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Every great rally has an iconic stage. You know, that stage which is a bit more special than the rest, the stage upon which the results of a whole event can hinge on. It could be the stage that characterises the whole event. Think Wedding Bells at Rally Australia. The Castrol International and the Mineshaft. The RAC Rally and Esgair Dafydd. And the Classic Outback Trial (COT) and Hayes Highway. 121.74 kilometres in one stage - that’s longer than an entire Australian Rally Championship round! Flat out from the word go. Fast. Blind crests. Technical. Great scenery for those who dare to look. Outback Australia at its best. We went in search of the background of this Iconic “COT” special stage to find out more.  And it’s worth telling the story! In 2016, The Classic Outback Trial moved camp to Alice Springs, smack bang in the middle of Australia. Event Director, Philip Bernadou, knew there were some sensational roads in the area and they would be perfect for the seven-day event. Those who competed in 2016 and 2018 will remember the exhausting but incredibly exhilarating experience of special stage rallying in the real, dinky-di Outback of Australia.  It was a very different experience, as most crews had to drive for three days just to get to the event’s start!

Eventual 2016 Classic Outback Trial winners, Andrew and David Travis, were lucky to finish Hayes Highway.

The Classic Outback Trial needed to live up to its name. Classic and Outback. Most of its special stages were, in comparison with a traditional championship rally, long and arduous. But more was needed. Along came Hayes Highway. With its start control only 20km from Rally Headquarters in Alice Springs, the stage fits the definition of “iconic” nicely. The length of the stage, at nigh-on 122km, necessitates a fuel top up immediately prior to the start.  First things first, you’ve got to have a full tank of fuel, or else… Hayes Highway joins two cattle stations, “Undoolya” and “The Gardens”. The Gardens is one of the oldest properties in the Northern Territory, established in 1901. The road is regularly graded and has hardly a straight section longer than 500 metres. It starts off pretty sandy, but the further north you go the rockier the road surface is. The last several kilometres are like the Big Dipper! Most of the crests are predictable, but some keep the driver guessing. Concentration over this length is paramount. On the other hand, the scenery along the way is rather spectacular.

Andy Crane and Dave Anderson press on mid-stage as they head for the Hayes Highway stage win.

The stage has produced some wonderful stories from some incredible dices which have occurred on Hayes Highway. We asked some of the crews who tackled this mammoth stage to let us in on some secrets … In 2016, leaders in the classic category, Andrew and David Travis, discovered a problem with their V6 Nissan Gazelle just before the start that threatened to end their event. With all that pressure of keeping the car together and staying in front of the 40-odd car field they were still mightily impressed with the stage. Andrew’s quote?  “That's probably one of the best stages I've ever done in my life!” The Travis’ came into the finish control 1hr 21m 59s after they started.  They were beaten by Andy Crane/Dave Anderson in a Peugeot 504 by a whole 13 seconds (after 122 kilometres, remember).  The only other car in the ball park was Steve Riley/John Doble in the fearsome 600 bhp Cross Country Commodore Ute, who scooped the pool to win the stage by a whole 67 seconds.

David “Dinta” Officer shows clear signs of strain, exhaustion and relief at the end of the stage.

The next best was former Australian Champions, David and Kate Officer, in their venerable and somewhat relatively underpowered Galant, four and a half minutes in arrears. To say that David was exhausted at the finish control is an understatement. “I was pretty stuffed!” he exclaimed. To underline the importance of getting this mammoth stage “just right”, Penny Swan/Tony Robinson in Penny’s Volvo 242 rocketed from 10th to 5th outright. In just one stage! But let’s get back to Andrew Travis… “The night prior to the great Hayes Highway we discovered a problem with our diff housing,” he recalls. “We thought we fixed it but when we arrived at the start of the stage we found that it hadn’t. We had diff oil everywhere, no parts – or skill – to fix it and no time. “I said to Dad ‘we are out, the diff is not going to do 122km with little to no oil’. His reply was: ‘let’s just go and if it breaks, so be it’. “Due to the oil leak we only had three brakes, which made it interesting.” To say the least! “I agree, Hayes Highway is the greatest Classic Outback Trial stage ever, due to its length and how demanding it is on the driver. Lots of sharp crests and blind corners around cuttings. What amazed me was the undulation of the country. “You could run a rally by doing the 122km one way in the morning, and back in the afternoon.”

Evidence of the leaking rear oil seal which so nearly put an end to the Travis’ third victory in the Classic Outback Trial.

Praise indeed from a four-time Classic Outback Trial winner. So, while all was well and good (almost!) at the front of the field, let’s hear what others had to say … In what was close to being the drive of the day, Penny Swan recorded the fifth fastest time in her Volvo 242 and was ebullient at the stage end. “Such a brilliant stage, a driver’s dream!” she said. “I remember letting out a few ‘woo hoos‘ throughout the stage, simply out of pure joy!  It was long enough that you could get into a real rhythm – and not so long that exhaustion set in. “There were parts of the stage that were highly technical, but balanced with roads that allowed you to put your foot down.

