Where are the crowds?
In 1972, when Michigan’s Press-on-Regardless Rally joined the list of qualifiers for what was then the International Rally Championship for Makes, forerunner of the World Championship, many Europeans viewed the situation with concern. With the exception of the East African Safari, the top level of rallying was the distinct preserve of Europe, where the toughest events were held and where the sport was conducted in a tasteful, almost gentlemanly manner.
Was this now to change? Were the big American publicity machines about to take over and turn rallying into a circus?
The fears turned out to be unfounded. Rallying was a minority sport in the USA, where very few people had any idea of what it was all about. It attracted very few spectators indeed, many of whom could not understand even its basic principles, and the popular misconception was that a rally was some kind of off-road race for baby cars.
The fact that cars were separated by minutes made it all the more difficult to comprehend and to generate enthusiasm. How could a “race” attract any kind of public following if cars were so far apart that there was never any close competition?
What was needed was public education, and the USA’s small band of rally organisers and competitors set about trying to do just that in an effort to increase awareness of rallying and attract more spectators. Alas, it has been a losing battle.
In a country of big cars and big engines, comparatively small rally cars, no matter how powerful or sophisticated, were hardly more than toys. Any competition between such vehicles could not really be expected to be taken seriously, and it seems that this attitude prevails even today. Rallying’s following in the USA is hardly any greater now than it was in the early Seventies.
A sport which has little or no public support is of no use to either sponsor or publicist, and the big wheels of American publicity machines have not rolled into action at all.
Perhaps for the same reasons, American car manufacturers have never really shown an interest in rallying, and who can blame them when their big, soft-sprung products held no appeal to competitors? Rallying was something exclusively for imported compacts, and why should the home industry support an activity which seemed to be designed for their rivals from overseas?
There were occasional exceptions, of course, such as Scott Harvey driving for Chrysler, although in cars made by that company’s overseas factories, and Gene Henderson driving a Jeep Wagoneer for American Motors.
The latter was a trial exercise which began very successfully and which seemed destined to continue. On Michigan’s sandy forest roads, Henderson won the 1972 Press-on-Regardless Rally in his four-wheel-drive Jeep which, at the time, was the only American-made vehicle homologated for international rallying. AM was delighted, and there were distinct signs that the company would embark on a programme which would take in not only the Safari but European rallies too.
Suddenly, the prospect of an American invasion of what had been the preserve of European manufacturers (Japan only had its toes in the water at the time) became a real one. The earlier European appearances of Ford Falcons had not come to much, but four-wheel-drive Jeeps could be quite different, and pose a threat to the regular teams of Europe.
It could hardly have been a mere coincidence that very soon after the Jeep victory in Michigan the CSI (later FISA) banned four-wheel-drive, and the expected AM foray into international rallying never materialised. Later, of course, just in time for the appearance of the Audi Quattro, the four-wheel-drive ban was lifted.
American Motors were not enamoured by this apparent closing of the door, and whatever one feels about the success potential of such a big, high vehicle as a Jeep Wagoneer against the more agile European, cars of the time, the fact remains that AM, and perhaps other American manufacturers, no doubt considered that Europe wanted to keep top class rallying to itself, without any brassy transatlantic intrusion.
A car sport without any participation by the home industry no doubt seems strange, and perhaps this contributes to the chicken-and-egg situation which has prevailed in the USA for years. The public has no enthusiasm for rallying, and sponsors see no benefit in a sport which attracts hardly any spectators at all.
In some respects, spectators are a nuisance, but they do provide a measure of the popularity of an event, not to mention a source of revenue in some cases, and no self-respecting organiser can honestly claim that he wants no-one to go out to watch his rally.
There was a time when we felt that the American situation might change; that rallying there would slowly gain acceptance and support. But this has not happened. From time to time, tourist and municipal authorities, hoteliers, car importers, even a university, have provided backing for leading American rallies, but this has been short-lived. A sponsor cannot be expected to continue supporting something to which the public attitude is one of indifference rather than enthusiasm, and the reaction more bewilderment than excitement.
The situation was never helped by the curious hierarchy of motor sporting administration in the USA. One of the national licence-issuing clubs in the SCCA, but this is primarily concerned with racing and still seems to tolerate rallying rather than support it. At one time a rival organisation, NARRA, was formed, but this did little more than divide an already sparse following, and it was probably just as well that it eventually disappeared.
Despite continued efforts for many years by small groups of diehard American rally organisers and competitors, the situation has not changed. The World Championship continues to have a qualifying event in the USA – the Olympus Rally in Washington State – but it has no more public impact than did the old Press-on-Regardless rallies.
Spectators are very few, even at special stages created specially for them in urban areas, and one has the impression that many of the watchers are there merely by chance: that they came across the event by accident, and stayed out of curiosity.
This is a great shame, and it must be demoralising for industrious organisers, after much hard work, to see their event create less impact than that of an English village fête. Even worse is to have poor support by competitors, for all organisers seek to gather as many entries as they can muster, from as many countries as possible.
