By Drew F. May 19 2019
The 1981 Burt Reynold’s classic, Cannonball Run, featured a group of rogues attempting to race across the United States. Unknown to most fans of the series, there was a real “Cannon Ball” run in the 1970s. Conceived by long-time editor of Car and Driver magazine, Brock Yeats, the race had some elements of an official motorsport known as rallying.
Although the Cannonball Run and rallying are dissimilar in multiple ways, the films’ likeness to the motorsport showed filmgoers a different kind of auto racing.
The History of Rallying
Rallying is not like the motorsports that race at high speeds around a purpose-built circuit. The motorsport dates back to France as the 1894 Paris-Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition sponsored by Le Petit Journal. It is recognized as the first form of a rallying event. The competition led to a rise in city-to-city racing across Europe.
The early forms of rallying, much like the Cannonball Run, were held on public roads and streets. Due to the dangers of the young motorsport, it was banned in many countries.
One of the biggest early rallying events was in April 1900. A competition called The 1000 Mile Trial was introduced the Royal Automobile Club in the United Kingdom with around 70 cars entering. The race had 13 stages with lengths varying from 43 to 123 miles. Entrants had to travel at a legal average speed limit of 12 miles per hour. The club still exists today and continues to promote events related to automobiles.
Starting in the 1950s, rallying events popped up around the world. Some were short circuits with several stages like the Monte Carlo Rally while others were grueling multi-day events like the Mexican 1000.
The World Rally Championship (WRC) launched in 1973. The motorsports league was organized by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) as an official rally sanctioning body. The WRC is the highest level of rally driving in the world today and governs 14, three-day race events. Drivers compete on a variety of surfaces from gravel and tarmac to snow and ice.
Famous Rally Drivers
The early rally drivers were amateurs. They were not paid very well, and training was not necessarily extensive. By the 1960s, rallying’s growing popularity brought in a new class of drivers. Sweden’s Erick Carlsson was one of the motorsport’s first full-time drivers. His full-time status led to an increased amount of money paid to rally drivers.
The decade saw an increase in the skills of drivers and their entry into rallying has been credited to BMC rallying manager Stuart Turner.
Carlos Sainz, father of McLaren Formula One driver; Carlos Sainz Jr, is one of the top drivers to have competed in rallying. Between 1987 and 2005, Saniz won 26 rally races and two World Championships.
Colin McRae won 25 rally races during his 19-year career. McRae raced for Subaru, Ford, Skoda, and Citroen until 2005 when he tragically died in a helicopter crash. Had it not been for that unfortunate incident, he would likely have won more races as he was still active in the sport at the time.
Nine-time WRC World Champion Sebastien Loeb is considered the world’s best rally driver. Loeb has won 79 races since debuting in the sport in 1999. Despite being 45-years old, he is still racing in WRC competitions.
Rallying cars are based on road cars with race modifications to compete in off-road competitions. Some of the significant differences between rally car models and road-ready automobiles are their weight, power, and safety.
WRC has strict rules that limit the power of the competition’s cars. In addition, the cars must have roll cages and full-harness seatbelts for the driver and navigator.
Rallying was far more dangerous in the past as fewer regulations resulted in perilous races with risks around every corner. In the 1980s, a rallying era known as Group B introduced some of the motorsport’s most iconic cars. Unfortunately, some high profile accidents which resulted in loss of life of participants and spectators led to the banning of the Group B cars.
Since 2017, rally cars have been 1.6L turbo-charged engines with 380bhp power limit. The motorsport’s regulation changes in 2017 altered the power from previous years. Now, rally cars are stronger and more powerful. While the vehicles have gotten more potent under the hood, they have also become more lightweight.
Teams and manufacturers have freedom in the aerodynamics of the cars. In addition, the vehicles have large wheel arches that make the cars look different from street legal cars.
Prior to the revamp of rally cars used in WRC, there was a time when private teams could enter races. These teams were basically amateur rally car crews with money to back a race team. Often times, the crews were not particularly good, but their financial backing meant they were allowed to compete. The elimination of these private teams makes rally car racing more professional and less dangerous for competitors and spectators.
The current WRC series has four competing manufacturers, including Citroen, Ford, Hyundai, and Toyota. Twenty-one drivers compete in the series with 13 eligible to win manufacturers’ points.
The 2019 WRC series features 14, three-day races. Contests take place in Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America, and Australia.
WRC plans to expand the series further in future years. The motorsport league wants to increase the number of races to 16. New rules in 2019 mandate a maximum race distance of 217.5 miles.
Similar to formula 1, the top 10 finishers at each rally event earn points in the WRC standings. Three crew members per team can be nominated to earn manufacturers’ points in each race. Five points are also up for grabs during the “Power Stage” of races. The Power Stage is typically run during the closing stage of a rally.
Most WRC events take place in the country and away from major cities. Many times, spectators stand on the side of roads with no barriers separating them from the competition.
Compared to other motorsports, rallying has a unique format. The combination of speed, endurance, and point-to-point racing make it less appealing to fans of other more conventional motorsports. However, these properties have made it attractive to other fans.