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It’s hard to define your proudest moments in motorsport and I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

Sometimes it’s a result and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of  those over the years, all of which I am very proud; other times it’s a look – I’ll never forget George Shepheard’s face when Ross Runnalls and I won the ‘Round Australia Trial after three weeks on the road.

And for me quite recently, it’s a photograph.

I had been asked to speak at the NSW Rally Presentation Dinner and it was a difficult time in my early start to the ARCom Chairmanship, so I decided to make sure I spoke about rallying and not ARCom.

Of course the inevitable questions came at the end of the talk and I had already been in enough hot water for my so-called, revolutionary changes on ARCom.

I figured I had nothing to lose by stating my personal support for state events, using the now, oft-quoted statement that if the WRC ended overnight, the impact on the majority of competitors would be zero; if the APRC fell over, even less;  and in reality for all but a few, the same for the ARC; but if state rallying ceased, all rallying would end – therefore state rallying is the most important focus for the WRC/APRC/ARC ‘piggyback events’ to survive.

This led to talk of entry level rallying and a couple of calls from the audience that it’s about time I had some experience of entry level events and someone shouting out, “Come and drive an Excel.”

“Just name the time and place and I’ll be there,” seemed to just pop out of my mouth.

And so, in the second week of May, 2007, I found myself and co-driver Iain Stewart taking the start of the opening round of the NSW Rally Championship in a Hyundai Excel – 32 years of rally experience, 22 of those in 4WD turbo cars and my first event in a front-wheel-drive.

Of course, it didn’t happen quite that simply.

Ric Cary, the Clerk-of-Course for the Car Auctions Sydney Rally of Lithgow, Mick Gillett, the owner and manager of the Excel Rally Team, and Ian Bigg, the NSW Rally Panel Chairman, had all made a huge effort to make this happen, as indeed had the entire crew of the Excel team and its sponsors.

I had been given a test run in the Hyundai at a fantastic location near Lithgow and my own Recaro seat had been fitted in exactly the right place – in fact every element of working with Team Excel was as good or better than with the factory teams!

Iain Stewart was over the moon at competing again and of course he has a long history with Hyundai, even doing eight rounds of the WRC with Hyundai and Wayne Bell in the 90’s.

If I was ill-prepared for the sheer professionalism of the team running the Excel, I was in for a great shock with the event itself.

Some weeks earlier I had received a letter from Geoff Becker of Motorsport Safety and Rescue, the contractor to the NEC ARC who had provided his company’s services to a state event, the Cerberus Rally in Victoria.

In his letter he stated that communications, documentation, maps, setup of the stages, control staff and command centre were all of the highest standard and would provide a good lesson for some rounds of the ARC!

Well, I have to say the Rally of Lithgow was another stunning example.

When you add the very highly promoted, first-class presentation of all elements and a genuinely friendly, welcoming atmosphere, you really begin to question exactly what makes a premier event!

A rally designed for competitors, spectators and the local community – strewth, how revolutionary is that!!

Then there was the same day recce and rally – a masterstroke in cost reduction and very easily done with the intelligently planned course to make recce easily achievable.

Final icing on the cake?  Night stages.  Yes, dark.  My last factory cars didn’t have light pods made for them.  

I went to a Drift event recently and they had some night-time demos and the commentator said, “Stay around folks, you are going to see something you will never see anywhere else; these guys are going to go sideways in the dark!!!”

Rallying based in regional centres and competing over tough stages and in the dark…. mmm, wonder what happened to that concept.

The reality is that this is what identifies our sport and makes it unique and I am sure gets people into our sport far better than doing laps of a trotting track or parking on a latte-sippers’ wharf.

Now, although I was primarily there for the opportunity for the ARCom Chairman to  experience at first hand, both a state event and an entry level vehicle, once recce was underway, Iain and I forgot all that and just wanted to win every stage.

The team provided us with an Excel fitted with Proflex suspension just for the recce and although the organisers provided an outstanding set of pacenotes in the most-professional style, we wrote our own, having an advantage in having a little experience in this area.

So, come the start of the rally itself we were in ‘race-mode’; a professional team, great recce, fantastic stages - suddenly it didn’t matter what sort of car we were in.

And that really is my summary of being in an Excel – the type of car is almost superfluous to competing in a rally – we had just the same processes, challenges and competitive spirit as competing in a top-spec 4WD.

You don’t for one moment think the car is slow because you are focussed on going flat out.  

In fact, Iain said he flinched quite a few times on the opening stage at the ‘hold-it-flat-no-matter-what’ approach as the Excel carries some fearsome cornering speed – and in reality inside the top 20 stage times in a NSW Championship event keeps you busy regardless of vehicle.

The only spanner in the works came in the form of ‘The Fazz’ - Glenn Farrant and Anna Ritson, driving another Excel, only not quite as ritzy as ours and seeded right in front of us.

Mick Gillett had told me I should be very happy to be within a second per kilometre of Glenn as he is the top gun of Excel competitors. What a task that turned out to be!

I am sure you all know what it’s like to have a seemingly perfect run through a stage and then see the other bloke’s time and go, “@@##!”.

We tried everything we could, really focussing on lines and trying to get an edge no matter how tiny, even pushing and pushing to achieve the perfect start off-the-line.

Come the night-time, the Excels were posting top-ten stage times and ’The Fazz’ gave us a tantalising sniff of success when he spun after hitting a deadly gutter; we hit the same spot and the steering wheel spun so violently I knocked the gear lever into neutral.

But he was too good to give it away that easily and stayed cool and calm to show us a clean 35 second margin by the finish.

At every control, the officials would thank us for coming to compete and ask about the battle with Glenn and Anna, and we could not have had a warmer reception from those officials and our closest competitors.

One stage was run by members of the Hills District Car Club who have been doing stages since I was at primary school!

And so to the best moment, and the one of which I am most proud and honoured to be included…. a picture says a thousand words!

 

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