Motorsport marshalling in the early days


By the late Leighton Irwin, originally published in The Garage Blog in 2010.

Mosport was a different place in the beginning. To start with it was 10 feet narrower. The top of 7 was ten feet higher and back flips were a real danger. Only run off, if you could call it that, was bottom of 2 where you might get stuck in the swamp. Single row guardrail was at the tunnels at 1 and 9 and at bottom of 4. Tunnels were shorter and no room for error. Jim Hall at 9 and John Surtees at 1 both went over. Both Paul Cooke and Jack Boxstrom went for a swim at 4. Earth banks surrounded the track as protection and cars surmounting them was not unknown. Race Control was the bottom floor of the tower on the inside just past 10. Those working in the pits were well protected from errant cars by a white line painted on the track. All Starts were standing.

At the pro races, spring and fall CRCA would have about 300 marshalls on raceday which was Sat. Fri. practice was another matter but still about 60 to 70 people. Club races would have in excess of a 100 marshalls on Sat. and about 40 on Fri. No Sunday racing back then.

There were marshall platforms at 4 and 8 but no cover. Otherwise you stood on the ground sometimes on less than level ground. All stations had lights controlled from the phone position. Green, Yellow, Flashing Yellow and Red controlled from the tower. More on that later.

Other positions were in flux and often, to a limited extent, controlled by the corner senior. The flag and safety people had no protection from the cars. At one point the control position at 4 was moved to the outside of the track, inside of the corner. I was, by that time one of the most experienced Mosport Marshalls. Most of the powers that be had more expeience but mostly at the airport tracks. I was very vocal in my opposition to the move so I promptly was the senior at 4. In that one day we had 3 close calls, including a car right through the phone position. We were lucky no one got hurt. It was moved back to the other side of the track quickly.

There were ill feelings quite often as marshalls who had worked all year at Mosport, quite often as corner seniors were relegated to ordinary marshalls, at the big races by people who had been marshalls for years but practically no Mosport experience. One BEMC weekend I was the senior at 5 including 5B and C. For the next race, the Cdn. GP (sports cars) I was a safety marshall at 2. Oh, I had been a senior on the Friday.

CRCA had 3 vehicles supplied by BMC. One van served as Equipment transport and one as the ambulance. There was no truth to the rumour that a snail could outdrag it up the back straight. A turtle maybe. The crash truck was an Austin Gipsy (sort of a jeep) with a 150 lb dry chem bolted in the back. Usually driven by Dick (Sonny) Rogers , later a FV champ, he would 4 wheel drift it down 2!! On one memorable occasion Paul Cooke was hanging on to the the extinguisher screaming as Sonny did his usual 4 wheel drift..

Days usually started with a 7am callout and quite often finished at dusk.

Reds were a real rareity and there was no such thing as full course yellows or safety cars. Marshalls went out onto live tracks to deal with situations. At the first Cdn GP for sports cars Bob Holbert flipped in turn 1 on lap one and landed upside down crosswise dead center in the middle of the track. There were 7 Ferraris and a couple of other cars strewen all over. By the time the cars got around again the racing surface was basically clear. In a couple of laps all was clear. We did have more time as lap speeds were about 1.35. I was one of the idiots standing on the bridge between the guardrails as the cars raced by.

You were on your own as far as food and drinks went. Rarely was there a lunch break and even more rare would an organizer send around some pop. No bottled water in those days. Extraction equipment on a station was crowbars and marshalls ‘ own knives. The crash truck had bolt cutters and a hacksaw.

Now back to the Phone stations. The phones were a little problematic if it rained. It didn’t always need lightning for people to get a shock! Remember no covered stations. The light usually worked well and were mostly well placed. The one at 3 was not where a driver would normally look. Talking as a driver here.

The phones were always operated by female marshalls . Men were not trained on then and were not expected to do so. Minor detail that often on a Fri. there would be no women at some stations. Female marshalls were only allowed as phone operators and could only relay the senior’s instructions not make reports on her own. They were not allowed to operate the lights.. That was supposed to be the senior’s job or another experienced marshall .. The phone operator had to pass on to the senior what the female control tower phone operator was told to say or ask by the Clerk of the Course. Lost in translation did occur. Very much the old boys school.

This, of course, left the senior tied to the phone when his experience would have been more use trackside.

Quite few of the younger marshalls sort of ignored these rules (me included) and if we had a good phone operator (like Dawn Robinson) had her operate the lights and do her own reports. She was sharper than most of the men! Once in a while a couple of experienced seniors on adjecent corners would want to discuss something when there were no cars on track. Again in theory everything had to go through the phone operators and be relayed through control back and forth. Naturally the girl at the next station heard what was being said to control but was supposed to wait until control relayed the question and then pass it on to her senior. A few of us just took the phone from the operator and asked for the senior at the next corner to come on. Again it was mostly the younger marshalls who did this. Rockets usually came from on high and an adverse report filed. I kid you not!

The ruling caste was mostly older English marshalls in those days. It did create some real animosity and led to some good people quitting. I soon started racing but probably would have quit anyway. Mind you CRCA was pretty darn efficient despite the problems. The reasons for their decline are numerous and I do not know a lot of the details.

Editor’s note: the photo above was taken at the 1962 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport. Notice how unprotected the marshals were. Courtesy of Dailu Racing Cars Archive, well worth a visit to see more period Dailu shots.


  1. peter Manganelli says:

    Great Article

  2. Paul Swinwood says:

    As a racer and Marshall in the mid 60s , yep, right on. Loved the white lines as a barrier , then the single level rails.

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