The business of classic rallying
Big events test budgets as well as endurance, but demand is higher than ever
What’s the cheapest branch of motor sport you can try? Scalextric, probably. But otherwise it must be classic rallying. At the simplest level speed doesn’t come into it: on a basic navigational tour an old Vauxhall Nova can give you a good day’s enjoyment. Yet despite tight belts it’s not just basic events which are thriving. The forthcoming Sydney to London rally will cost some £32,000, yet the entry is filling up, and there are rallies offering everything from slow and steady regularities to the car-stretching LeJog, the Classic Marathon and Monte Carlo enduros, and straight historic stage rallies. But these events are complex and expensive to run. Can all these outfits – Classic Rally Association, Endurance Rally Association, HERO – be making a business out of them?
I spoke to Peter Nedin, the events director of HERO (Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation), whose headline events are LeJog – the gruelling four-day Land’s End to John O’Groats trial which recreates relentless sleepstarved rallies of old – and the Scottish Malts, which combines scenery, stages and distilleries.
“It goes in cycles,” Nedin says, “and not just in line with the economy. If your savings are declining a historic rally car might be a good investment, and once you have it you want to use it.” The dificulty, he says, is combining two very different groups: “There are the ones to whom the money means little, and those who’ve saved all year to do one event. We want to give them both a challenge with an equal chance.”
It’s costly to be at the front of a race grid, but it needn’t be that way on a rally. On road events it’s accuracy that brings awards, so an untuned Anglia may outpace the rortiest works-replica Healey. But some people are alarmed by the idea of arduous driving tests and navigation.
“This is why all our events also have a tour element,” says Nedin. “People can follow the organised route or make their own way between controls without stressing themselves on the tests. It’s a good way to see how the trial works, and maybe next time they’ll be competing.”
Despite the flatline economy, Nedin says that his customer base is stable, even rising. But, he goes on, “people are more selective now, so we have to increase the appeal and refresh our events to keep regular customers involved.” As well as training days, where beginners get the feel of regularities and driving tests, HERO has also introduced a one-day event, the Throckmorton Trial, packed with the style of test that LeJog includes but minus the all-night stresses. “Our customers are looking for shorter events with fewer days off work, so we now run the Scottish Malts over a bank holiday weekend.”
To tempt those who don’t want to splash out on their own rally car, HERO now offers ‘arrive and drive’ packages with its own leet of classic cars, from Mini to Porsche 911, which they take to the event for you. Cars are ready to rally, down to pencils and poti (and if you don’t know what a poti is, you’re obviously not a navigator). But while they’re more selective, Nedin also sees his customers getting more adventurous.
“Europe is getting ordinary now, so we’re taking people further aield, for example to Iceland.” HERO is partly a club but also a business, which means complex events such as Iceland or the 2015 London-Lisbon trial have to make a profit. Such adventures can cost from £3-5000; the Iceland one was £6000. “I took 65 crews and still turned people away,” says Nedin. But HERO has one big advantage in a niche business – a backer. When venture capitalist Tomas Machuca, a LeJog regular, took him aside and asked if he could help, Nedin thought he was offering to marshal… Instead Machuca became MD and has backed the firm’s expansion. It’s a rare example of spotting commercial opportunities within a hobby.
Despite economic gloom people still want their pleasures, and if tempted they will pay. If you have a classic in your garage and someone else has done all the planning for a trip across Spain, it’s a shame not to have a look at the route… After all, a car goes downhill when it’s not used.