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Virginia & Phil's Excellent Adventure

October 28, 2020

One of the biggest problems facing rally organisers has always been getting enough officials to run the events successfully. For many events the number of officials needed for such things as spectator control, course management, service area supervision and so on can exceed the number of actual competitors. One championship event in 2020 was still trying to get all the officials needed for locations on the course only a week or two before the rally was due to run, and this reminded me of a near disaster which happened at a rally I directed in 1977.

The 1977 rally was based on Oberon, where I now live, and I can remember standing on a milk crate outside Peter's Café (still an Oberon institution) to deliver the Drivers' Briefing. The picture at right shows three members of the organising committee, Peter, Jenni and Jim, on a survey to set the rally route and discussing whether a particular pothole needed to be marked as "Extreme Caution!!!" in the route instructions.

Rallies in those days were run at night time. The first car was due to start at about 7pm, with briefings at about 6pm. By 3pm it had become obvious that a large number of people who had volunteered to be course officials were not going to turn up. With a bit of rejigging I was able to cover all the controls at the start and finish of stages so the competitors could be timed, but there was nobody left over for what were called "passage controls" at the time. These were people positioned on the course to ensure that competitors didn't take shortcuts. Cars were required to stop at these locations and get their route cards signed. The penalty for missing a passage control was quite severe. (My navigator made a small mistake in one rally which caused us to incur a missed passage control penalty. We received no time advantage from the mistake but the penalty dropped us from first outright to fifth.)

I could almost rely on the fact that most navigators couldn't read a map anyway, but I thought it would be a good idea to suggest that staying on the right course would be advisable. About one kilometre into the first stage cars came to a t-intersection with an open gate, so I drove in there before the first car started and set up a passage control, complete with card table and green light. A few competitors complained that "Possible passage control" wasn't in the route instructions, but I pointed out that under the rules of the game compliance with instructions could be checked at any point on the set course. They spent the rest of the night waiting to find the next passage control.

Except for one car.

My wife Virginia was an entrant in the rally, and in the first stage she managed to put the car off the road. There was no damage but they needed to winch the car back onto the road, and the only suitable anchor point for the winch was on the other side of the road. They waited until a few cars had passed, ran the winch cable across the road and started recovering the car. When they were about half way through the action another competitor turned up, and instead of offering to help he shouted loud complaints about how they were holding him up. (If he had offered assistance he could have claimed the lost time.)

As they had lost quite a bit of time getting the car back onto the track, they decided that they would shortcut some of the stages. In those days there were target times set for stages and timing was to the minute – if a competitor arrived early at a finish control they could nominate their finish time and lose no points for the stage. Neither Virginia nor Phil, her navigator, knew about the total lack of passage controls but they were going to take the risk anyway. Their objective was to finish the rally and have a good time and they didn't really care if they came last as long as they finished.

They proceeded to shortcut all the stages from then until the very last one. This meant that they had to find a way of getting to the finish control of a stage in the right direction, and they managed to do this stage after stage, losing no points along the way. I was driving around during the night checking on control officials and Virginia and Phil started a stage while I was there. I drove to the end control of the stage and they were already there. I guessed that they had taken a shortcut but to this day I still don't know how they got there in less time than I did.

The final stage of the event was one I always tried to use in rallies I set in the area. It was a diagonal run through Vulcan State Forest, starting near the intersection of Vulcan and Abercrombie Roads and ending near where Mozart Road joins Shooters Hill Road. There were only a few instructions (and the only caution was when entering a main forest road – dawdling tourists in 4WD vehicles were a problem even back then, although unlikely in the middle of the night) and the stage was essentially a final blast where the driver wrung the cars neck, the navigator didn't do much at all and both arrived at the final control with pulse rates in excess of 200 and big smiles on their faces. It was not possible to shortcut the stage so Virginia and Phil dropped a couple of points.

The fun started after the event when the provisional results were released. Here were the various whinges and complaints:

  1. Virginia wasn't a fast enough driver and my Datsun 1600 wasn't quick enough to clean all those stages so there must have been skullduggery going on. My response went along the lines of "Try harder and drive faster next time".
  2. Virginia and Phil must have known all the details of the route because one of them was married to the director and the other was close to the club committee. Because we often had both competitors and organisers as club committee members we ran very solid Chinese Walls. We treated this defamation with all the respect it deserved and might have even expressed high dudgeon at the suggestion of impropriety.
  3. Virginia and Phil must have known there were no passage controls. See the comment above about Chinese Walls and high dudgeon.
  4. Almost my favourite – Phil cheated because he could read a map. Map reading was actually an essential navigator skill back then because stages could be set with no route instructions, just the location of the start and finish, and you had to read the map to find your way. Also, if you got into trouble or got lost the map would help you get to where you needed to be. One of the very few times I was classed as a non-finisher was because of a massive navigation failure. Our bones would still be mouldering somewhere up near Hill End if we hadn't managed to luckily find a road with a sign and then use the map to get ourselves back home.
  5. Probably my real favourite – Phil cheated because he HAD a map. The maps required were specified in the supplementary regulations for the event, were easily obtainable and smart people didn't leave home without them.
  6. And finally – the driver who had been inconvenienced by the winch rope told me that he was going to lodge a formal protest because conditions on the stage had not been equal for all competitors. I told him to carefully check the provisional results, because if he lodged a protest I would immediately delete that stage from the results and he might like to consider who would then be classed as the winner of the rally by a fortnight. I never heard from him again.

A possible reason why people didn't carry maps. This is the official map of
Vulcan State Forest at the time, with the editorial Commodore for scale.
(I'm amazed at what I can find in the shed.)

Copyright © 2016- Peter Bowditch

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