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While many of us are in a reflective mode, I thought I would share some tales from the commentary box of Rally Australia. Many consider that commentators at rallies are picked at random, but nothing could be further from the truth when it came to our most senior rally. Overall, responsibility for commentating at Rally Australia rested with Media Manager, Chris Nixon, who ensured commentators were part of the overall media team for the rally, along with journalists, photographers, presenters and emcees, admin staff and helpers - about 40 of us in later years. Early in the life of the East Coast event, consideration was given to the commentating role and who would be part of the process, from admin to who would do the talking at functions and spectator points. The commentary role took in the start, event spectating, functions and the finish. Behind the scenes plenty went on and drafting the commentary timetable commenced once the itinerary was complete. We would work out which points on which days might be suitable for commentary; factors like spectator point location, terrain, viewing and access were critical in selecting which spot would be selected for commentary. While some have in the past criticised the selection of spectator points, choices made took into account many factors – primarily safety, landowner permissions and logistics.  Equipment had to be sourced and planned and we worked with the suppliers to ensure equipment could work at the selected locations and be rolled out for each spot each day. It was not always easy; some commentary locations were not always our first choice – but were selected because of those primary factors. Once the itinerary was set, we conducted a pre-event survey, assessing every spectator point, working out practical issues to make the spot work for commentary. Once selected, the plan was produced, and equipment locked down. Each point was filmed, and a route chart prepared, along with 3D graphics and specific information for spectators was added to the website. Advertising commenced using over 700 demographic groups and monitored for effectiveness weekly. Information used by commentators was then processed and compiled.  We created a daily roster, including relief for commentators where possible – after all, it's hard to talk all day, which, on more than one occasion, happened. We have had some great commentators in Will Hagon, David Rose, Ross Dunkerton, Tom Smith, Trevor Shelton, Bruce Garland, Dean Herridge, Colin Clark, Ed Mulligan, Adrian Morrisby, Chad Neylon, Dallas Dogger and Shane Jacobson. (See pic 9893) Guest appearances in the commentary box came from Molly Taylor, Chris Atkinson, Andrew Fraser, Greg Murphy, Ben Rainsford, Andrew Papadopoulos, Nathan Quinn, Luis Moya and Oliver Ciesla, along with many other notables. Rally Australia’s media team was so much more than a few people punching out a few rally stories. Working up to 20 hours a day during the event, the media centre was the central hive for all of the information that flowed from the rally, from the smallest incident and stage wins, through to announcing the cancellation of the 2019 event. Their support for the commentary team was outstanding.

Part of the Rally Australia media team hard at work during the 2018 event.

A constant challenge during the event was the information flow to the remote commentary team. In later years the internet helped with in-field information, combined with SMS messages, RallySafe, and even people coming up to the tent telling us information we did not know, sometimes the crystal ball was used! The core commentary team also had support as well, often by Media Centre volunteers, helping with additional information flow. Satellite phones and all sorts of methods were used to get news to keep fans updated, but signal and bandwidth for phones was, and still is, a constant challenge in the forest. The media centre created “Flash messages” with quotes from the leading group of drivers, who were interviewed by some of our media team at the end of stages. Brief audio grabs were called in to the Flash editor in the media centre and transcribed into stage-by-stage summaries distributed to the website and accredited journalists. A comprehensive commentary manual contained vital information about the event, sponsors, teams and crews. But it was nevertheless often incomplete. Remember that information form from the Supplementary Regulations you failed to fill out? Well, that’s where the information for commentators comes from to give you your claim to fame as you slide past! They’re essential for commentators and used also by the media staff for pre-event press releases and publicity. From a field of around, say, 70 national entries, surprisingly few information forms were completed properly at Rally Australia. Imagine the commentators’ predicament when you roar past a spectator point. Your chance of glory in front of thousands of fans was in your hands in two ways: firstly, your on-road performance, secondly, what has been written about you on the entry information form! The part you left blank where it says, “best results”, translated for us to “crap, they have nuthin”. Your family and supporters, often spectating close by, might hear, “Blake and Chris in their Evo 9 sponsored by XXX”. It could have been so much more with all the information filled in. How do we know? Often Blake’s mum or dad would come up to the commentary box and say, “Hey, you never mentioned…” and we had to remind Blake’s mum and dad we were not forensic scientists – we simply didn’t know! It takes about six weeks to compile a spectator commentary manual, with hundreds of information pages, from your results through to safety plans and sponsor and event information. Each day at Rally Australia these were supplemented with team press releases, media interviews and updates and amendments issued by the Clerk of the Course.

A happy team. Jennifer Dowd, Rally Australia Marketing Manager, Shane Jacobson, Dallas Dogger and David Rose.

