Interview: Jimmy McRae, rally legend and famous father – Part 1
Every once in a while a journalist gets to sit down with one of the real legends of their chosen sport.
Jimmy McRae is one such legend, and Peter Whitten had the chance to ask the famous Scotsman about his career, from his early days in Vauxhalls, to the later years driving WRC gravel note cars for sons Colin and Alister.
RSM: You were a bit of a late starter in rallying. Where did your interest come from?
McRae: I was interested in motorsport and motor cars, and my father was a local blacksmith in the Lanark area. He never competed, but he was keen and always had cars and motorbikes when he was young, so the interest came from there.
I always looked at rallying but could never really afford it, so my competition career started on motorcross bikes and scrambles. I had a friend who actually convinced me that I should have a go at rallying.
At that time I had qualified as a surveyor and had taken over a plumbing, heating and electrical company and started to have a bit more money about me, so I thought maybe I’d give it a try.
My friend had a Twin Cam Escort and he wanted me to co-drive for him on the weekend because his co-driver was ill. So I went out with him one night in the rally car on public roads and I vowed then that if I ever did a rally it certainly wouldn’t be in the passenger’s seat!
But it put the wheels into motion for me to have a go at it myself.
You were 30 before you drove a rally car, so it’s quite amazing that you went on to achieve what you did in the sport.
Yeah, it all worked very well for me. I bought an old 1200 Cortina with a Lotus engine in it and I did four rallies with that with good results. I sold that and bought a Twin Cam Escort and won the Challenger’s Championship in the Scottish Championship, and it just went from there.
I decided in the second year that everybody had Escorts and you needed something different to be noticed. That’s what put me onto the Vauxhall Magnum, and the local garage, SMT, gave me a hand with the preparation of the car.
It paid off because the year after that I had a sponsored drive from them, and the year after I wasn’t a paid driver, but I had an all-expenses-paid drive. So, from my third year in rallying it didn’t cost me anything.
Did you realise right from the start that you had something special that many other drivers didn’t have?
Yeah, the first rally I did, I can’t remember how many were in it, but I finished 11th overall in a Scottish Championship event and I won the class. Then I got the Twin Cam Escort and it was so much easier to drive.
The first rally I did with that, I went down to Barron Furness in the north of England and I was lying second to Tony Pond in that rally. I actually finished fourth because there was a guy who rolled in front of me and I got held up, but at the halfway halt I was lying second to Tony Pond.
After that I phoned the clerk of the course of the Burmah Rally to try and get an entry in – before then they told me they were oversubscribed and I didn’t have enough experience to get an entry in that event.
I said look, ‘I’ve just been lying second to Tony Pond, can I get an entry in to your rally?’ They let me in and I started number 78.
I finished that rally eighth against people like Andrew Cowan, Roger Clark, Billy Coleman and people like that. I had hoped to finish maybe top 25, but when I finished eighth, I thought ‘maybe I can be good at this’.
When you came into rallying, were the guys you looked up to in the sport rally drivers, or racing drivers like Jim Clark?
I was always a fan of Jim Clark, yes, but when I came into rallying I didn’t know all that much about the sport or the personalities.
Of course everybody knew Roger Clark because of his Cossack sponsorship, so he would probably have been my hero when I came into rallying.
Clark was a Ford man through and through, whereas you went down the Vauxhall path. Tell us about that Vauxhall Magnum.
It had a 2.3-litre engine in it and I bought it through the SMT people. It was an ex-company car which I got really cheap. With the money I got for the Twin Cam Escort I bought the Magnum, which was virtually a new car.
I won a rally with it, but I had a lot of little mechanical problems with it. But at the end of that year, 1976, I tried to get a sponsorship deal to do the RAC Rally at the end of the year.
I went to SMT and they tried to get Dealer Team Vauxhall support, but they had no money available. SMT, a big Scottish Vauxhall dealership, wanted me to do the last national rally, two weeks before the RAC Rally, and the two works DTV cars of Will Sparrow (a Group 4 Magnum), and Paul Faulkner, who was in a Group 1 car, were entered.
I actually beat the two of them, then finished 12th in the RAC, so I sat down with the boss of DTV who said he would try to do something with me for 1977.
So, the following year I had not a works drive, but support from SMT and DTV in the Group 1 championship.
Motorsport personalities of the late 70s had a reputation for being heavy drinkers and having a good time at any cost. Was the professionalism still there, despite the different approach to the sport?
Yeah, the professionalism was there, but one thing I do remember was on the Burmah Rally.
I’d had a few drinks as well because I was really happy. My wife and my co-driver and his wife were there and we were just sitting in the bar late at night, getting ready to head to bed. There was a guy playing the piano and singing and it was a really good night.
