I HATE to disappoint you but it actually isn’t. And the reason I know that is because it’s still July and will only be another month before the strains of those festive chart-toppers start to pipe through the sound systems at shops, bars and supermarkets. Well, those that are open post Covid-19 lockdown.

In any normal year, most motorsport in the UK is seasonal, clocks forward to clocks back as a general rule, but rallying is the exception. Many popular events take place in the winter months as the sport is conducive to testing competitors and their cars in the most difficult of climatic conditions. They never used to cancel rallies for ice, snow and hurricane force winds, but 21st Century Britain, with all the HSE rules and regulations, is a different place.

One such event is the ubiquitous Christmas Stages Rally, which has become an important part of the sporting calendar in the region with thousands of hardcore and casual fans alike getting their festive fix of horsepower.

Organised by Northallerton Automobile Club Ltd, the origins of the event go back to the 1970s but very few records remain. It really came of age in the 1980s and into the 1990s, with mainly top local drivers contesting the event which, because of the high ground at places like Waithwith, Feldom and Downholme, was often exposed to the severe winter elements.

The reason for the rally being held on those military ranges around Catterick Camp at Christmastime was that was when most of the soldiers were away on leave, meaning the huge network of private MOD roads weren’t in use for training for a week or two.

As the event evolved and the new Millennium approached, entries were starting to tail off despite the organisers incorporating the many gravel roads of Foxglove, Gandale and Badger’s Wood as opposed to the sealed concrete and broken asphalt surfaces used previously (although there were forays into Hamsterley Forest and Scorton Quarry also some years). They even tried running a version in summer to alleviate the troublesome wintry conditions but there was minimal interest, so it looked as if it was the end of the road for the historic event.

Then along came 2001 and the blight of Foot and Mouth, which inadvertently saved the day. With many sporting events cancelled and access to the countryside severely restricted, it wasn’t possible to run the rally in the traditional way so the organisers took a leaf out of near neighbours, Darlington & District Motor Club, who had run a very successful single venue rally at Croft Circuit in the past called the Jack Frost Stages. With competitors and spectators alike condensed within the confines of a race circuit and thus, easier to control as the last dregs of the infection were eradicated, NAC approached the track owners for permission to run the rally on a temporary basis until the military ranges could be used again in 2002.

What followed next was remarkable. Not only did the entry fill up in record-breaking time, it contained many top drivers and state-of-the-art cars meaning financial security for the organisers and a bumper paying crowd on the day for the circuit owners. Former circuit racer David Henderson and co-driver Hayley Selby took the win in a Mitsubishi Lancer on the first running in 2001.

The success of the inaugural event was such that both NAC and Croft were keen to try it again the following year, which was another resounding success and saw British Superbike team boss Paul Bird (with yours truly in the silly seat) bring his factory-specification Hyundai Accent WRC home whereby he (we) defended the title the following year. That confirmed the military roads, the original foundation of the rally, were consigned to history.

And so it grew to the point that the event continues to this day at Croft whereby the 90 available entries are usually snaffled up minutes of them becoming available and crowds flock in their droves to blow off the winter blues. Nowadays, the rally takes place a couple of weeks before Christmas and as well as the multi-million-pound machinery and star drivers, last year Santa and his helpers as well as Northallerton Silver Band playing Christmas Carols turned up too.

Back in 1996, on those Catterick ranges, it was emerging West Auckland star Julian Porter, along with co-driver Julia Rabbett, who took victory in their Mitsubishi Lancer.

The Northern Echo:

Bedale garage proprietor Bryan Gill with Northallerton co-driver Johnny Bean (Ford Sierra Cosworth) chased hard and came home in second place some 54 seconds adrift. Third went the way of Northallerton motor technician Anth Eaton and Peter Hartland from Great Smeaton in their Ford Sierra Cosworth with event sponsor Chris Lewis (Ford Escort Cosworth), Dave Wood (Saab 900) and former winner Charlie Taylor (Ford Escort Mk2) completing the top six.

Leeming coach proprietor Kevin Procter leads the way with a total of ten wins on the event, eight at Croft and two on the ranges but last year relinquished his title to Cumbrian young gun, Frank Bird meaning he’ll be desperate to clinch it back.

In a surreal year where top class domestic motorsport has been another victim of this horrible pandemic, there’ll be plenty of fireworks to let off when battle commences on December 13. It won’t be before time.

Christmas Stages Rally Winners (multi-venue Catterick)

1983 Andy Elliott/Mick Dent Ford Escort RS

1984 Pete Sleights/Lou Naylor Ford Escort RS

1985 Yuk Hodgson/Sue Lamb Ford Escort RS

1986 Steve Bannister/Dave Oldfield Ford Escort RS

1987 Pete Sleights/Roy Supner MG Metro 6R4

1988 Warren Philliskirk/Christine Parling Ford Escort

1989 Charlie Taylor/Adrian Farmer Ford Escort RS

1990 Dawson Boyle/Carl Swinnerton VW Golf GTi

1991 No Event

1992 Charlie Payne/Hugh Edwards Ford Sierra Cosworth

1993 Steve Petch/Peter Croft Ford Escort Cosworth

1994 Charlie Payne/Hugh Edwards Ford Escort Cosworth

1995 Martin Robinson/Dave Robinson Ford Sierra Cosworth

1996 Julian Porter/Julia Rabbett Mitsubishi Lancer E3

1997 Anthony Eaton/Peter Hartland Ford Sierra Cosworth

1998 Kevin Procter/Stephen Robson Ford Sierra Cosworth

1999 Kevin Procter/Stephen Robson Ford Sierra Cosworth

2000 Anthony Eaton/Jeff Talbot Ford Escort Cosworth

Christmas Stages Rally Winners (single venue Croft)

2001 David Henderson/Hayley Selby Mitsubishi Lancer E3

2002 Paul Bird/Larry Carter Hyundai Accent WRC

2003 Paul Bird/Larry Carter Hyundai Accent WRC

2004 Tom Morris/Neil Chambers MG Metro 6R4

2005 Tony Bardy/Reg Smith Nissan Sunny GTi-R

2006 David Bogie/David Patterson MG Metro 6R4

2007 John Stone/Lee Carter MG Metro 6R4

2008 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2009 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2010 Dale Robertson/Paul McGuire Mitsubishi Lancer E9

2011 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2012 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2013 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2014 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2015 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Subaru Impreza WRC

2016 Guy Smith/Patrick Walsh Ford Focus WRC

2017 Simon de Banke/Phil Mills Ford Fiesta R5

2018 Kevin Procter/Dave Bellerby Ford Fiesta S2000T

2019 Frank Bird/Jack Morton Ford Focus WRC

Dateline: Sunday, December 29 1996

Location: Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire

Meeting: Food Weighouse Christmas Stages Rally