Sebastien Loeb currently leads the World Rally Championship, and with over 60 WRC victories to his credit, he is without doubt the world’s best rally driver.

It’s been 31 years since international rally drivers rallied in the Coffs Harbour region, and some of the new crop of rally stars don’t know just how much rally history is trapped in the dust of the shire roads of the city.

What was it that made the roads in the Coffs Harbour region so famous? Rallying is a popular sport, with over 40 rallies each year in NSW alone, ranging from basic club level events to rounds of the Australian Rally Championship.

Coffs Harbour, Bellingen, Kempsey, Port Macquarie, Wauchope, Taylors Arm and Taree - all conjure up fond memories for rally fans, especially the older ones. Rallies like the Sothern Cross, 2GO, Bago Forest Classic, Great Lakes Rally, and the Coffs Coast Rally all have a strong rally past.

Most famous of these was the Southern Cross Rally, which ran in the district from Newcastle to Coffs Harbour in the late 70s. The last event, in 1980, starting in Sydney and lured thousands to roadside vantage points, all wanting to get a glimpse of the rally stars.

Rally folklore is entrenched in the Southern Cross. It’s still the rally all others are judged by for endurance and speed. Crews were confronted by long days and nights with very long stages, one over 240km long. Drivers, navigators and service crews were exhausted each day by the length of the stages. Competitive distances each night were much longer than the entire WRC rally now. One night of the Southern Cross was longer than the entire 2011 Australian Rally Championship!

Europeans and Japanese drivers were top of the list for entries with notable drivers like Andrew Cowan, Ari Vatenen, Kenjro Shinozuka, Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Makinen, Jogindah Singh, Bjorn Waldegaard and more.

Local drivers like Ross Dunkerton, Greg Carr, George Fury, Barry Ferguson and Colin Bond made names for themselves – pitting themselves against the world’s best and often beating them at their own game.

1979 was the year that the local drivers were served up a lesson on rally driving. Bjorn Waldegaard, the first World Rally Champion, entered the Southern Cross in a Ford Australia Escort RS1800, built by the local Ford team. By the end of the first day he was minutes ahead of everyone else and for the many spectators who lined the forestry roads the display of car control by the World Champion was sensational. Rally fans still talk about it, never to be forgotten.

Those fans are a fair bit older now. They have long memories of a friendly local community that got right behind the rally – places like Taylors Arm and Kempsey in the middle of the night, putting on food for the tired drivers and crews. The entire North Coast welcomed the famous and the not so famous equally, often with a sausage sandwich or a cup of tea.

It’s the very trials of these famous rallies that led to the rise of classic rallying in Australia over the last three years. Led by the Australian Classic Rally Association (ACRA), classic rallying is one of the fastest growing parts of the sport and the club enjoys membership by more past Australian Rally Champions than any other club. Members relive the glory days of the golden era of rallying by competing in the same specification cars and in some cases the actual cars of the period, in competition as part of the Australian Rally Championship. Crowds have flocked to the forests this year to see the old cars, drivers and navigators, in many cases the same drivers and navigators who drove them 30 years ago.

The revival has seen past champions like Barry Lowe, Ross Dunkerton, Stewart Reid, Geoff Portman and Neal Bates all return to the cars that started their careers, and in some cases their competitors.

Ross Dunkerton, five times Australian Champion, regularly competes in his Escort RS1800 - the same car as driven by Hannu Mikkola in New Zealand in the famous Otago Rally.  Recently, Dunkerton rebuilt the car and it’s been his dream for many years to drive the iconic Escort. Dunkerton, a works Datsun driver in the late 70s and early 80s was the last winner of the Southern Cross – the last time any International drivers have been to Coffs Harbour. He will compete again this time in the Coffs Coast Classic Rally in his Escort RS1800 - the car he beat to win the 1980 event. It will be a magical trip down memory lane for him.

When the World Championship rally was announced for Coffs Harbour, wheels were set in motion to run a classic event in support of the WRC rally. Crews from around the nation will compete over about half the WRC course. Each day the classic cars will return to the Coffs Harbour service area and fans will be able to see the cars and talk to the crews up close.

Cars like the Escort RS1800, Datsun Stanza and Datsun 1600 will be driven by some of the very best drivers our country has produced.  Stewart Reid in his Historic Rallysport Escort RS1800 will start favourite, having won every classic event in the Escort this year. Built in the UK and worth over $200,000, the Escort is the latest from Historic Rallysport, who build new Escorts for the world’s leading competitors, like Mikko Hirvonen and Stig Blomqvist. Yes, that’s right, the original Stig!

The Coffs Coast Classic Rally will be a battle of the Escorts and Datsuns – the equivalent to the Holden versus Ford battle of Bathurst. Wayne Hoy, a former local Banana farmer, knows the area very well and he will run his Datsun 240RS.

Jeff David, a regular in the ARC competition, will drive a Porche 911. These cars were very successful overseas and David’s car is well prepared and can be expected to be a frontrunner. Local driver Troy O’Doherty will drive his thundering Triumph TR7 V8 - similar to the one that Ford World Rally Team boss, Malcolm Wilson, drove on the North Coast in the 2GO Rally in 1983.

There is little doubt that the Coffs Coast Classic Rally will be a nostalgic trip for many, including some of the WRC teams who have personnel who were here in 1980. Not only will many residents and locals see the cars and crews that made the area famous the world over for rallying, but they will see new cars and drivers creating history again. In 30 years time it would be fantastic to see a heavier and greyer Sebastien Loeb reliving his past glory on the Coast.  

It’s ironic after 30 odd years that the world’s best drivers will be back again in the region and I hope the memories are as strong for the many thousands who will watch Rally Australia in September as they are for me, who as a young lad starting out in the sport ,was in total awe of the driving by the best drivers in the world and in Australia.

I clearly remember Japanese mechanics with funny little headlights like miners lamps underneath the Datsun of Ross Dunkerton changing the gearbox, underneath the carport at the Ampol service station in south Coffs. The carport is still there today and they took seven minutes! Every time I drive past, I remember that time vividly.

I was driving to a meeting the other day with Ross Dunkerton and we were discussing the Southern Cross Rally and just how fast cars were driven considering they didn’t have the mod cons of the current crop of WRC cars, things like traction control, four-wheel drive and more importantly, pacenotes. Rallies like the Southern Cross were blind.  As a driver, you only were told where the intersections were and it was flat out between them, and in the rain and the fog of the North Coast, it was always a challenge.

I will be watching and hoping that the locals are as friendly as they were bac k in 1980, when as a young navigator in a Lancer GSR competing in the 1980 Southern Cross Rally, the roads were lined with well-wishers and supporters everywhere, day and night.  

It will also be a special time for Ross Dunkerton the last man to win an International rally on the North Coast of NSW.

You made us feel proud to be in the region 31 years ago and I am sure you will make us feel welcome again. And by the way, another sausage sandwich wouldn’t go astray!

- Dallas Dogger

  • Dallas Dogger is the deputy assistant Clerk of the Course for Media Services for Rally Australia and is the President of ACRA. In 1980 he competed in the Southern Cross Rally in car 42 - a Mitsubishi Lancer GSR. They crashed 10 km from the end of the last stage in the rally on Rollover Road at Wauchope.
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