Roger Clark: Rally GB Hero
The man’s destiny was written the moment he was christened: Roger Albert Clark – or R.A.C.
What else was he going to do with his life? Clark may not have been a global name like a Mikkola or a McRae, but on the domestic scene he rapidly became a folk hero.
He was simply ‘Our Man Clark’: tapping into the same everyday vibe that would lead to Mansellmania many years later. Ordinary working Englishmen in the 1970s – which were a tough time – instantly related to people called ‘Nigel’ or ‘Roger’ who brought a sense of national pride.
Because Clark was truly a man of the people: drinking, swearing and getting his hands dirty. The antithesis of pretension, he was rarely happier than with his mates and a pint in front of him.
The title of Clark’s autobiography was Sideways to Victory – and that is pretty much all you need to know. He’s also almost certainly the only former winner of the East Midlands Rally Championship who went onto achieve international success.
Clark was of course inextricably associated with one car: the Ford Escort, both in Mk1 and Mk2 guises. Nothing gets sideways like a rear-wheel drive Escort, which is what made Clark the master of the power slide and Scandinavian flick, even though he came from Leicestershire rather than Jyvaskyla.
And how did he develop such an effortless affinity with the rally that bore his initials, famously winning it in 1972 and then again in 1976?
The funny thing is that he never knew. His family owned a garage, but there was no connection with motorsport. Clark was entirely self-taught.
“I don’t care how sideways I am,” he said once. “As long as I’m not actually looking through the back window, I should be able to get the car back into line.”
He didn’t even rely on the consistency of detailed pace notes from a regular co-driver. While Jim Porter co-drove for him most frequently, Porter didn’t share in either of the RAC wins as he was always contracted to work for the rally organisers.
Tony Mason was alongside Clark for the 1972 win (more from Tony later) while Stuart Pegg occupied the hot seat in 1976. Television presenter Chris Searle also sat alongside him on the 1981 RAC Rally for the appropriately named ‘In at the Deep End’ documentary (below). This is probably the best programme ever made about rallying, providing a unique insight into Clark’s quintessentially English and occasionally brittle character and humour.
All these things most people know. What most people don’t realise is the extent of his exploits away from the RAC and even away from rallying. Clark has often been labelled as a specialist, but the truth is much more versatile.
Clark drove powerboats, as well cars as diverse as the Mini and Porsche 911 (although such was his loyalty to Ford, throughout an association that lasted 15 years, that he always downplayed any event he drove without a blue oval on the bonnet). His first contract was actually with Rover, and he occasionally raced his younger brother Stan’s Alfa Romeo.
Roger Clark MBE’s racing adventures also included the Nürburgring Six Hours and of course the Tour of Britain, which was comprised of both stages and circuits. Away from home, he led the 1973 Safari Rally by over an hour before his car broke and he was also the winner of the Acropolis Rally and the Tulip Rally (in Holland).
In total, Clark wrapped up 40 national and international successes, becoming the first Briton to win a World Championship event.
His most successful car was LVX 942J: reputed to be the most famous Ford Escort in history, winning four internationals and eight national events of the 15 rallies it contested, always with Clark at the wheel.
That was the Esso-sponsored 1972 RAC-winning car, which appropriately enough contained 72 special stages that year, taking in approximately 2500 miles. With this sort of distance to cover, it was inevitable that drivers let their co-drivers do the road sections.
Navigator Tony Mason remembers: “Any driver who hands over to a co-driver usually likes to get back behind the wheel a good few miles before a special stage start line. Roger couldn’t care less, and asked me to drive up to the start area where he would disembark before stretching, sniffing the air like a fox hunting for food, and strapping himself in.”
Four years later, in 1976, Clark did more for hairspray than any man before or since. Using a Cossack-liveried red Escort (of hairspray fame) he stormed to a second RAC win after Pentti Airikkala hit trouble on the final night, sealing his reputation as a Rally GB legend.
Clark would never quite achieve the same heights of success again, but by then the myth had already been created so it didn’t matter. And his legacy still lives on thanks to the Roger Clark Motorsport team, run now by his sons from Leicestershire, as well as the R.A.C historic rally – which takes place at the end of this month.
Our thanks to Certina Watches for their help with this feature.