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Australian rallying suffered another body blow last week with the announcement that Toyota were withdrawing from the Australian Rally Championship forthwith.

The move is not surprising given the world economic situation which has seen vehicle manufacturers all over the globe laying off staff to avoid bankruptcy. Toyota was not immune from this. Their ARC program, which has netted them three Australian Rally Championship titles in the last three years, is no more, team manager and owner, Neal Bates, left without a budget to run his highly-successful S2000 Toyota Corollas.

So how will Toyota’s withdrawal affect the ARC? Clearly, with no manufacturer support, it will struggle. The slide started, many believe, on the death of Subaru star, Possum Bourne, and the subsequent wind-up of Subaru Australia’s involvement in the ARC. Mitsubishi also walked away from the Australian Championship, closing their rallying operations, and the only light in the tunnel was the brief appearance of a quasi-works Ford program with a pair of Ford Fiestas.

Sadly, now there are none. Despite assurances that ARCom were doing all within their power to bring new manufacturers into the sport, none have eventuated. Worse still, those who were left in the sport running poorly-supported One Make championships, were given little encouragement to continue. Realistically for Toyota, and with their economic woes aside, being the only manufacturer in the ARC with no-one to compete against, it was a no-brainer.

Despite the decision Toyota have just made, how could we have let our most prestigious domestic rally championship, one that we until recently claimed was the best regional rally championship in the world, get to this stage? Did we ignore those who kept the Series alive in the hope that somebody new might come along? Or was the ARC already in free-fall?

With a national governing body that cares little for rallying, and a part time rally commission who, until recently were more interested in political point scoring than actually promoting rallying, it’s little wonder that rallying is in the state it is.

Fortunately there are some new faces for rallying in the musty halls of CAMS, but the threat remains that their best endeavours are likely to be thwarted “for the good of rallying”.

As always, the root of the problem is money. With Rallycorp (the body who control the commercial aspects of the ARC) desperately short of money to promote the Series and to film it for TV, thanks to a continual reduction in the number of factory rally teams (the by-product being fewer and fewer cash contributions for the rights to compete), and the resultant general downturn in the sport, we are trying to run rallying with more than one arm tied behind our backs.

While volunteers have always been the criteria that keeps our sport alive and makes it run successfully, the recent trend of advertising for volunteers to raise their hands for even the most important of jobs (eg: building and maintaining an ARC website, doing the financial bookkeeping, and sponsorship liaision) all at no cost, surely instills little faith in those manufacturers who may be contemplating sticking their nose around the corner and getting involved in rallying.

So with no manufacturers, cancelled events and a global shortage of money, the 2009 ARC looks like a lame duck. Its one salvation might be that this year it will begin to re-invent itself. Now there will be a chance for privateers to finally challenge each other for a win – a chance that some of our leading ex-factory drivers might keep the sport alive by fronting in non-factory cars, and a chance for some of our underfunded, but greatly talented, young drivers to rise like cream to the top.

If we all work together, 2009 might be the start of a new beginning. One day the manufacturers will come back. But it’s going to take everything you and I can do to make it happen.

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