At the risk of boring you with a subject which has been constantly in the news since last November, this column must, for the sake of proper record-keeping if nothing else, begin with the problems faced by rally organisers the world over as a result of the Middle East War. Many economic difficulties have been laid at the door of that hostility, some justifiably and some not. The problem felt most keenly by rally organisers has been the shortage of fuel, and as a direct result of this many international events of long standing have been cancelled, among them three qualifiers in the World Rally Championship of 1974, the Monte Carlo Rally, the Swedish Rally and New Zealand’s Heatway Rally, the latter not even scheduled to take place until July.
When the crisis first became apparent measures were taken which, when considered in retrospect, were precipitous to say the very least. It is neither our intention nor our desire to criticise the economic motives of legislators, no matter what their nationalities, but when we see an immensely popular sport brought to its knees by official decree whilst sports with a lesser following and a greater petrol-burning capacity allowed to continue we become a little hot under the collar.
In Sweden it was declared that rallying would have to stop on the day that petrol rationing was introduced. That announcement was made well in advance, with the result that as many rallies as possible were crammed into the few weekends which were left before rationing was due to start. Now, Sweden has no rationing and its rallies are allowed once again. France stopped its rallying and has since allowed it again. Britain’s rallying population had its sport taken away very abruptly last November, immediately after the RAC Rally. Now, after considerable wrangling, blame-laying and even a hint of buck-passing, it has been restored.
When it was announced by the RAC that rallying would be stopped in the national interest no one complained, for it seemed at the time to be a useful way of reducing the country’s petrol consumption. But when it became apparent that sports with a greater, hut less direct fuel usage were being allowed to continue, that is when the complaining began. Rallying uses petrol at its “point of play”. Football and horse racing do not, but both result in heavy fuel consumption by officials, participants and spectators both before and after the actual “play”.
Having thus been led to the point at which they felt they were being cheated, rally enthusiasts began to look a little more carefully at the circumstances in which their sport had been taken away from them. Had the order been made by the Government, or had it come from the RAC, the sport’s legislative body? The RAC said that an order had been made by the Department of the Environment, but it seemed that that body would only admit to “asking” the RAC to withdraw all its rally permits. There was no clear-cut announcement and no plain language explanation to the country’s thousands of thwarted rally competitors. This led to discontent and a feeling that the RAC was not representing its licence holders in the way it should. People began to ask awkward questions and there was a general restlessness within the sport. Indeed, the situation finally brought home to the RAC that it did not have anything like the confidence of its licence holders which it should. Several rush measures were taken to improve communications between Belgrave Square and its member motor clubs and there was a very hastily arranged press conference which seemed to have been designed solely to display to all the unity of the RAC’s sporting division and its parent club at Pall Mall.
Whilst all this was going on, many rallying people wrote to their MPs. One of those MPs forwarded the enquiry to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Energy. Back came the startling reply that the Government had not ordered rallying to be temporarily stopped, that the RAC must have done this off its own bat, and that if the RAC wished to consult the Department of Energy concerning the restart of rallying then the Department would be pleased to listen and to offer advice.
Right in the middle of a delicate national crisis that was being made to look urgent in some quarters but no more than mildly serious in others, here were two government departments issuing conflicting statements. If the Department of Energy considered that there was no need to have stopped rallying, why had the Department of Environment asked for such a ban? And why didn’t the Department of Energy know about it? At a time of supposed crisis here was a complete breakdown of Whitehall communications. Whilst the accusing fingers of frustrated rally people were being pointed at the RAC, the whole time that body was being led up the garden path by our country’s administrators who were themselves doing no more than groping in the dark. With an election in the immediate offing this was a situation which could really be no more than swept under the carpet and so far neither the Department of Energy nor the Department of Environment have offered any explanation.
Since then, the door to rallying has been reopened and organising clubs are presently going ahead with arrangements to start their events as soon as they can be processed by the Rallies Authorisation Department run by the RAC on behalf of the Department of the Environment. And that brings us to another problem which presently exists in British rallying.
The sport began, it seems, when a bunch of enthusiasts got together to work out a means of providing themselves with competitive entertainment without the comparative boredom of circuit racing. They wanted something which taxed themselves as well as their cars, which would provide a worthwhile contest and which would nevertheless appeal to their senses of fun and adventure. Since that time, rallying has progressed so much that many of its more competitive parts are now held on roads closed to all other traffic. This is one of the natural consequences of the progress of civilisation. There are exceptions, of course, one being the East African Safari, a splendid event which still manages to be run in the old style on open public roads. Another is the form of club rallying in Britain which has come to be called “road rallying” for no more reason than to distinguish it from those events which have taken to the use of closed-road special stages on private land.
Six years ago, legislation was introduced in Britain to control motor sporting events using public roads. That legislation was welcomed, since it had the effect of weeding out the poor-quality events and improving those which were of a higher standard. Unfortunately, there are people who find it impossible to allow an activity to exist unhindered if they do not engage in that activity themselves, and over that six-year period there has been an increase in the number of complaints levelled against rallying. We feel that the majority of complaints are without justification, made by people who complain about rallies simply because they are there. Organisers nowadays are being subjected to verbal attack merely because of their own efforts to play the game by the public. It is common practice (though not a legal requirement) for a rally organiser to visit all householders along his proposed route and provide them with details of the coming event. Thus the potential complainant is provided in advance with vitriol for his pen, and frequently makes use of it for no more reason than that the rally is there as a ready-made subject for his acid attack.
Complaints, justified or otherwise, have a habit of being noticed more than compliments, and the result has been a document published by the RAC setting out various proposals for the further control of sporting events on public roads. They are directed against rallying in particular and were drawn up with no consultation with the sport’s thousands of participants in Britain. That came later, but although there has been a tremendous hue and cry over the manner in which the proposals were drafted and published, it is the RAC’s intention to take steps to implement them with very few changes.
As the representative body of a highly popular sport, the RAC did its members a great disservice by taking the sack-cloth and ashes attitude when it should have been doing the opposite. It would have been dishonest to have ignored all the complaints; it was just as dishonest to have ignored all the bouquets. The proposals quoted examples of complaining letters which gave the impression that rallying is a hooligan’s activity, and rallying people are left with the impression that the RAC is actually embarrassed by one of the most popular branches of the sport which it administers.
We at Motor Sport are not in favour of a sport being allowed to antagonise public opinion, hut we are in favour of fair play and we do feel that “public opinion” in this case is that of the minority. “Road Rallying”, as the RAC calls it, is the sport’s simplest and cheapest form. Without it many amateur enthusiasts would be forced on to the sidelines by the economic impossibility of acquiring the kind of specialist car needed for special stage events. We feel that the less wealthy have as much right to their sport as the better-heeled or sponsored minority.