For those of us of a certain age, the phrase RAC Rally stirs emotions. Memories of misty cold November days spent walking into a forest, Ordnance Survey map folded to the correct Special Stage and stashed in a rucksack alongside a Thermos flask and some Mars Bars.
Then arriving at your chosen vantage point to find it wall to wall with people who all had the same idea, the crowd murmuring in anticipation, the occasional fart ringing out to be congratulated by colleagues. As dusk falls, the banter in the crowd increases until, as darkness completes we’re stood waiting in the blackness, torches spearing out as we all make fun of the two fools that decided to climb a fir tree earlier and then got stuck….
Then you hear it in the distance, the sharp bark of a BDA or a V6 Stratos. Still a couple of miles off, but you can hear the engine note as the driver charges up the gears before a moment of silence as he brakes, the noise not carrying through the trees until he blips on the downchanges before getting back on the power, the engine note giving that slight tremor as it works against the limited slip diff out of the corner with a ghostly echo coming back through the trees.
Then there’s the shout from the rally marshalls, “CAR……. !!”, whistles blowing like air raid wardens as just over the horizon the skyline is lit up by an armoury of Cibie Oscars blazing through the forest. The engine is very loud now and as it crests the rise, the lights burn into our retinas and the BDA’s revs soar as he charges, all four wheels off the ground, then landing, instantly on the brakes approaching our chosen corner, the lights dart left and right as he sets the car up for a Scandinavian Flick.
Dozens of flashguns lance out from the tree line momentarily illuminating the crew inside, showing the sponsorship, the door number and sometimes a deep gouge in a rear wing or on occasion, a flattened roof and star crazed windscreen, testament to an off-piste adventure elsewhere. Small stones pepper our feet and legs and then they’re gone, lights illuminating the forest track we’d walked along on the way in, red tail lights getting smaller by the second, the spots left on our eyeballs fade as the blackness returns, murmurs of approval from the assembled experts.
Sixty seconds later, the sequence repeats. “CAR!!!” We take a step back into the tree line. Thirty minutes later, we’ve decided that the quickest guys have now been seen and we walk briskly back to the car, every minute or so taking a few strides back into the tree line as the slower midfield runners pass us by. Back at the car, we’re dumping our gear in the boot alongside the Primus stove, packs of bacon and bread buns and then grabbing the Ordnance Survey Map and heading to our next pre-planned vantage point.
Today, the World Rally Championship is a totally different affair. Located around a central point that the FIA claim is to help the logistics of media coverage and to contain costs, the UK round is no longer the four day marathon for both competitors and spectators. Instead, you travel to Wales and pay quite a lot of money to watch the top ten cars compete at a truly incredible pace, before the speeds drop dramatically off. With luck, today’s WRC might let you se the cars twice in a day. Sadly, the RAC Rally with it’s UK wide route is no longer a WRC event. However, the RAC Rally is in fact still out there. And it’s still great fun.
These days, the RAC part stands for Roger Albert Clark, the man who made Ford Escorts and muddy forests as fashionable as Cossack hair products. Revived in 2004 by DeLacy Motor Club, the event has defied the doubters and now become a firm favourite with crews and spectators. No four wheel drive, no turbos, just hard driven, traditional rally cars and a route that pay direct homage to the iconic stages of years gone by. Names like Dalby Woodyard, Helmsley, Croft Circuit Kiedler and Hamsterley all feature each year with a route that takes in North Yorkshire, Durham, Cumbria, Northumberland and southern Scotland, it’s a huge event.
For spectators, the whole road trip adventure is there to be re-created, or experienced for the first time. Beginning in Pickering, North Yorkshire on Friday 23rd November, the route takes in all of the aforementioned iconic stages, running deep into the night and with a quality entry list that a World Championship Rally would be proud of. Venturing across Durham and into Cumbria, before scything up to the Scottish Borders then back through Northumberland and finally finishing on Sunday at Brampton town centre in Cumbria.
Without ‘centralised servicing’ crews can often be seen in lay bys and cafe car parks grabbing a quick coffee and fresh tyres before continuing on, accompanied by chase car crew in a 4×4 with whip antenna waving on the roof, spares piled high in the rear window. With larger service halts and re-groups to keep the event on schedule, there will be something for even the most timid of rally spectator, with Croft Circuit hosting the sole tarmac stage and giving people ample opportunity to get up close to the action. This years entry includes the omnipresent Ford Escorts by the score, Perez’s beautiful Lancia Stratos, what is sure to be a great sounding Corolla AE86 entered by Midgley Motorsport plus a handful of Porsche 911’s.
For the more adventurous, I strongly suggest you turn off your GPS, lock it into the glovebox and learn how to use a map once more. The scenery is stunning, the night time can be pitch black but you’ll see more of the remote UK countryside than on a bank holiday weekend. But forests don’t have post codes, so download the route maps from the rally website, grab a pencil and find that great hairpin that tightens up, stand back and let the oversteer commence.