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RAC Rally
23-25 November 1997
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History of the RAC Rally

The first RAC Rally used a format broadly similar to that of the then better-known Monte Carlo event, with starting points around the country and competitors converging on a common finish. The route covered 1,000 miles and there were 367 entries, with many stars from the Brooklands era involved. The Rally was held in March 1932; at the end of the five-day competition, 259 cars arrived in Torquay without penalty. Although there were no overnight halts, the required average speeds were low (25mph) and the results were decided by three tests on Torquay promenade. The deciding test involved driving 100 yards as slowly as possible!

Throughout the 1930s, the basic formula remained the same. as early as 1934, there was remarkable support from manufacturers, with 15 different companies giving official backing: AC, Armstrong Siddeley, Aston Martin, Alvis, Citroen, Ford, Riley, Rover, Singer, SS, Standard, Sunbeam, Lagonda and Marandaz.

The outbreak of war in 1939 signalled the end of the Rally until 1951, when the first ever RAC International Rally of Great Britain was held. Run in June, there were four start points with the finish in Bournemouth, and tests at various places along the route. These included such varied courses as the Rest and Be Thankful hillclimb in Scotland and driving tests on the sea front at Brighton.

With rallies in Europe (such as the Alpine and the gruelling Liege-based marathons) becoming far tougher, the 1952 RAC Rally was moved back to March in search of worse weather. Subsequent years saw the introduction of difficult navigation sections, notably through Wales, but these proved almost impossible for overseas crews. What was needed was a formula combining challenge with straightforward navigation...

In 1959, therefore, Jack Kemsley was asked to organise the event. He moved the date to November and devised a long route from Blackpool, through northern Scotland and Wales, to finish at Crystal Palace racing circuit in London. This attracted 16 overseas entries, as well as six factory cars from Ford and eight (including one of the new Mini-Minors) from BMC.

In 1960, more major changes were made. The 2,000-mile route started in Blackpool, finished at Brands Hatch, and omitted Wales. Most important was the inclusion of three timed sections on private forest tracks, where Erik Carisson proved dominant, although co-driver Stuart Turner later admitted that they had made a pre-event recce!

Along with the introduction of a modern road book, the format was such a success that the 1961 Rally would be won and lost entirely on Forestry Commission special stages. Over 200 miles of these gravel roads were used, with cars heading north into Scotland before the finish at Brighton. Names like Kielder, Kershope, Dovey and Staindale appeared for the first time.

The Rally never looked back after that. The format today is basically unchanged, apart from the introduction of pre-event reconnaissance, first on the spectator stages and later (since 1990) on all the special stages. Also unchanged is the general domination by Scandinavian drivers. Only Britain's Roger Clark (twice), Carlos Sainz (once) and Colin McRae (twice) have managed to beat the Finns and Swedes since the event took to the forests.

The event's international reputation grew rapidly: since the formation of the FIA World Rally Championship in 1973, the British round has always been included. Many cities and towns are eager to host one of the couniry's major sporting events, those visited have included London, Birmingham, Bath, York, Chester, Harrogate, Nottingham and Cheltenham.

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