Few remember that world rallying enjoyed a brief career in America but John Davenport does: he was there to tell the tale.
There was no Trevor Howard or Celia Johnson. No railway station as far I can recall. But there was a brief encounter back in the 1970s and ’80s between North American rallying and the FIA World Rally Championship.
Rallying started in Europe, and throughout the 1960s, even though there were major rallies all over the world, the Blue Riband series was the European Rally Championship. In 1968, after some pressure from its non-European members, the FIA created the International Rally Championship for Makes. By 1970, this manufacturer’s championship comprised nine events, seven of which were the big guns from Europe such as Monte Carlo, Acropolis, San Remo and the RAC, while the eighth was the Safari and the ninth the one-off London to Mexico. In 1971, this was replaced by the Moroccan Rally, but the bias was still very much towards Europe.
Lurking in the Michigan Peninsula was one potential candidate, the Press On Regardless rally, described in its own publicity as “America’s longest, richest, meanest car rally”. This was no idle claim as the logging roads of northern Michigan and the November weather meant a tough and difficult event. Organised by the Detroit Region of the Sports Car Club of America, the POR had a double claim to the FIA’s ear. First it was organised out of Motown which meant that, if any event was going to claim the support of the American car manufacturers, this should be it. And the SCCA was at that time the USA representative at the FIA.
So the 1972 POR was awarded a place in the International Rally Championship for Makes and slotted into the calendar between San Remo and the RAC Rally. At this point, there was no World Rally Championship, but the FIA planned to start one in 1973, albeit just for car manufacturers not for drivers. Thus the POR described itself in its 1972 regulations as “a qualifying event for the FIA World Rally Championship”. No lights were being hidden under bushels here, especially as they were keen to impress their sponsor, Total Gasoline.
Since the advent of the FIA World Rally Championship was known well before the end of 1972, there was a certain curiosity about this new event and though none of the European teams attended in strength, there was one, more alert to the possibilities than most, who sent one car. Lancia were just about to win the IRCM with a massive 42-point gap to its nearest rivals, Fiat. But Cesare Fiorio, Lancia’s sporting director, knew that life might not be so easy the following year when Alpine Renault were to make a major effort with their A110.
Up until the end of 1971 I had been co-driving for the Lancia team for three years, but had gone back to Ford alongside Hannu Mikkola. Thus I was a bit surprised to get a call from Fiorio asking me if I could go to Michigan to drive with Harry Kallstrom. His purpose was two-fold: to score points to keep the gap to Fiat as large as possible, and to get all the angles in case Lancia would have to be there the following year. Unfortunately we did not manage the first part of the task: on the last night, deep in the Escanaba State Forest on the Wolverine Truck Trail, we lost our brakes. The resulting accident and roll took our Lancia Fulvia out of a commanding 12-minute lead into instant retirement.
The other part of the task was accomplished, however. The POR was significantly different from European rallies in several ways: the special stages were not on closed roads but, to compensate, were largely run at night in areas where the population density was too low to register. The crew was required to navigate at all times which is another way of saying that there were no arrows on the stages. Timing was to hundredths of a minute rather than seconds, and the time at each control was not written on your time-card, but on a sticker that was then handed over for you to add to your card.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about that 1972 event was that thanks to short road sections and brisk average speeds, the rally really did live up to its name. You had to press on if you were going to keep up with the schedule. The whole thing lasted three nights and 1600 miles, 450 of it timed stages.
After our demise, the 1972 POR was won by the legendary Gene Henderson driving an enormous white 5.3-litre V8 AMC Jeep Waggoneer. The Waggoneer weighed in at 4800lbs and ex-policeman Gene was 280lbs. The Jeep was called Moby Dick and he was called `Sir’. Harry and I had indulged in a long duel with Gene and Moby throughout the two nights that we were running. On a smooth stage we would take 0.16 minute off him, but on the BGDR stage, a nightmare of sand, rocks and tree stumps, he would have them back with interest. Gene deserved his win, the first for a four-wheel drive car on an FIA championship rally.
The following year, after good reports from the observers, the POR made it into the FIA World Championship. However, with 12 other more established events alongside it, no European teams made the effort to go. The 1973 rally, tough as always, was won by a Canadian driver called Walter Boyce – the first World Championship win for Toyota. Partnering him in the Corolla was a chap called Doug Woods and when it was suggested that the Europeans might cross the Atlantic more readily if there were two adjacent USA WRC rallies, Woods undertook to see whether his Canadian event, the Rally of the Rideau Lakes, could be the POR’s twin.
He was successful: for the 1974 World Rally Championship the POR had a new Canadian companion that ran in October just two weeks before. Based at the small town of Smith’s Falls some 60 miles south-west of the capital Ottawa, this was an excellent event. Everything from the paperwork to the stages themselves exceeded current standards in Europe. And somehow the local population adjusted to the fact that these exotic cars – Lancia Stratos, Renault Alpines, and Fiat Abarth Spyders – were to be driven on public roads. There was a bit of difficulty involving a noise test and Sandro Munari’s Stratos, but the purchase of some Brillo pads solved the problem. The only loser was a stray dog who was behind the Lancia the first time Munari gave it full revs after passing the noise test.