By American standards, entries for this year’s Olympus Rally were about normal, but numbers were swollen by competitors in a national championship event running at the back of the field. The only resemblance between the entry list and that of most other World Championship events was the presence of no less than five Lancia Delta Integrales. No other regular team was there, but Lancia was nevertheless making quite sure of scoring maximum championship points.
One Lancia was from the Martini-backed……works team for Massimo Biasion, one from the Jolly Club for Alessandro Fiorio, two Group N cars from Top Run for Giovanni Del Zoppo and Jorge Recalde, and one entered privately by Paulo Alessandrini. Originally there was to have been a car for Markku Alén, but once again the Italian team’s Finnish driver was withdrawn.
There were three 1298cc Cultus GTis making an exploratory sortie from the Suzuki factory, two for Japanese drivers Tajima and Awazuhara, and one for New Zealander Alan Carter who lives in California. A Coupe Quattro was entered by Audi America for John Buffum, whilst privateer Georg Fischer brought a 200 Quattro from Austria. Rod Millen, another New Zealander who has made his home in California, drove a Mazda 323.
Faced by withdrawal of financial support by Toyota, last year’s sponsor, and cancellation by permission to include a large forest area used last year, the organisers really had their work cut out to produce a rally at all. They eventually succeeded, with a route of 1280 miles, of which 38 special stages accounted for 348 miles.
The rally was based at Tacoma, where the opening spectator stage in the town started under cover in a warehouse. This was run twice, but still attracted little more than bemused interest from passers-by who did not seem to know what was going on.
There was no doubt whatsoever that Lancia would command the situation, and this is exactly what happened. Initially Millen was up among them, but half-an-hour spent struggling to get his Mazda back on the road after going off put an end to that.
Buffum also had a misfortune when, at the end of the first day consisting of the two town stages, he clocked in early at the closed park control. This was allowed at end-of-leg controls, but that first day was not a leg in itself, a mistake which many others would have made had they not seen what happened to Buffum. He protested, his penalty was eventually scrapped and he rose to third place.
When the proper stages began on the second day, Biasion moved ahead and kept his lead to the end, pursued by Fiorio. Buffum kept his third place, pursued by Fischer, whilst Millen drove really well to recover from his long delay on an early stage and finished a very respectable eighth. Without that delay he would probably have been second, and that would certainly have altered the situation.
Although poorly supported by international entries, let down by sponsors and landowners, and faced by an indifferent public, the organisers produced a most respectable rally. However, whether it remains in the world series next year remains to be seen.
Having won six of the seven events so far held in the World Championship, Lancia now has the makes series in the bag. It only needs to win one of the remaining four qualifiers to amass the maximum score of 140 points. The Drivers’ Championship is not yet settled, but it takes no great imagination to conclude that the man being pushed forward to the title is Biasion.
Lancia drivers occupy the first three places. Alén is currently third, but will certainly not be allowed to challenge Biasion, whilst second place is held by Fiorio, and even Lancia’s team boss would hardly issue instructions so that his own son became World Champion. GP
Although one of the lower co-efficient events in the European Championship, Turkey’s Marlboro Günaydin Rally certainly has the ability to attract a spread of entries.
This year the 64 starters from Istanbul included competitors from no less than 14 countries, a representation which many World Championship events would find difficult, if not impossible to achieve.
There were no world stars, nor any serious contenders for the European title, but the competition was no less interesting for that. All were on the same level, and an atmosphere of friendly rivalry prevailed. Even Greece, a country with which Turkey has not been on the friendliest of political terms in the past, sent a sizeable group of privateers
Storms and floods caused havoc in Turkey during the week before the start, including a landslide which tragically claimed many lives, but route-changes were quickly made and, after having their practice interrupted by road blockages, competitors were eventually able to complete their notes.
The rally lasted just less than 24 hours, from Saturday morning to Sunday morning, and a six-hour evening rest-stop divided the route into two legs, the first by day, the second at night. The first leg was confined to a forest area just to the north of Istanbul, on the European side of the Bosphorus, whilst the second moved further afield, across the Bosphorus into Anatolia.
Favourites were Mohammed Bin Sulayam and Ronan Morgan in their Mike Little-prepared Ford Sierra Cosworth, but they were delayed in the first special stage by failure of the fuel-pump relay and eventually finished second. Finns Kalevi Aho and Voitto Silander went out after the first stage when their Renault 11 Turbo blew its head-gasket, whilst Turkish Champion Ali Baçioglu eventually retired after first braking a driveshaft and then rolling his Opal Kadett twice.
Outright winners were Turks Emre Yerliçi and Can Okan in an Audi Coupé Quattro prepared at the Rolf Schmid workshops in Vienna. The car was badly damaged early in the rally by hitting a tree, but mechanics managed to repair everything without any serious loss of road time.
An outstanding performance was put up by Frenchman Christian Gachan and André Barreca who, after starting last on the road in their Group B Citroën Visa MP, fought through the thick dust which persisted in the windless air and got up to second place before prop-shaft failure dropped them to fifth.
Unfortunately the organisation displayed some weaknesses, and we trust that by next year quite a few rough edges will have been smoothed off. We trust too that they will have found enough clocks which display seconds, not just hours and minutes! GP