Published: 00:00, 10 February 2017
Grumpy Britons love to moan about the weather, but if it wasn’t for our inclement wind and rain, rallycross may have never existed. Dan Wright spoke to the sport’s creator as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.
On Saturday, February 4, 50 years ago, motorsport history was made in a corner of Kent.
Television producer Robert Reed organised an event at Lydden Hill near Canterbury that – unlike horse racing – would not fall foul to the winter weather and leave holes in the TV schedule when cancelled.
His idea went down so well that ABC TV bosses quickly gave the green light for more, and the sport of rallycross was born.
“I got the idea while working on a wet hillclimb event in November 1966,” Reed, now 81, explains.
“The cars were sliding all over the place and had to work their way down a muddy cart track to get back to the paddock, which I enjoyed watching.
“There was no point booking another hillclimb because it could be cancelled again, so we needed to come up with another event that could fill the gap when other sports were stopped by the weather.”
Just days later – and by pure coincidence – event organiser Bud Smith, from Ashford, contacted ABC TV about broadcasting his sport car trials.
“I said, ‘No, but I’ve got another idea’, and explained how I wanted to create the Monte Carlo rally in one afternoon,” Reed, who was directing World of Sport at the time, says.
“Bud said there was a circuit near him we could look at and when I went down to Lydden for the first time, owner Bill Chesson was extending the circuit and he was using lots of chalk that was being removed to make the nearby dual carriageway.
“It looked perfect for what I wanted to do and rallycross may not have happened at all if it wasn’t for Lydden.
“I went back to the office and put it to my boss – I told him we could guarantee it would not be cancelled by the weather and he agreed to give it a try.”
A few weeks later, Vic Elford won the first rallycross meeting in a borrowed Porsche 911, beating a number of top rally drivers at an event run in an anti-clockwise direction pitting four cars against each other at a time.
Smith had originally devised a track on the Lydd army ranges, but Lydden – a natural amphitheatre – offered an ideal venue.
Reed had turned his idea into reality, combining the spectacle of rallying with the ease of filming within the confines of a racing circuit, using just four cameras to record the action.
"It is nice to see the simplicity of the sport is still there today, even 50 years on..." - Robert Reed
Rallycross was – and still is – the only sport ever devised specifically for television, and quickly enjoyed a meteoric rise.
When the BBC got hold of rallycross in late 1968, it joined ITV in screening regular events on Saturday afternoons.
The sport soon spread to Europe, reaching Holland in 1969, and survived as a popular spectator sport even when the TV companies dropped their live coverage.
Its series of short, sharp races run back-to-back, culminating in finals to determine the winners, over a mix of Tarmac and gravel, is still enjoyed today.
“It is a lot different to the event I devised 50 years ago, but it is still called rallycross and is still on Tarmac and loose,” Reed says.
“The TV coverage nowadays is brilliant and the cars used still look like those you can see on the road.”
The sport enjoyed a boom period in the late 1980s following the ban of Group B cars from stage rallying.
Blean’s very own Will Gollop, now 66, won the last title of the era in his iconic MG Metro 6R4, beating a number of first-class drivers including charismatic Norwegian Martin Schanche to the 1992 European crown.
Brands Hatch hosted the annual British Rallycross Grand Prix every year, with more than 25,000 people packing into the West Kingsdown venue.
But when the monstrous Group B machines were banned in 1993, the sport faced a tough time.
There were plenty of great moments but, as live television coverage became almost non-existent, only die-hard fans followed the discipline on both the British and European scenes.
Two decades on, however, and marketing giant IMG is now in control of the re-branded FIA World Rallycross Championship, attracting star drivers including former world rally champion Sebastien Loeb and manufacturer-supported supercar teams.
“I still follow the world championship, but I wanted to work in children's programmes after rallycross and went on to create Magpie,” Reed says.
“I was quite pleased in a way that the BBC took the sport on when they did because I thought it would survive longer and become more popular if more channels were covering it.
“That proved to be the case and it is nice to see the simplicity of the sport is still there today, even 50 years on.”
Britain’s adverse winter weather may have hurt other sports, but it gave one pioneering producer the gap in the TV listings he needed to form a discipline still loved to this day.
Lydden Hill will host the FIA World Rallycross Championship on May 27-78, as well as two rounds of the British Rallycross Championship on Easter Monday and August Bank Holiday Monday. Visit www.lyddenhill.co.uk for details.
More by this authorDan Wright