Rallying’s path from obscurity to greatness is one full of pitfalls, potholes and financial stress, and recent talk about a new one-make series in the Australian Rally Championship has got me thinking.
For many, it seems the term ‘one make’ is one that means all your dreams are about to come true, and that a factory drive at the end of a successful season is not only just reward, but essential for the series to be called a success.
The road to a factory drive, however, is one rarely travelled, not only here in Australia, but overseas as well.
Most drivers need to start with very deep pockets – like in all forms of motorsport – but not even that will guarantee you of success.
Witness the World Rally Championship as an example. At the start of this year there were 13 factory drivers in the WRC, yet in the past five years, only one of those drivers has been World Rally Champion.
Even more amazing is that in the past 14 years, only two men have held aloft the champion’s trophy – and both their names are Sebastien!
Back home in Australia, Subaru’s Molly Taylor is the only full factory driver in the country. There are many more drivers fast enough, but the automotive landscape is such that those drives are, literally, as rare as hen’s teeth.
So perhaps it’s time we stopped thinking about the ultimate prize, and started lowering our eyes and focussing on what is achievable, rather than what’s not.
Peter Whitten competing in the Alpine Rally in 1992. Photo: Stuart Bowes
In 1993, I was a young rally driver with illusions of grandeur. I was winning a few local club events and had done alright in some state championship rounds, but my budget was incredibly tight. My hopes of moving up in the rallying world were limited primarily by money.
Like hundreds of young rally drivers over the years, I thought I could take that next step, but reality bites hard.
Even back in 1993, when manufacturer involvement in rallying was more prominent than it is today, there was still no real path for a young charger to make his or her mark.
It was with this in mind that we came up with the idea of the Australian Rallysport News Junior Rally Challenge – a nationwide series that pitted the country’s best young rally drivers against each other.
Australia is a big country, so getting all the best young drivers to compete in the one event is never likely to happen, so we came up with what we thought was the next best thing.
The rules were basically this:
Drivers had to be 25 years old or under, and cars needed to be 2WD, normally aspirated, and under 3-litres.
From memory, drivers paid a $25 registration fee. Four state championship rallies were then selected in each of the six states, and drivers earned points in each event in their state, with the winner being declared the state junior champion.
Crocker built a Subaru Legacy RS Turbo that he took to Rally Australia in 1995. Photo: Richard Eustace
The six winners then came together and competed at the Esanda Rally of Canberra in late November. Entry was free for Junior Rally Challenge finalists, who then competed over three days for a prize package valued at $10,000.
Among other things, that package included $1500 in cash, a $2000 suspension package, $1000 in motorsport equipment, and free entry into the following year’s Rally Australia.
There was no works drive offered or promised, and no guarantee that your career would skyrocket from there – yet it was a starting point for young drivers and gave them the opportunity to put their name forward in front of a national audience, and then a global one the following year.
Yet, despite that, the end result was even more incredible than we could ever have dreamt of.
The inaugural ARN Junior Rally Challenge winner in 1994 was a Victorian by the name of Cody Crocker. He drove an unlikely looking Mazda RX5 hatchback to the state victory, then upset all comers at the Rally of Canberra to take home the big prize.
He used his winnings to build a Subaru Legacy RS Turbo that he then shipped to Western Australia in 1995 for the WRC-qualifying Rally Australia.
It wasn’t easy, and it cost Crocker a lot of money, yet it gave him a small kick-start to his career.
A young Cody Crocker (right) formed part of the Subaru Rally Team in Australia. Photo: Stuart Bowes
Amazingly, Subaru’s Nick Senior had been watching the young Melbourne driver’s progress with interest, and after a string of impressive results, he was offered the “gold nugget” – a drive in the ‘works’ Subaru Rally Team.
From there, he went on to win three Australian and four Asia-Pacific Rally Championship titles in a career that surpassed anything most other Australian rally drivers have done before, or since.
Crocker was the lucky one, however. None of the other Junior Challenge winners got that opportunity, and their names have been lost into rallying history like the names of dozens of others.
The point is, though, that it can happen. Just because the works drive isn’t on offer at the start doesn’t mean it won’t be some way down track. It’s unlikely, of course, but as we’ve shown, stranger things have happened.
There’s no doubt that we want more works drivers, and for more of the best drivers to be competing in top quality machinery in our best events. But are we setting the bar too high?
If we accept that factory drives are unlikely as we move forward, why not once again run an affordable series that caters for drivers in all states, and with a much smaller budget?
Cody Crocker went on to great things after his win in the ARN Junior Rally Challenge. Photo: Peter Whitten
The series doesn’t necessarily have to be for current or even ‘modern’ cars – is there anything wrong with the rules we used for the Junior Rally Challenge back in the 90s?
If it’s affordable, fun to compete in and well regulated, then surely the success of the series would follow.
Rallying needs to be built from the ground up, and while many state championships around the country are attracting high entry numbers, we need to be able to translate that into the national series if we want the sport to prosper even further.
So why not another ARN Junior Rally Challenge? It worked in the 1990s, so why not now?
Let’s accept that the road to a factory drive is probably a dead end, and do everything we can to provide a pathway for our young rally drivers that is clear and well regulated.
From little things, big things grow, and we need to start somewhere.
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