Roger Clark: the man who set and still sets the pace of British rallying

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Relaxation through high pressure is a useful key to unlocking the continuous success recorded by burly Roger Clark, both in business and competition. Weekends when he is not rallying are for filling with activity from hard living to powerboat racing. As the pressure mounts— whether it is sorting out four simultaneous business appointments or surmounting one of rallying’s nasty surprises—Clark appears to get calmer and more determined. His competitive spirit is still as fiercely displayed as the most ruthless aspirant Formula driver’s, but winning is all that counts these days. Battling from the thirties into seventh overall after a setback on last year’s RAC Rally didn’t appeal at all . . but make that the prospect of outright victory and you see an outstanding natural competitor at his exciting, and frequently sideways, best.

As the son of a garage proprietor Roger’s upbringing on the outskirts of Leicester provided a fitting background for an enthusiast, but both Roger and younger brother Stan have ensured that their father’s business has expanded while also pursuing motor sporting interests. Today there are four Roger Clark Cars Ltd. garages in the Leicester area, retailing Renault, Ford, Jensen, Porsche, Lotus and Alfa Romeo. The younger Clark races a pair of Alfas for Penthouse magazine while Roger has been a works-contracted Ford rallyist since 1966, so both marques benefit from enthusiasm. Clark was entered in last year’s BOAC 500 in a Porsche Carrera, but the car did not start the event. However, as with many leading lights in our sport, Clark is quite often seen at the wheel of a Porsche — usually a Carrera demonstrator carrying his old rally car plates, 2 ANR. On the road Clark is a very safe and undramatic driver, quite happy to take the wheel of whatever happens to be in stock: earlier in his career he would equably compete in pretty well anything with wheels on that happened to be in around the garage.

Now 36 years old, Clark’s competition driving began very swiftly after he passed his driving test in 1956, for he had known how to drive from a tender age and had spent the rest of the time polishing that enthusiasm on private ground. The Leicestershire CC provided the club rally events needed and the acquaintance of the navigator who has become synonymous with Clark’s name as a winner, Jim Porter. The pair’s first events, all of a strictly road-going nature as opposed to the predominance of the today’s off-public road special stages, were in a Y-type Ford, succeeded by a 100E van.

Roger recalls, “we won a few pots and things locally, but I had a Mini in 1960 and I really established myself in those”. In fact Roger won the East Midlands Rally Championship in ’61 and ’62 with his BMC mount, though the latter years also witnessed Clark’s Mini-Cooper hurtling around the International Circuit of Ireland event to record fourth overall as well as a fine class win. “I remember what really made a few people talk was when we took a Mini to third overall on a Motoring News Championship round in 1963, because the event was run on sheet ice (it was the Welsh Marches) and I didn’t have studs in my tyres, while all the others did”. In the same year Clark took the well-thrashed Mini out on the Scottish, showing speed and car care skills by completing the rough event with a resounding second overall.

Clark’s performances on the British home Internationals have always been outstanding. For example, he has taken three outright victories on the Circuit of Ireland (1968/69/70), five wins on the Scottish (1964/65/67/68/73), three Welsh International wins and has been the only Briton to win the RAC Rally (1972) since it took to its current special stage forest track format.

Works teams started to show an interest during 1963 and he drove once for Triumph (Spa-Sofia-Liege TR4, which broke its gearbox) and for Reliant, when he managed a second in class on the Alpine in one of the straight-six Sabres.

The following year was the one in which Clark began two years of private rallying in a Cortina GT between works drives for Rover, and he won his first Scottish straight away in the mildly tweaked Cortina.

In 1965 he showed real international flair for Rover, twirling the ungainly 2000 into sixth over on the Monte through terrible road conditions, a feat recorded by John Davenport, then of Motoring News, “He netted the plaudits of the assembled journalists for no-one could believe that a Rover 2000 could be driven that far sideways and still stay on the road”.

A decade ago Clark continued his home record with a second Scottish win in the Cortina and closed his Rover career with 14th overall on the RAC.

Initially teamed with Bengt Soderstrom and Vic Elford in the Ford team Cortinas, Clark has seen many of the best come and go in international rallying, though it’s probably true to say that he (along with many of the works personnel) was sorriest to witness the departure of Ove Andersson from the Ford team. In recent years he has featured as the only Briton to line up alongside the Ford Finns, a selection that has included three of the quickest rally drivers in the world, Markku Alen, Hannu Mikkola and another experienced veteran, Timo Makinen.