Run among swirling autumn leaves and a few snow flakes, the Rideau Lakes went down well with the Europeans. Lancia swept the board with Munari winning from Simo Lampinen’s Beta Coupe. Two weeks later, it was the turn of the POR to welcome the same circus. The SCCA had sensibly decided to hold the whole event in Michigan’s Northern Peninsula and based the event on the university town of Marquette. As with Smith’s Falls, the rally show got a warm welcome from the locals. But the weather was not so kind and turned nasty on the first day producing torrential rain and stage conditions to rival anything found in West Africa.
In these conditions, Fiat and Alpine Renault turned the tables on us Lancia chaps. The best we could do was to have Munari sixth at the end of the first of three legs. On the second leg, the rally ran through Dickinson County and that is where the trouble started. I don’t know to this day if the local Sheriff was up for re-election or if he had seen too many Burt Reynolds films, but he was certainly a bit of a star on that second night.
The POR timing system did not give much service time between stages, and naturally the Europeans went like hell to make time available. I recall that Simo and I never bothered to remove our crash helmets on road sections. Said Sheriff approached us at one petrol station where he indicated that he had received several complaints about noise and fast driving. I think he was a bit upset by the fact that we were wearing our helmets while we filled up the car. But he was even more upset when Munari left the station in rather a hurry, leaving the air full of tyre smoke and scorched Brillo pads. The accompanying noise would not have disgraced a Mercury rocket at Cape Canaveral. With a whoop, our zealous lawman leapt into his Plymouth special and took off after the Stratos.
The good money was on the Italian, and so it proved despite the Sheriff pursuing him into the next special stage. We went through some minutes afterwards and saw some very interesting marks made by a large car but I think he must have tired of the game and taken a short cut. Anyway, he was waiting at the next stage where he announced ‘All this is stopping now!’. The marshals, doubtless worried about the prospect of a night in the slammer, told cars that this stage was cancelled. Unfortunately, one of the event Stewards was suggesting that perhaps it would be better to go to the supper halt, outside Dickinson County, and carry on from there. A nice idea, but oh, what confusion ensued.
Some people had done the whole route including the stage ‘cancelled’ by the Sheriff, while others, like us, just missed out that one stage. Others had gone to the supper halt. The problem was that the organisers could not make up their mind which choice to declare legitimate and they were all for excluding those who had made the ‘wrong’ decision.What they should have done was to declare the pre-supper results as being those at the special stage before the Sheriff and let everyone re-start. As it was, the arguing went on until dawn when the rest tithe second night was declared cancelled and we all went back to Marquette. The third leg ran but there were all kinds of penalties handed out for speeding by service cars and then more protests than Bill Clinton has cigars. The declared winner after all that was Jean-Luc Therier in a Renault 17 TS, its only win on A World Championship Rally.
For 1975, the FIA would have liked to keep these two events in the World Championship for political reasons. However, the POR organisers were still licking their wounds and sorting out problems with local authorities, while poor Doug Woods had discovered the hard way how much excellence costs. He needed to find some $50,000 in extra sponsorship to run the 1975 event and, when that was not forthcoming, he and his team reluctantly decided that they could not organise the Rideau Lakes.
It was only three years after the disappearance of these ‘twins’ from the World Rally Championship that the FIA found Canadian organisers ready to upgrade their event for the WRC. This was the well sponsored Criterium Molson du Quebec that lasted three years in the championship. Unfortunately, because of its position in the calendar between the 1000 Lakes and San Remo and the fact that it was a lone event, it failed to attract European entries in large enough numbers and, on its final appearance in the WRC in 1979, it only had 39 starters.
To date, the last North American rally to count for the WRC was the American Olympus Rally, which, unlike the other three, was based on the West Coast. in Washington State. Like the Criterium du Quebec, it too had an excellent sponsor, in this case Toyota, and experienced organisers. Its first WRC event in 1986. was a bit of landmark in many ways. It was the last event of the season and thus attracted a pretty hefty European entry as Lancia and Peugeot were still battling for the title after the acrimony at San Remo. It was also the swan-song for Group B cars which were to be banned from January of 1987. But in subsequent years, this support fell off and Toyota pulled out when the FIA decided that a car manufacturer could not sponsor a WRC event. The last Olympus Rally to count for the World Championship was in 1988.
There was, and is, plenty of rallying in North America. The over-riding problem is not the local Sheriff but the interest, or rather the lack of it, from the native automobile industry. When you have got NASCAR, CART and Indianapolis with thousands of hours of TV, who wants to design and homologate tiny numbers of cars for a minority sport dominated by imports? And with no TV, which major sponsor is going to be interested in underwriting the not-inconsiderable costs of organising a major rally to the standards of the current WRC? It is a shame, because the territory suitable for rallying in North America is simply amazing, as anyone who has driven outside its large cities can testify. A love affair as yet unrequited?