Exactly twenty-one days before the scheduled finish time of the RSAC Scottish Rally, Mark McCulloch was trawling the scrapyards of Scotland looking for a differential for a scabby old Peugeot that had been lying in a garage for the best part of three years. Three weeks and one minute later, a red-faced Mark drove a virtually pristine white Peugeot away from the Hankook arch in Dumfries town centre. Given where he’d been less than a month previous, he should have been delighted just to make it to the end – but he wasn’t. He was furious at being baulked by a stubborn historic in the dusty Ae Forest, an incident that cost him a class win. The period in between these two events had been nothing short of extraordinary, but then again, Mark McCulloch is no ordinary driver.
The remarkable story began not long after the Jim Clark Reivers Rally back in May. Mark and co-driver Craig Wallace had secured their best result to date in a bargain-basement Subaru Impreza, coming fifteenth overall from a field of nearly one hundred and forty cars, most of which were newer than the McCulloch car. The boys were on top of the world until the fuel bill arrived. With a large bill to pay for several grey drums of magical fuel and a fear of driving the Subaru to its full potential lest unaffordable damage be incurred, Mark was faced with one of the toughest decisions in his fledgling rally career. Continue to tiptoe round the stages in the Subaru, stomach churning with every clunk and bang coming from within the Impreza, or put the four-wheel drive up for sale and go for broke in an old Peugeot 205.
Once the decision had been made (in favour of the Peugeot), it didn’t take long before we saw the re-emergence of all the character traits that made Mark such a superb competitor during his first stint in the 205 Ecosse Challenge. The little French hatchback was hauled out of the garage, stripped and given a fresh coat of paint. This wasn’t just a quick brush-up, though. The shell was tipped onto its side, so that even the underside could be re-painted in full. Lesson 1: Mark McCulloch is meticulous in his car preparation.
The white 205 that McCulloch and Wallace would be taking to the woods of Dumfries and Galloway in wasn’t the same car they used to blitz the opposition back in 2008. That car had long gone, and was subsequently destroyed by another driver on the Otterburn military ranges. No, this was the 2007 car, which had been converted from a road rally car to enable Mark to contest his first full season behind the wheel before being locked away in a garage for three years in the absence of a buyer. Its specification hadn’t been brilliant when it was in regular use, but with some new parts fitted it wasn’t going to be far off the pace of the best cars. It still cost some money to upgrade, but compared to what would have to have been spent on the Subaru just to keep it fuelled and tyred for a full rally distance, it was sweetie money.
Whilst the old car was being re-prepped in the buildup to the Scottish, Mark was making no secret of the fact he was returning to two-wheel drive. He participated enthusiastically in the rally’s pre-event publicity activities, fielding questions at a forum in Dumfries and making the Subaru available for a parade through the town. Such a great ambassador was the Newton Stewart driver that he was later awarded the Scottish Rally’s Spirit of the Rally Award for his efforts. Lesson 2: Mark McCulloch is a superb self-publicist, no matter how much he might claim he hates speaking in public.
The completed Peugeot was taken up to the rally’s media stage in the Forest of Ae, where it spent the morning hurling newspaper reporters and photographers round – until it started to fall to bits. Full-on activity after nearly three years of standing still seemed to be a bit much for the car. I passed the stricken vehicle on the back of a trailer on the way into Dumfries, and my enthusiastic wave was met with a grimace and a thumbs-down from Mark’s dad John. “It’s misfiring, cutting out and the suspension turrets are pushing up – it’s going to be a long night to get the car ready for tomorrow,” Mark admitted at signing-on. “At this rate I’ll be happy to get a start, never mind a finish.”
By the morning, things were looking better and the car was firing on all cylinders. It was like stepping back in time two years as I wandered up the queue of cars and encountered the young graphic designer springing out of his vehicle. I was met with a massive grin and a bouncing, fired-up McCulloch. “The car’s still not right, it’s down on power, I don’t quite know what I’m doing here but we’re good to go,” announced the driver before breaking out into his trademark laugh, which sits somewhere between hilarity and disbelief at the nature of the whole situation. “I’ll be glad to just get a finish after all I’ve been through, I tell you!”
“Well I’m expecting a win,” came the deadpan voice of co-driver Wallace from inside the car. Craig, an electrician from Kirriemuir, has been a superb calming influence on Mark for the last few seasons, and has been alongside him for virtually all of his major career triumphs. Like his driver, he wasn’t in the least bit disappointed to be returning to the 205s, looking forward to a bit of competition and the chance to go all-out again. Lesson 3: no matter how well or how badly things are going, Mark and Craig approach the situation with an inimitable blend of modesty, realism and good humour that those driving Ferrari F1 cars would do well do copy.
The next time I spoke to the Signright Graphics crew was at lunchtime, where the combination of competitiveness, modesty and outright disbelief was in full flow again. A string of superb times were posted on the Challenge timing boards next to Mark and Craig’s names. So good, in fact, that the juniors were less than a second adrift of eventual category winners Steven Smith and Russell Fair. But the team still reckoned they could go faster, with the car down on power. McCulloch eschewed the massive buffet laid on by his service and management team and spent the vast majority of service with his head under the bonnet, liaising with the mechanics and directing repairs. Just minutes before the car was due out of service, a service crew member came sprinting back from the van of the already retired David Brown clutching a spare air mass meter. Screwdrivers spun at a furious rate of knots, the engine was fired up and all four cylinders responded, and the white car – going by the name of Molly – shot off for the out control. I didn’t even need to ask if Mark was going to try and catch the cars in front. Lesson 4: once the stages have started and the rally’s underway, you won’t find a more ferocious competitor than Mark McCulloch.
The white 205 rounded the crush barriers below the Mid Steeple in Dumfries two hours later, caked in fine grains of sediment. Inside were two red-faced figures, their faces sporting black ovals of dust where dirt from the roads had made its way through the vents and round their balaclavas. They were hot, they were tired and most of all they were pissed off. Not at being OTL, not at having gone off the road, but at having come second. A crew who less than twenty-four hours previous weren’t sure if they’d be able to start the rally, and they were gutted at having come second. Mark and Craig had caught a wounded historic Escort that had refused to let them go into the stage ahead, and with no way to pass had been forced to crawl along behind said car in virtually zero visibility. This had quite simply cost them a chance at a return 205 Challenge win. To say McCulloch and Wallace were raging would be a massive understatement, but in a strange way I was quite pleased with what I saw. It reminded me of seeing Euan Duncan in the Civic back at the Border Counties honking the horn furiously as he tried to pass a tardy management car on the way into service. It was, in short, the sign of a man who once again had a purpose and something to fight for on the stages. Giving up on the Subaru can’t have been an easy thing for Mark McCulloch to do, but the massive energy kick it’s given him is something no amount of money or level of technology can buy.