Long distance endurance-type or major championship rallies, largely because they generate lots of publicity, have traditionally come under close scrutiny from the police.
Acts of speeding or reckless driving are quite naturally frowned upon by the authorities, and suitable penalties apply for anyone who breaks the rules.
In some rare cases the police tend to turn a blind eye to relatively minor offences of speeding and offer some discretion for those who flout the law. As far as speeding offences are concerned, police are often advised to be a little lenient, depending on the status of the event and a stern police warning is often enough to keep offenders in line.
1968 London to Sydney Marathon
Police harassment is nothing new in rallying. As an example, in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon, police brought in extra officers and vehicles from NSW to monitor the progress of competitors travelling through the small town of Cooma in the NSW southern highlands.
Competitors were relentlessly pursued by police patrols who tailgated weary crews who had driven non-stop from Perth in under 30 hours. As competitors entered the town they were tagged by police in patrol cars and on motorcycles until the town boundary was left behind.
Their presence and tactics were so blatant that leading international driver, Paddy Hopkirk, likened the police to the German Gestapo from World War 2.
Crews who had covered almost 16,000 kilometers from London in 10 days were in no mood to be trailed closely at more than a few miles per hour over the limit, and vented their anger at the conclusion of the event to the authorities.
Even the Russian competitors complained about the police harassment for doing 45mph in a 35mph zone, suggesting that even in communist Russia they would not have been so harshly treated.
Of course not all competitors were blameless and you can image that the sound of noisy rally cars desperate to keep to their time schedules travelling quickly through the town early in the morning before sun-up was a bit of a buzz.
In 1968, Paddy Hopkirk likened the police to the German Gestapo from World War 2.
To the locals, a bit of action like that was a novelty and breaking the road rules was hardly a major crime. No doubt the 30-or so rally cars left in the event at that point were anxious to get to the finish and were prepared to flout the law, whatever the consequences.
Still, the police action was a bit of an overkill and the police probably came away with the feeling that they’d done their bit for road safety.
In another similar incident in the same event earlier that night, German driver Gilbert Staepalaere was chased by the police for more than 20 miles at speeds of up to 75mph.
As Staepalaere left the final service point at the Victorian town of Wangaratta, the German high-tailed it out of town, passing a waiting officer of the law parked on the side of the road. The police soon latched onto his tail and followed him all the way to the next control at Edi, in the King Valley.
There were 5000 spectators watching the action and they were amazed when the two cars roared into control. The policeman was most irate that he was unable to keep up with the Ford Taunus and began to read the riot act to Staepalaere while writing a ticket.
Undeterred by the enforcement of the law that was unfolding, the Taunus driver sped off, despite a hot under the collar and very agitated cop trying his best to prevent the car leaving the control area.
According to reports at the time, the German broke the speed limit at Edi once more as he roared out of control and into the night, to the applause of the thousands of spectators lining the route.
1977 London to Sydney Marathon
That was in 1968, but by 1977 when the next London to Sydney Marathon, the Singapore Airlines LSM, was under way, CAMS, the governing body of Australian motorsport, had decided that if events were to pass through their country, speeds were to be kept within the posted limits and there was to be no tolerance for anyone breaking the law.
So much bad pre-and post-event publicity had been generated in the press about these ‘lunatics in motor cars’ roaring across the country at breakneck speeds nine years earlier, that CAMS quickly decreed that no more of this nonsense would be tolerated if permission had to be given.
Taking what looked at the time as a draconian measure, CAMS showed it wanted to assert its authority, declaring that any competitor who was caught speeding would receive a hefty penalty.
For the first speeding offence a competitor would have a 10 minute penalty applied to their score for every kilometer per hour over the speed limit. No allowance would be made for speedo error, police speed measuring device inaccuracies, or anything else.
Gilbert Staepalaere had the police hot on his heels in the London to Sydney Marathon.
Tough as that seemed, a second offence would result in immediate exclusion from the event. You can imagine just how well that went over with competitors!
Yet CAMS were adamant that it would be them who enforced speed restrictions across “their” country, not just the police, in an effort to be seen to be doing the right thing. But worse was to come.
When competitors arrived in Perth after the trip from Asia, crews were anxious to get on the road to Sydney and the Opera House finish, but first there was to be an official briefing.
Given centre-stage, the President of CAMS, instead of welcoming the international crews to our country, delivered a tirade of vitriol about the necessity to obey Australian speed limits at all times, on pain of exclusion.
There would be no repeat of the speeding that police were told to concentrate on, he said, and in fact CAMS had taken it upon themselves to monitor speeds between Perth and Sydney. Crews were told that CAMS were going to ensure that there was no adverse publicity caused by speeding rally cars this time around, which could bring the sport into disrepute.
CAMS had effectively wielded the big stick: just how they proposed to do it (control speeding) on the ground was the question that remained on everybody’s lips.
However, that wasn’t all. While the rally was making its way across Australia from west to east, speed-related instances of breaking the rules were non-existent until the field reached the NSW border, where CAMS had taken it upon themselves to set up three radar traps to catch speeding competitors.
Ignoring the fact that competitors had travelled from one side of the world to the other in a week (and obviously knew what a safe speed was, considering the relative conditions), CAMS officials showed no mercy, booking errant drivers for travelling as little as 3km/h over the limit.
Andrew Cowan won the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon in the unlikely Hillman Hunter.
Penalties were immediately imposed, however, it later turned out that CAMS’ action in setting up the radar devices was in contravention of civil law.
While most crews who fell foul of the radar complained bitterly, the European competitors were much more vocal, and it wasn’t long before the newshounds in the media splashed big headlines all over their front pages, boldly displaying precisely the message that CAMS wanted to avoid.
In an instant all the good work that the directors had done to keep a lid on stories such as ‘irresponsible drivers in race across Australia’, and ‘speeding rally cars in desperate race’ was to no avail.
In fact, a steward’s hearing convened to hear appeals by competitors over their speeding penalties was attended by radio and television crews! The average Australian, not knowing the real facts behind the speeding charges or even the small margins over the speed limit recorded, immediately assumed that all rally drivers were maniacs, lunatics or irresponsible hoons.
CAMS learnt its lesson the hard way from this unnecessary and tasteless incident, but the damage had already been done. It took years thereafter for CAMS, and directors in general, to attack the issue of speeding as a condition of issuing an event permit.
The moral of the story is that none of us should break the law on the open road. If we do we can all expect to pay the price if we get caught - and long distance, marathon events are no exception.
If police presence was so obvious in 1968 and 1977, imagine what it would be like if special stages on open roads were permitted in this day and age.
But then in this Corona-infested world everything is in a fluid state, where rally cars, speeding or otherwise, may well one day be a thing of the past.
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