Then the image I had of my hero, Roger Clark, suddenly went downwards. He was standing on top of the piano with a pint of beer pouring it over the top of the piano player’s head. I thought, well, the guy’s human!
But the professionalism was definitely there, despite the appearances at times.
In 1978 you moved from the Magnum to a Group 4 Chevette. That car was obviously much better.
I had a couple of problems on the first event I did with the car, the National Breakdown Rally, but on the second event, the Circuit of Ireland, I had never driven the car on tarmac before.
We actually led the event until the last day until we had a valve seat problem, which put the car onto three cylinders. We eventually finished second behind Russell Brookes in a BDA Escort.
In 1978 I had only been rallying for four years and there were guys like Markku Alen, Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen in that rally. If you’d asked me two years before if I’d be at that level, the answer would have been that I had no aspirations for it, I just wanted to go out and enjoy myself.
If I had won the Scottish Championship once in my career I would have been more than happy.
Many young drivers get tuition these days to progress in the sport. Did you take that path, or did you learn as you went along?
I learnt by doing events and never really did any practice. In the early days the only practice was having a run up and down a farmer’s lane to make sure the car was working alright, there was no practice and no recce – they were all blind rallies.
I never really practiced setting up a car until about 1978 when I joined the Vauxhall team. With my own car it was the typical privateer thing, working on the car on the night before the rally until the early hours of the morning.
You started it up and you drove it to the rally, that was your practice!
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Chevette, because it never quite reached the high levels achieved by the Escort.
It was as good, maybe better, on tarmac than an Escort, but the Escort suspension and the slipper back springs and front struts were far and away better than the Chevette on gravel.
You had to be really sticking your neck out on gravel to match the Escorts.
Did you have the opportunity to drive a Group 4 Escort back then to see what the differences were?
When I had the Magnum I had the chance to drive an Escort in a Scottish Championship event when the Vauxhall wasn’t ready in time.
I led the event from the start and I said to the boss at SMS, ‘We’re really struggling with this Vauxhall if I can jump into this Escort with less horsepower and record better times’.
But it was just the handling and traction was so much better. We knew then that we had to work a lot harder with the Magnums and Chevettes to get them to work just was well.
From that point on I never drove an Escort until very recently.
Through the Chevette years you became known as a tarmac expert, and actually never won a gravel round of the British Championship. Was that a surprise to you, or was it just because the cars you were driving were more suited to tarmac?
The Chevette was definitely better on tarmac. At the time I drove for Vauxhall, Pentti Airikkala drove for them as well and he was classed as being the gravel expert.
So he set the car up for gravel and at that time the drivers didn’t have much of a say about it, so I didn’t have a say in the set up and certainly didn’t get the best out of the car until Pentti left the team.
But because I was successful on tarmac, I got my say on the tarmac spec and that meant my confidence in the car was so much greater.
The British Championship uses a combination of gravel and tarmac events which is different to this part of the world. Was it always the situation where some guys would be quick on gravel, and others on tarmac?
I’m sure it made it far more interesting that certain guys, like for example Per Eklund who did a lot of the events, would beat you on gravel.
But if the next event was tarmac you always knew you could beat him on that event. It did even things up because one car or one driver might always have an advantage on tarmac, but another car and driver would have the advantage on gravel.
In those days the British Champoniship was made up of guys like Vatanen, Airikkala, Blomqvist and guys like that, so it was a fantastic time to be involved.
But because I was so good in the British Championship, I got locked into it and because by that stage I was coming on 40, there was nobody going to give me a drive in the World Championship.
Changing from the Vauxhall Chevette to the Opel Ascona and then the Opel Manta must have been a bit like chalk and cheese, given the size differences in the cars.
When I changed over to the Ascona I thought ‘bloody hell’, and Tony Pond always referred to the Opel side of the company as the bus and truck division, but the Ascona was a very forgiving car and it never felt as big from the inside as it looked from the outside.
We had some success with the Ascona on gravel, and while I wouldn’t say it was easier to drive, for me it handled better on the gravel than the Chevette did.
The car was also well sorted because it was being run in the World Championship as well.
Through the Ascona and Manta years you were achieving some great results in the RAC Rally with top three and top five finishes. Were you having more influence on how the car was being set up for gravel events?
I did a lot of the tests and a fair bit of the testing in Germany for the World Champoinship team, so they trusted me quite a bit on the test side then.
But when we had the Manta it was the start of the four-wheel drive era so we were struggling and most of the good results I had with the car were “first two-wheel drive car”.
So how does the feeling of finishing third on the RAC Rally compare to that of winning the British title, which you did five times?
The first British title I won was the special one. It was nice to be on the podium on the RAC, and the fact that you were the best of the two-wheel drive brigade, but it’s never the same as winning overall – whether that be a championship or a rally.