Rallying needs to learn from its past

The R.A.C. Rally proved rallying can still have a rich audience. The challenge now is making modern rallying as attractive

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If anybody ever doubted that there’s still a deep-rooted passion for rallying in the UK, the Roger Albert Clark Rally laughed in the face of such a notion. The 2020s have hardly been what you’d called vintage for British rallying, but the R.A.C. was a noticeable, and much-needed, step change.

It’s always been a popular event, but this year the fever really was up to 11 – boosted of course by the presence of World Rally Championship messrs Solberg and Meeke, but I suspect it was bolstered by a whole lot more.

Because in my introduction I actually raised a fairly futile point. The UK is known to boast one of the most passionate, and knowledgeable, rallying fanbases of any nation across the globe, but it’s a fanbase starved of an event to match.

To speak collectively for a second as I’m from the UK myself, we’ve been craving some form of flagship event for over four years now. We, as a rallying community, have needed a boost.

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The R.A.C. gave us that, and then some. If it wasn’t abundantly obvious by the number of cars abandoned on verges as spectators flocked to the forests, then the hype on social media really hammered it home.

A comment along the lines of ‘forget the WRC, it’s all about the RAC’ caught my eye in particular, and Oliver Solberg confirmed the interest when he told me his social numbers from the event were through the roof – far exceeding his content from WRC2 rounds this year.

In short, this year’s R.A.C. was nothing but a success story. The fans clearly loved it, and the drivers did too – the sight of Rudi Lancaster getting out of his car, just after finishing the monstrous 39-mile final stage, just to bow down to clerk of the course Colin Heppenstall before driving off again was a perfect demonstration of the collective feeling.

Can you sense though that there is a ‘but’ coming? I really wish there wasn’t, but I can’t help, or deny, my overriding concern that sits right at the heart of all of this positive energy.

The R.A.C. is a rally based on the past, not the future.

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Chase cars – a thing of the past. A route (350 miles across three countries and five days) of that magnitude – forget it. The cars themselves – could barely be more different to today’s Rally1 offering.

Rallying has, rightly or wrongly, moved on from pretty much everything the R.A.C celebrates, aside from the obvious that it remains a race against the clock on special stages. So is it massively encouraging to witness so many people turning out for last week’s event, or actually rather worrying that it’s an event that’s like how rallying used to be that’s managed to invoke so much interest?

I’m still trying to work out which side of the fence I’m sitting on. But ultimately, for the good of rallying’s future, I really hope those at the very top of the sport were taking heed of what the R.A.C. demonstrated.

To caveat things briefly, the reason this rally proved so popular isn’t simply because things in the past were all just better, at least in my view. The aforementioned hunger for a large-scale event in the UK most definitely played its part (had Rally GB been staged a month earlier as used to be case then there might not have been quite as many spectators for example), as does the fact the R.A.C is biennial.

Already there have been calls from some corners of social media to make the event happen every year, but I believe that would actually make it less special. Part of the appeal is the anticipation of it coming back around again. And the fact it’s a standalone, non-championship rally means nobody’s pootling around playing the points game. Winning is the only goal for the top boys and girls.

That’s all enough to make any event intriguing, let alone one as world-class as the Roger Albert Clark. So no matter how healthy rallying is, the R.A.C. will be popular. But the excitement for this event was in a different league compared to contemporary rallying in the UK, or even the WRC. That can’t be chalked up as merely a coincidence, or because it’s a little bit less frequent than other rallies.

To me, it’s one of the clearest signs yet that rallying just isn’t advertising itself well enough any more – or worse, doing enough to inspire people.

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The R.A.C. managed to do it, and not just those that already loved the sport. Watching a few of the livestreams over the weekend I saw an encouraging number of people drop comments explaining that they’re new to rallying and asking questions about what was going on and what certain things meant etc.

For me, that’s huge. When was the last time you ever genuinely came across somebody new to this sport, or there was a non-rally fan in your life that started taking an interest in your passion? It shows that people are out there for rallying to grab a hold of, it just currently isn’t managing to do that.

I’m not going to pretend I’m the man with all the answers, because I’m not. But there do appear to be some easy wins that the R.A.C. did well – such as opening up service parks more or stripping back the live coverage to feel more raw – that in my opinion are important to consider for rallying’s future health.

The realities of the modern world have to be factored in too (shorter attention spans of consumers, the need for engaging social media content etc) but it seems to me that rallying must have been doing some things better in the past – or has lost its way to the point where only feelings of nostalgia will suffice for some – for last week’s event to feel so seismic.

Quite clearly the R.A.C. proved rallying can still have a rich audience. The challenge the sport collectively faces now is convincing each and every person that competed, officiated, serviced, watched or even just paid some attention to it that modern-day rallying is worth their attention too.

Words:Luke Barry