Internationally Clark, sometimes nicknamed for a reason that defies this author as “Albert”, has not had the same outright winning fortunes as at home. In the Escort’s best overseas rallying year, 1968, Roger won the Acropolis and Tulip rallies: two years later he was fifth on the Monte Carlo. Obviously Clark has proved his worth with some excellent finishes in tough Internationals and there’s still no disputing that he does a faster job than anyone else in Britain. Special tribute must go to Jim Porter for his unobtrusive co-driving/management skills. It remains a pity that Porter is unable to accompany Clark in the RAC Rally, because he is so involved with its organisation.

The overseas speed is obviously present though, for as recently as 1973 Roger led the East African Safari by over an hour, when forced to retire at the halfway stage with a disintegrating car. This season Ford planned a selection of International rallies with the new Escort, “but”, says Clark, “Ford plans look flexible at the moment. I know I’ll be competing in my second South African Total Rally, France and Belgium, but beyond that is to be decided”.

In a career that spans nearly 20 years there must have been large changes in rallying, so I asked what he thought of current events? “I think stage rallying is quite sophisticated now with excellent marshalling, a good standard of cars and drivers, providing lots of competition in RAC Championship rounds. The standard was poor when Ford first backed me in an Escort for the RAC series (1972, when he won the title, backed up with a repeat in ’73: he first won the RAC Championship in 1965 with the Cortina!) but it has improved to the point where we have close competition now”. Clark continues, “about the only improvement I can think of for the RAC series would be the use of digital timing clocks to ensure accuracy.”

Turning to the vexed subject of safety Clark comments bluntly, “we haven’t got a high accident rate in stage rallying, in fact rallying in this country has been very safe, but we can’t be smug. I think the spectators should be disciplined—educated in every possible way if you like—not to stand in stupid places”.

At the beginning of the season Clark was left without his traditional sponsorship from Esso Uniflo, so we asked if his rally programme had been adversely affected? “Not really, we’ve just had no pocket money to go out with! Ford made sure I had a car, including the new model Escort, but we have the Cossack hairspray people to help Ford do other things in their plans, which would have been limited without his sponsorship”.

Clark’s versatility was emphasised by county standard at Swimming and Rugby, but it applies equally to motor sports where he has rallycrossed in 250 horsepower, fourwheel-drive Capris (winning the 1971 Castrol Championship) and raced a number of Fords. An indication of his potential on tarmac came in the 1967 Oulton Park Gold Cup. Ford at Boreham built a very special Mk. 2 Lotus Cortina FVA and Clark drove it very quickly in the supporting saloon car event against Graham Hill in the Fordbacked Cortinas from Lotus. Then a halfshaft broke . . . corporate embarrassment at internal competition prevented the combination from appearing again. When Ralph Broad was entrusted with preparing the 1,300 c.c. Gp 2 Escorts, Clark joined Craft in one such car for a class victory at Nurburgring, and he has a few more circuit miles to his credit in Cortinas (Henry Taylor told him to go away and race one, which he did with great local success) and, on occasion when Stan is on holiday, he’ll step into an Alfa Romeo.

The combined circuit and grassy surfaces of the Avon Tour of Britain have been contested twice by Clark as well. Last year he won outright in a factory RS2000, his sideways style defeating the identical car of temporary (on loan from Vauxhall) Gerry Marshall in a series of six extremely exciting circuit encounters, one of which Marshall won, “but we couldn’t be separated on time”, says Roger with a grin, while the remainder of which fell to Clark.

Would he like to do more circuit racing? Back came the terse reply, “if I did it every weekend I’d get giddy!” Unsurprisingly Clark finds that places like Nurburgring are “super, really enjoyable and I’m daft enough to try anything along those sort of tracklines . . . if the money’s right!”

Switching to the problems suffered by the amateurs entering motor sports we asked if Clark saw any way of cutting costs? “Not really. Silly formulaes may save 5%, but then there are so many rules and arguments it spoils the fun of it all. Motor sport will always be expensive and that’s all there is to it”.

Still showing them the way in Britain, Clark had just won the Granite City in a new-style Escort at the time of our interview, so we asked how much longer he thought he would carry on. The reply was, “as long as I can as a sport—I still enjoy it because I haven’t grown up yet!”—J.W.

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