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Penalised for excessive body damage, competitors in the 1953 Redex Trial became part of one of the biggest rows ever to affect the sport. * * * * * If competitors in today’s rallies were penalised for inflicting damage to their cars, then there’s no doubt that the scoreboards would reflect some vastly different results. On top of that, speeds would be greatly reduced and the emphasis would be on steering a course that avoided all the usual car-damaging antics. Cutting corners, using snow banks as frozen Armco to guide you around corners, and using all (and more) of the track to shave off those all-important seconds, would all be techniques that would go out the window. Fortunately, while severe altercations with the scenery can slow your performance and dramatically change your results, it is not illegal in the rallying scheme of things. Yet it wasn’t always like that. Way back in the days of the early Redex, Ampol and Mobilgas trials, body damage was a factor in determining a winner, rather than the sum of points lost by being late or early into control. Incur a dented sump, a broken shock absorber or a scratched chassis rail and your chances of being declared the winner, even though you were hours ahead of the rest of the field, were shot to ribbons. As we’ll see shortly, the directors, misguided and pedantic souls that they would appear to be from a current viewpoint, obviously thought that a quick 16,000 kilometre trip around the continent was a walk in the park, despite using some of the roughest excuses for roads that anyone could discover. If this sort of nonsensical logic was employed today, every car that left the road, however briefly, during a Targa Tasmania or a Premier State Rally, would be instantly penalised on the severity of the damage. As we know now, with the emphasis on speed rather than regularity, going as quickly as possible presents its own problems, one of which is body damage. One is the by-product of the other – unfortunately – unless you’re very skilled or very lucky, or both. Fifty years ago this August, the 1955 Redex Round Australia Trial kicked off in Sydney prior to its 16,800 kilometre jaunt anti-clockwise around the country. 176 crews, a figure unheard of in today’s events, set sail for an adventure like no other. Sure, there had been Redex Trials before (in 1953 and ‘54) but none were to have had as much impact on the sport as this one. It started with all the usual fanfare and soon degenerated into a daily fight against sand, rocks, impossibly rough gibber tracks, and finally, water and mud. And after 21 days on the road – or what were excuses for roads - the remaining runners were subject to a mighty bog in a farmer’s paddock on the outskirts of Wee Jasper, between Canberra and Yass, in southern New South Wales. We’ll cover the farce which was the boggy paddock in a future story, but it helps to know that the organisers of the event, in an attempt to rip more points off the leading crews who had lost minimal points by the time they were within hours of the finish, threw in a “tie-breaker” section to more truly reflect the tough nature of the Redex. That it decimated the field is somewhat of an understatement – some competitors spent a whole night stuck in their cars which were bogged to the sills, while others, seeing the mess ahead of them, simply found another road around the morass and drove on to the finish. ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray, one of the ones who fell victim to the bog, spent so much time in the muddy paddock that rather than going to the finish, drove home and out of the trial, relinquishing his right to six hundred pounds prizemoney. However, it wasn’t only the bog which caused such bitter feelings at the finish, but the attitude of the organisers who were so intent in identifying body damage and penalising competitors. It seems incredible today that Volkswagen Beetles, regarded post-war as ‘funny little German cars”, could cover such a demanding course with minimal loss of points. Yet two of them blitzed the field – Laurie Whitehead lost 21 points while Eddie Perkins (father of Larry) lost 27 points. That was until the post-event debacle which set some sort of record for the time it took to declare a winner. At the finish Whitehead and Perkins got a heroe’s welcome. When the celebrations died down, their Volkswagens were taken away by stewards for post-event scrutiny. Elation soon turned to dismay when the scrutineers slapped a 500 point penalty on both cars for having a crack in the chassis, first noticed when the cars passed through Perth. The decision relegated Whitehead to fourth and Perkins to sixth. This elevated third-placed Brookes and Tate to first place until their Vanguard was also hit with an extra 500 points for having a cracked frame member and cross member. In the meantime officials had decided to do a recount of points losses after the Wee Jasper bog section was cancelled due to the number of complaints. There were suggestions that Jack Murray would be declared the winner, but he failed to turn up for scrutiny until 20 hours after the finish. Perhaps he knew a thing or two. It was on September 15, four days after the finish, that the scrutineers finished their examinations and declared Carl Kennedy’s Peugeot the winner with a loss of 236 points. The Kook brothers were announced as runners-up in their Vanguard, on 399 points. “Wild” Bill McLachlan was third, his Ford Customline losing 506 points. Whitehead and Perkins appealed the stewards’ decision but their appeals were turned down. The announcement of revised winners raised the ire of Volkswagen Australia who threatened to take legal action to restore their cars at the top of the winners’ list, but the organisers from the Australian Sporting Car Club were adamant that the amended results would stand. Months went by, months of bitter argument, protests, protest hearings and acrimony. The ASCC heard 40 protests on the results, but all were dismissed. Still not satisfied, four entrants took it upon themselves to appeal to the (then) National Control Council of CAMS. In the meantime, Reg Shepheard, the Managing Director of Redex, the sponsors of the event, wrote to the Royal Automobile Club in England (the then-controlling motorsport body of the British Empire) asking for their guidance in hearing appeals. He was concerned that, months after the finish, he was still unable to distribute the prizemoney. Finally, on December 13, three months after the Redex concluded, the original results were ratified. Whitehead and Perkins, by now thoroughly dispirited with the whole mess, were declared first and second. But the damage had already been done. The newspapers of the day had been headlining the sorry mess on a daily basis for three months, which did nothing for the public’s understanding of the rules or the event itself. In the final wash-up there were many losers. Disgusted with the negative publicity generated, Shepheard and Redex decided that there would be no more Redex trials. Volkswagen, smarting from the mess, were less than impressed and Jack Murray, 6,000 pounds poorer because he went home before crossing the finish line instead of to scrutineering because he thought he had no chance of victory, vowed never to enter an event run by the Australian Sporting Car Club. CAMS, who bungled the appeal hearing process and criticised the press for continuing to report the fiasco, failed to emerge smelling of roses as well. Just how the organisers expected competitors to circumnavigate Australia at a frantic pace over moonscape-like tracks and through impenetrable bogs without putting a mark on the bodywork or a split in a floorpan, is beyond comprehension. Suffice to say that stress cracks and split seams were never, ever again a factor in determining a winner of a Round Australia trial. The lesson had been learnt the hard way. For the first and last time, little cracks literally tuned into big splits in one of Australia’s most-remembered events. And it all happened 50 years ago.
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