Junior rallying lands in Scotland

I think I went to bed last night and woke up four years earlier. I’m in a rally service park during the break between stages, notebook in one hand, pen in the other. The generator from the Ecosse Challenge van is in full swing, a constant steam of cups of tea and slices of cake pouring out the open side door. Mark McCulloch and Craig Wallace recount the previous stages’ misadventures, Mark struggling to control his laughter as he describes going round a corner on three wheels. Euan Duncan leaps out his vehicle and charges straight up to the stage time board propped up outside the van, punching the air and loudly expressing his delight at the time his car’s set over the last two stages. Monty Pearson calmly stalks up to the board, notes some times down on his clipboard, and heads straight back over to the Borders team to relay the info to the young driver.

The only difference is that this isn’t 2008. It’s 2012. All the guys who were right at the heart of some of the most exciting times in the Ecosse Challenge’s history are here, except now they are back helping to write the next exciting chapter in the tale of Scottish rallying – the Brick and Steel Junior 1000 Ecosse Challenge. If it’s the hard work of a few individuals that have got junior rallying in Scotland off the ground, it’s the remarkable level of support from Challenge competitors past and present that has sent the series soaring skywards.

Junior 1000 Ecosse service area

It’s been a long and twisty road since I hosted a forum with Jimmy McRae and five juniors to mark the launch of the Junior 1000 Ecosse Challenge back in October 2010. The Junior Team of David Barlow and Jim Aitken – ably supported by rally school master Bob Watson – have spent much of the intervening time driving up and down the country, trailering Micras to motor shows to drum up publicity, attending midweek meetings to garner the support of existing events, and waking up at the crack of dawn on Sundays to go and run the production car autotests that the juniors have to complete in order to be issued with their licences. There have been big regulatory and legislative issues that have had to be worked round, but with the unwavering support of the rallies, car clubs and the Motor Sports Association, all the forms have been signed and all the boxes ticked.

Meanwhile, through various Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and news snippets on the Challenge website, from afar I’ve watched the excitement build among the first cohort of Junior Ecosse pilots. Cars have been built, licensing tests sat, and budgets pulled together. Even things like the arrival of a racesuit through the post or the bolting of mudflaps onto the back of the car served to make it all seem a bit more real as the months, weeks, and days ticked down to the first round. I’ll never forget the excitement with which young Scott Murray uploaded photos of his name, freshly stickered onto the side windows of his Micra, to the Challenge Facebook page.

Of the hopefuls I interviewed in that backroom at Perth Racecourse all those months ago, most are out and competing when I turn up for Round 2 at the Royal Highland Showground on the outskirts of Edinburgh. “It’s amazing how much they’ve all grown up since it was launched,” remarks Jake Dickie, former Challenge champion co-driver in his own right and father of early Junior frontrunner Michael. “I mean, he was 12 when we had that launch day, now he’s 14 – that’s a lot of progress for someone of that age.”

Jake himself is heading up the service crew for Michael’s car. Under the rules set out when junior rallying started in England a few years ago, the junior’s co-driver has to be over 21, holder of a National A licence, and not a relative of the driver. Euan Duncan is the man tasked with filling the hot seat for the Dickie team, serving the dual purpose of keeping Michael right on the stages and also helping to bring him along as a driver with all the experience he gathered during his time as a Challenge frontrunner. Apart from the replacement of the red Civic with a smaller white Japanese hatch, everything is pretty much the same as it’s always been for the Banchory team – except that now it’s the turn of Michael to get behind the wheel.

Michael Dickie pressing on

All around the Junior 1000 paddock it’s the same story. Most of the junior drivers have fewer than forty stage miles under their belts, but it feels like we’ve known them for an eternity. They’re the guys we’ve seen time and time again over the last few years, running round the service parks in boiler suits and doing whatever they can to help their siblings, parents or family friends’ rally campaigns. As they’ve grown up, they’ve progressed from carrying the cups of tea to fetching driveshafts right through to bolting wheels back on the cars, and now it’s their turn to be in the spotlight. Take Ryan Weston, for example. I can remember him zipping around the Ramsport tent whilst dad Dave was challenging for the Scottish Rally Championship. Then he was reading the maps in the chase car whilst big brother Dave Junior made his mark on the British rally scene. Now at long last it’s his turn to be the centre of Ramsport’s efforts, heading out to the stages in a Citroen C1 whilst his father watches on from the service area.

