Happy Birthday Rallycross!

by Tim Whittington |

Today at Lydden there is a test and training day for Rallycross, exactly 45-years ago, and also on a Saturday, the circuit was bustling with TV cameras and a select group of drivers for the running of the very first Rallycross.

For many years confused by repeated hearsay and misinformed rumour, no-one can now seriously dispute that Saturday February 4 1967 was the date of the first Rallycross event. The widely held misconception that Rallycross was created when the 1967 RAC Rally was cancelled because of an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease overlooks the fact that the rally was cancelled in November, nine months after that inaugural February event at Lydden, a period in which there had been four subsequent Rallycross events.

When Brands Hatch entered into running Rallycross events, the first one on January 25 1976, it retrospectively sought to claim that the so-called “Mini Monte” that had been run there in February 1963 was the first Rallycross event. There are several flaws in this claim, the main one being that the name Rallycross was never used in relation to the “Mini Monte” which was a rallysprint-type event, cars competing singly against the clock.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Rallycross (one word, you will note) as “a form of motor racing in which cars are driven in heats over a course including rough terrain and tarmac roads, but not public roads.” The first known use of the term Rallycross comes in January 1967 when a short story in Autosport notes: “A new form of motor sport has been thought up by John Sprinzel, Barrie Gill of the Sun and Robert Reed of ABC TV’s World of Sport. Called Rallycross, the sport is open only to rally cars. The first event will be organised by the Tunbridge Wells Centre of the 750 MC at Lydden Hill on 4th February…” The Lydden event was billed, beforehand, on the day, and in the contemporary motoring press, as Rallycross. And even at that very first event the cars were starting abreast in groups of four and racing against the clock and each other. The only major difference between what happened then and what happens today is that the overall winner was decided by combining the times achieved over three heats, the idea of finals not coming until the sport was adopted by FIA/FISA for 1976.

While that Autosport item identifies those involved in creating Rallycross, it omits two names and does not give any detail of the contribution of the different parties.

TV producer Reed is the most important man in this. He had the basis of an idea and was in the position to develop it. As is often the case with these things, it was a fortuitous meeting that brought that about. Event organiser Bud Smith had gone to ABC TV with the idea of the independent broadcaster televising Sport Car Trials that he was running with 750MC. Reed was the man that Smith met in late 1966. “Robert was keen to use cars that looked liked road cars, that was his big thing. I explained that they wouldn’t be able to get into our Trials courses and suggested Autocross, but ABC TV had tried that and didn’t find it very successful because it had rained and the cars soon got bogged down. It was also difficult to convey any sense of speed in a featureless field. Then we came up with the idea of a start on tarmac, going off onto the rough stuff and back on to tarmac,” explained Smith 25 years later.

Smith went away to look for a venue, originally devising a course on the army firing ranges at Lydd on the south Kent coast where he had previously run rallies, before going to visit Lydden Hill founder Bill Chesson at the still developing track. Chesson immediately loved the idea and when Smith subsequently got a phone call at the start of 1967 asking if he could run an event in early February, it was with Chesson’s assistance that a course combining sections of race track, infield and the foundations for the North Bend and Hairy Hill section of the track – which had not yet been given its asphalt surface – was devised.

There is no doubt that Reed and Smith are the true fathers of Rallycross, the former seeing how to shape motor sport to the needs of television, the latter with the experience and foresight to bring those ideas to life. Chesson’s huge enthusiasm and can-do attitude enabled Smith to deliver and the Lydden Hill boss would go on to be probably the greatest proponent of Rallycross, a godfather-like character who nurtured it into adulthood.

So what of Sprinzel and Gill?

“We’d got a track sorted out, so then I talked to John Sprinzel who was doing commentaries for us and Barrie Gill who was the motoring correspondent on the Sun and who was keen to push motor racing on television, I called them down to Teddington for a meeting. We had a chat and they liked the idea and then John rang me later that night and said he had had the idea to call it Rallycross, like autocross-rallying-rallycross,” said Reed.

Sprinzel himself said the name was a collaborative effort, “Robert [Reed] and I thought up the name Rallycross because we said we would start them four abreast, it would be just like an autocross on a rally route, so it’s like, Rallycross.” Race and rally driver Sprinzel drove in the first event but then transferred to then switched to being a regular commentator for Rallycross.

Gill’s role was really advisory and to help generate publicity. At the time he was a journalist on the Sun, not today’s tabloid but the newspaper which had previously been the Daily Herald and which had been the RAC Rally’s first commercial sponsor in 1966. Gill went on to be European Motorsport Manager for Ford, where he would enter cars in Rallycross for a number of drivers.

That first event (which used the track anti-clockwise) had its problems, the stone base of the North Bend section inflicted considerable damage to windscreens, lights and radiators, and the day had started badly when BMC driver Bob Freeborough rolled his works Mini in the first practice session, but Rallycross was an immediate success and producer Reed had promised a second event before the day was out.

“It was all live in those days and the idea was that we would have 12 or 18-minute slots, whatever there was between the horse racing. Of course I hoped that the horse racing would be cancelled and that we would have a lot more time but we ended up with fairly short slots. That was fine because we could get two or three races in and we were still on the air when the phone rang from the head office at Teddington where they were controlling it and the editor said ‘This is brilliant, can you do another one in four weeks time?’, without thinking I said ‘Of course I can!’, and worried about telling everyone else later,” said Reed.

That first event was won by Vic Elford, England’s great all-round race and rally driver seeing off the best of the Ford, BMC and Rootes rally teams, as well as many others, with a road car. The new name at Porsche, Elford had come within an ace of winning the Monte Carlo Rally in his first official outing with a 911. The publicity had earned him an invite to the Rallycross but he had no car. Having previously borrowed a 911 from British importer AFN in order to learn how to drive the rear-engined car, Elford again imposed upon the generosity of AFN boss Bill Aldington and went to Lydden at the wheel of its demonstrator.

“I had an incident with Roger Clark that damaged the left side of the Porsche and then, in my last race, I shut the door on Brian Melia who didn’t want to give in. He went off, but there was a lot of damage to the right side of the Porsche too,” said Elford. “When I got home that night my wife, who had watched it all on TV, said ‘Mr. Aldington has been calling you all afternoon.’ So I phoned and they were having heart failure, they’d been watching on TV and said ‘What have you done to our car?’. I apologised, explaining that I had won the event and that was what it was all about, but they were very concerned about their demonstrator and wanted to see me on Monday morning. By the time I got there, about mid-morning, the atmosphere had completely changed. They had spent the entire morning with the phones ringing off the hook and people wanting to know when they could come and buy a 911. So all was forgiven because sales, for a while at least, just rocketed as a result of Monte Carlo and the Rallycross.”

From that successful start Rallycross progressed, the second event running in March, with a third in July before a championship season running through the winter of 1967-’68 began in September. This six-round series included the first event at Croft in December and had a thrilling climax when Ford’s Tony Chappell (Escort TwinCam) pipped Peter Harper and his Hillman Imp to the title in the final round on April 6 1968.

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