daredevil performances when barnstorming Hell Drivers came to Toronto. He was a human battering ram — resting atop the hood of a speeding automobile, his head protected by a football helmet, as the car ploughed through inch-tick boards and excelsior (wood shavings), all of which was set alight just before the stunt. Despite tempting the fates as a young man, he died a month after his 90th birthday.

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Wallie Branston leaps high into the air to wave the checkered flag at the finish line as Jack Brabham races past in the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport in 1967.

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