The main field has finished with the stage, it’s been changed over to accommodate the juniors (there are understandably restrictions on splits and merges), and it’s time for the next ten minutes of flat-out action that the last two years have all been working towards. Helmets on, doors shut, engines rev up. I head over to the fence and wait for the 1000cc cars to make their way round. First up is Alex Vassallo from the north of England. He’s been in training at Chris Birkbeck’s Rally School – and it shows. The 14 year-old is visibly faster than any of the other juniors, taking something like seven seconds a mile out of the rest. The others are quickly catching up, though, braking later and later with every pass of the stages, running closer and closer to the bales and making those gearchanges smoother and smoother. In fact, by the end of Ingliston, second-placed Harry Marchbank had sliced in half the gap that separated him from Alex at the end of the previous round.

The guy hanging off the fence next to me has seen it all before. His name is Cameron Davies, and he is living proof of the value of the Junior 1000 formula. Rocking back and forth on the cables every time a car goes past and willing the driver to brake later, he drips enthusiasm for rallying. He has destroyed the competition in almost every series he’s competed in, has been a works rally driver, and is a member of the MSA’s Apprentice Programme. Oh, and he’s just turned seventeen.

Cameron has come up from Wales – yes, Wales – for the day to give the Scottish Juniors some advice. As someone who’s been through the whole scheme himself in the not-too-distant past and hit the ground running in his first season of ‘real’ rallying as a result, he’s superbly placed to give the tips and encouragement that’s needed. “Just from seeing what I have today, I can already see the improvements that the drivers are making with every run – and also where they still need to make up time,” he explains. “Most of them won’t have driven very far on competition tyres before, for example, so they just need to be given the confidence to really turn in and brake much later than they ever could in a road car. I’ve been through this whole process myself, so I’ve got and idea of what they need to learn, what they’re going to need to work on, and where they’re going to need reined in.” Yes, this a seventeen year-old talking. When I was that age I was more concerned with trying to make my Mum’s Volkswagen Polo ‘yump’ on the Black Isle’s undulating roads.

Alex Adams hones his cornering

The other driver mentor in attendance is someone at the same end of the talent scale – if at the other end of the experience scale. Jimmy McRae has been hugely supportive of the Scottish Junior 1000 programme since Challenge Co-Ordinator David ‘DIGB’ Barlow first floated the idea, and today he has been given a group of six juniors to mentor. “We’ve come a long way since we all sat down in Perth and had that forum, haven’t we? This is a terrific initiative for Scottish motor sport and a real credit to the guys that have put in so much hard work to make it happen,” believes the man who many of the Junior 1000 drivers will have encountered for the first time when they used a digital version of his Ford Sierra in Colin McRae Rally 4 on the PlayStation. “I’m just here to watch the youngsters in action, answer any questions they might have for me, and impart whatever pearls of wisdom I can.”

As the juniors and their experienced co-drivers scoot round the tarmac tracks with ever-increasing speed, a father and his son watch on from under the Challenge tent with quiet satisfaction. Their names are Tristan and Alistair Dodd, and they are responsible for the entire junior rallying movement. From their base in deepest Wales, the Dodds have masterminded a movement that is changing the face of rally driving. “Cameron Davies, Ashley Slights, Aaron Newby,” Tristan rattles off the Formula 1000 junior alumni.

“Chris Ingram,” Alistair cuts in.

“Yep, Chris Ingram, Formula 1000 champion last year, absolutely flying in the Twingo now,” Tristan continues. All these guys are now starting to break through into rallying proper, and you can just see the way their training in the juniors has helped them.”

“I guess at this stage of their careers, one of the most important things isn’t the times they set, but the rate at which they learn,” I ask.

“Yes, that’s absolutely right, it’s all about learning and improvement at this stage,” Dodd senior promptly confirms. “But you know what the most important thing of all is?”

He turns and gestures towards the throng of drivers, co-drivers, mechanics and parents crowded round the stage times board. “Look at all those faces, grinning from ear to ear. Maybe one in ten thousand of them, if even that, will make it as a professional rally driver. So when you think about it like that, the fact that all these people are out there and enjoying their rallying is the thing that gives us the most satisfaction.”

Right on cue, John MacCrone emerges from behind a pick-up truck. A star of the WRC Rally Academy and regular competitor in the World Championship, MacCrone is perhaps the most likely in the UK to be the one in ten thousand that goes all the way in rallying. But today, he’s out for a play, and even a fuelling issue isn’t going to spoil his fun. “Top-three times, top-three times in the Fiesta, we’re loving every second of it!” declares the Muileach. Before the day is out, he’ll get fastest stage times outright in his two-wheel drive Ford. The take-home message, though, is that even at the very top levels of rallying it’s still the grin factor that makes the drivers tick. As it is, the Junior 1000 Ecosse Challenge is doing an awful lot to ensure that the next generation of Scottish rally stars fully maximize their talent, but it’s the number of smiling faces the series has added to the service park that could well be its greatest legacy.

Words by Leslie Mabon – lesliemabon.wordpress.com

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