Penny Swan and Tony Robinson went from 10th to 5th outright during the stage, underlining her talent and perseverance. Watch her in-car video of the stage below.

“I knew going into the stage that if we could maintain consistent speed and stay out of trouble we could probably make some ground. Long stages on endurance events often take their toll on classic cars. “I have always preferred the longer stages – sprinting never delivers my strongest results.” During his 24 year rallying career, Joel Wald has had what you could call ‘better events’ than the 2016 Classic Outback Trial. Having rolled his Datsun Stanza earlier in the 7-day rally event, he and co-driver, Tracey Dewhurst, were down the field a fair way. “A VRC in one stage!” he grinned, fondly recalling the famous stage. “From the word go I knew this would be the ultimate test of both crew and car.  Following the rebuild after our roll over on day one, the car was strong. Tracey and I had discussed the stage and we wanted to be competitive. “Concentration would be the challenge and whilst the route chart was excellent, there would be long stretches without calls. We just kept talking (we were good at that!) and we kept our fluids up.

Despite a rollover om day one, Joel Wald and Tracey Dewhurst worked hard together to score a fine sixth fastest stage time on Hayes Highway.

“Our road position was poor, around mid-field.  About the 60km mark, we started passing other crews, mostly on the side of the road due to mechanical failure.  We pushed a little harder.  More crews stopped.  We had no idea how we were going, but no one passed us.  A good sign. “I recall thinking this is a f&$*ing long stage, but we were in a groove! How long to go I would ask. Nearly there – only 30 km. “Finishing was monumental.  Crews would hang around at the finish to compare exhilarations.  Wow! Let’s do that again, I thought to myself.” But the drive of the day – and the very special daily Gnome awarded with it – went to Andy Crane, who pushed his heavy and relatively underpowered Peugeot 504 hard the whole stage.  Here’s what he recalls … “I certainly remember that stage, 122km of rally heaven! “Maybe I remember it because the mighty 504 won the best rally stage in the world.  It had lots of blind crests towards the end – a few with unsuspecting turns on the other side, nice variety of all types of rallying stages all rolled into one – fast, slow, tight, open, sandy, rocky. “We started the stage concerned about fuel consumption if the stage was to be sandy, but it was a good road and I soon forgot about fuel and got stuck into just trying to read the road and go fast. We finished the stage with no fuel visible in the sight glass fuel gauge, less the 5 litres left in tank. “The stage started with fast open sweeping roads, then in the middle we went up and over a rocky ridge with some blind crests and unexpected changes of direction, then opened out for a flatter fast run to the finish. “There was a moment of sheer terror when we crested a small rise and found Neil Cuthbert in his blue Datsun coming towards us at speed. Fortunately there was enough distance to slow and avoid what would have been a very nasty incident. “I looked at Dave and asked ‘Are we lost, or is he lost?“ Dave, as cool as ever, confirmed that we were on track and to get going. It was a nerve racking eternity before the next call in the road book to be 100% sure we were on the right road.

The stage map of “Hayes Highway” in the Northern Territory.

“It was such a long stage and hard to keep concentrating. Towards the end the brain was slowing a bit and the result was we went off the road twice. The first one was over a blind crest: I was travelling way too fast to make the corner on the blind side and decided to go straight ahead into what looked relatively clear of danger.  It was a rough ride, but no damage and was able to get back to the road without too much delay. “Then about 15km later, on a fast downhill section, I mistook a graded water run off for the road and ended up about 50 meters down the grade off, and there in the grass was an unmistakeable set of tracks going off towards the road, so I followed them back to the road. “At stage end I was talking to Andrew Travis and he admitted to going down the same grade off and it was his wheel tracks we followed. “Hayes Highway certainly deserves to be in any list of the best rally stages of all time.” Back at Rally Headquarters, Clerk of the Course, Tom Snooks, fondly remembers Hayes Highway for another reason. “Being the first stage of the day and such a long one at that, it allowed all the cars, competitors, starting at two minute intervals and the official cars, to show up on RallySafe, all at the same time! “It looked so spectacular on a big screen in Rally Control that we couldn’t resist taking a screen shot.”

Screen shot of the RallySafe tracking system, showing every car, including competitors and officials on the iconic Hayes Highway Stage.

So there you have it.  The saga of Hayes Highway.  Fond memories, great stories. Bet you can’t wait till the next COT in March 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPjT8qXw8bo&fbclid=IwAR1eMEG5V8A1koaE5HXpzbkdI5VcQx_E2rNZAN1F9jTEN7qIy9K75dLCGE0

Joel and Ted Perkins enter the stage finish control in their Lotus Cortina.

Typical setting for one of the most fearsome, enjoyable and memorable stages of the Classic Outback Trial.

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Bruce Keys

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