In the early years of Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour, it was difficult to work out who the next car was at a spectator point. We used volunteers in our media team to walk up the stage and radio back who was coming. The volunteers did a great job, standing out in the sun and the rain communicating who was next! So, how do we work out what to talk about? Over the years commentators devised a formula to deliver information about the event, key sponsors, the WRC and ARC and supporting events, along with the latest results, combined with what was happening live. Rally commentary is about balance, information and entertainment. We would meet before the event and go over the commentary plan. Expert rally spectators offered regular feedback; their criticism was that we were annoying, with comments about the content of our commentating often revolving around the basics of the sport of which they knew, forgetting that at Rally Australia a high percentage of our audience was the general public who knew very little about the sport. Commentators also had sponsor and event obligations, adding to the annoyance for some. Rally Australia catered for ‘enthusiasts’ at smaller spectator points with commentary-free spectating. Live reads of sponsor announcements are part of the event sponsorship process and are essential for the viability of the event. Then there were times when the action had stopped, sometimes we would play music or have rally legends like Ross Dunkerton and Bruce Garland paint vivid mind pictures of their escapades in the sport, and on numerous occasions, we would get comments like, “wow, thanks for the stories, very entertaining”!   (see pic 9875,2762, note the support guys…) The weather would often throw commentary into chaos. A downpour often meant a stage would be stopped, or if a competitor had a major accident the stage flow would be interrupted, throwing our plan out the door. On more than one occasion, we would get a knock on the door after a gap of a few minutes, with a nervous mum asking, “my son is in car XX, is he ok?”. If communications were poor, or rally HQ was withholding sensitive information, we could be as much in the dark as mum. Some years were treated to a command radio which we could listen to, so we could hear what was happening.  Social media also was a factor, with spectators’ excited and often unverified posts often racing ahead of the official word from HQ. Commentators would be expected by fans to have close to instant answers in the event of an incident or hold-up. Our rule was to tell what we could once we knew, but to discourage speculation, keeping everyone up to date as best we could. Sunday’s NSW Forest Rally Village on the Wedding Bells closing stage proved to be a real challenge for the commentary team. Two locations were used, one at the jump, one at the bottom of the hill, with at least two commentators at each spot.  This stage was also the WRC Live TV Power Stage where drama is never far away – who can forget Jari-Matti Latvala, in 2017, crashing live while leading!

Commentators Bruce Garland (left) and Dallas Dogger (right) with guest Greg Murphy.

In 2018 we saw Sebastien Ogier crowned world champ right in front of us, crowning a tough season and rewarding spectators with the world’s best driving on show. In time it will sink in that we all saw the best there was, on our roads. We would often have some fun working out who would be fastest on the Power Stage, a small wager to the closest! For the 2011 event, we broadcast live on local FM radio while the Super Special was live, teaming with radio hosts Sammy and Jay. It was one of the longest continuous live broadcasts the station had ever had, with Will Hagon, Dallas Dogger, David Rose and Tom Smith, and guest expert Rick Bates, putting in a marathon seven hours. Each year brought new challenges, new teams, driver changes and new features to the event, like Raleigh Raceway where cars would run around the course, often twice, intertwined with the ARC and national cars. When it rained at spectator points, we often had the only shelter, a 3x3 hokka, and therefore we discovered new friends fast! Working with great rally commentators like David Rose and Will Hagon has been a great privilege; they’re consummate professionals. Hagon knows every statistic in rallying back to the 50s and David Rose’s experience as a former Tasmanian rally competitor and Supercars Bathurst commentator shone through every time.

David Rose, Shane Jacobson, Chad Neylon and Dallas Dogger on site in Coffs Harbour.

Veteran motorsport commentator and journalist, Will Hagon.

And who do we think were the most passionate fans? Well, there was “Paddon’s Pack”, a team of passionate fans dedicated to getting Hayden Paddon to the podium by cheering alone, and the hundreds of Estonians cheering on Ott Tanak. We always attempted to balance talking with spectating, listening to the glorious engines of the world's fastest rally cars. When spectating was over for the day and we were packing up, more than one fan would come past and say, “top job boys”. That was good enough for us, they were our customers. At Rally Australia, like no other rally, the action spoke louder than words and to see the world’s best drivers at full tilt on our roads was an unforgettable memory for us, and hopefully the spectators. We worked to make sure that they knew they were watching the best, and it was our privilege to call the action on the best motorsport action in the world, and we thank the thousands of fans who braved the flies, the heat, wind and rain to join us. More than ever, professional commentating added to the atmosphere of our premier rally event. Let’s hope we can continue in 2021!
  • Story: Dallas Dogger and Chris Nixon
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