Rallying around award
I remember it like it was yesterday,” he chuckled when asked how it felt taking his first checkered flag. The year was 1963 and he finished first out of a field of 30 at Vancouver’s Thunderbird Rally.
“I was ecstatic, you sort of don’t believe you did it,” he said smiling from ear to ear.
He did it all right, and he would go on to do it again (and again, and again ...).
Parksville resident and longtime rally car driver Tom Burgess was honoured by the Greater Vancouver Motorsport Pioneers Society at its 11th annual induction ceremony in Vancouver on Oct. 9, and last week The News finally caught up with the 70-year-old spark plug.
“It’s kind of a long story,” Tom laughed when asked how he got his start in rally racing, then explained he’d always been interested in cars from an early age, “and somehow I managed to convince my dad to buy me an MG to go to university with.”
He says he was barely into his freshman year when he joined the UBC sports car club. That was 1959 and the club was active in rally racing.
There are, he explained, two types of rallies — there is the high profile Stage Rally’s where they close off sections of forestry roads of varying lengths and the fastest car through wins — each car has to have a driver and a co-driver/navigator.
And with speeds reaching over 120 MPH, no wonder “we call it Formula 1 in the forest.”
The last stage rally in B.C. was the Pacific Forest Rally out of Merritt held three weeks ago with a field of 30 cars.
Tom was there as the senior steward representing the sanctioning body to make sure the rally “is safe and run by the rules.”
That rally will be televised on TSN Nov. 8 at 10:30 a.m.
“These things are run all over the world — there’s actually a World Rally Championships,” Tom explained, then confirmed. “I’ve been to several.”
The other form of rally driving is Time Speed Distance, which he says “is more of a navigational exercise where you try to follow a specified route at a specified average speed.”
The car closest to the pre-set target time is the winner.
Tom drove for 10 years, and eventually partnered up with a legend in the sport Taisto Heinonen who was also inducted in Vancouver.
“Basically I teamed up with him when I realized he was faster than me,” Tom chuckled during our trip down memory lane. “He’s arguably the best rally driver this country’s ever seen — he was magic behind the wheel.”
With Tom as co-driver, the pair won four straight Canadian Rally Championships (1977-’80) with Team Toyota, and did it again in 1982. In 1983 Tom won his sixth national rally title with Randy Black in a Nissan.
Over the years he was part of teams also sponsored by VW, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Renault.
Tom ran his last serious national event in 1997. He tops the list of over 100 names on page B-80 in the official Rally Rule Book of Canada for most points accumulated over a career.
Wife Ann of 38 years was away for her job on the cruise ships and couldn’t attend the latest induction, but knows the sport well.
“We met at a rally,” she smiled, and Tom points out she used to do publicity work for his teams, “in fact she got us on Canada AM when we were at our peak.
Born and raised in Chilliwack, Tom moved to the Island when he retired in 2002 after a long career as a chemical engineer.
In 1998 he was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
The way the story goes is the couple was living in Atlanta at the time where Ann had a travel-related talk show on one of the radio stations, and it was there, while driving to work one morning, that Tom first heard about his induction.
“He was so steamed, ‘why didn’t you tell me before,’ he said later,” laughed Ann.
“He was a very good driver and very enthusiastic about what he did, and very accurate,” Taisto (pronounced Tysto), who moved to Canada from Finland with his family in 1970, said from his home in Hope Thursday, pointing out the two of them logged a lot of road trips together.
“He’s good guy — good jokes ... we had a lot of really good laughs.”