OFTEN classed as motorsport’s best kept secret, the sport of rallycross is the youngest of all powered disciplines with a history going back just over fifty years.

Popular myth always had it that back in November 1967, the world’s leading rally competitors had assembled for the RAC Rally only for it to be cancelled at the last minute due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak. With a television schedule to fill, a hastily arranged meeting was arranged at Lydden Hill in Kent for drivers to compete in a bio-secure environment and thus the sport was born.

Not so, as it already existed having been invented in February of that year. With television revolutionising people’s lives and sporting outside broadcasts gaining in popularity, regional production company ABC Television commissioned a number of specially invited rally drivers to race on a part gravel, part asphalt track at Lydden to be broadcast by ITV as part of their new flagship World of Sport show.

That test event was won by Vic Elford in a Porsche, who was later to become a Formula One driver and winner of the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally, and such was the success that the TV bosses commissioned a series of events split between Lydden Hill (near Dover) and Croft Autodrome in the north.

The ITV World of Sport Rallycross Championship ran for a couple of years before the BBC wanted a slice of the action for their rival Saturday afternoon sporting talisman Grandstand and over the next few years, as the television companies battled for viewing figures mainly over winter, so too did the drivers who rapidly became household names.

Roger Clark and his brother Stan, Peter Harper, Barry Lee, Pip Carrotte and ‘Jumping’ Jeff Williamson were just some of the names to grace the grid in the early days whereby such was the fledgling nature of the circuits combined with the worst of the British winter, cars often got stuck in the mud and driver visibility led to a number of spectacular crashes. Sadly, very little television footage exists these days as with the broadcasts going out live at the time, nothing was recorded for posterity.

Unlike Lydden, Croft’s original layout was anti-clockwise and featured a combination of asphalt on the racetrack, grass and mud on the infield and broken dolomite from the old runways and service roads. One such meeting was just after Christmas in 1968 when the ITV cameras turned up to show a round of the World of Sport series.

Rallycross lasted into the early 1970s at Croft with international competitors regularly visiting including the Dutch de Rooy brothers, Jan and Harry, in their all-conquering bright orange four-wheel drive, variomatic DAFs powered by a Renault Gordini engine. The sport gradually faded from popularity and when the gates closed for the final time in 1981, that looked to be the end of the road for Croft hosting this spectacular sport.

Conversely, the very nature of the sport running on rough or loose surfaces meant it was ideal for the decaying asphalt which meant circuit racing was no longer viable and with planning permits still in place, local businessman George Shield formed a consortium to run rallycross. In 1982, they set about building a track using the existing circuit layout in a clockwise direction and with lots of local support from fans and drivers alike, a new era was born.

The proximity of the circuit gave rise to many local competitors and as the decade progressed, rallycross allowed a sanctuary for the fire-breathing Group B Supercars which were outlawed from rallying following a number of bad accidents. The boom-and-bust 80s meant plenty of extravagance and soon grids were packed to overflowing in the various British Championships that were held at Croft.

All of that success, combined with one of the fastest tracks in Europe, saw the prestigious Internations Cup awarded to the North-East track and in November 1987, virtually all of Europe’s best drivers descended on North Yorkshire for the team event involving eight countries. Included in the British team were two lads from Darlington, Mark Rennison in his DSRM-supported Ford RS200 and near neighbour from Cleasby, Michael Shield, son of the circuit operator, in his MG Metro 6R4.

In front of 15,000 fans on a gloomy winter Saturday, Team GB won the opening two heats with Will Gollop and John Welch taking victory after Rennison’s car had suffered engine problems in qualifying. The home team extended their lead following Trevor Hopkins’ win whilst Michael Shield had to give second best to Seppo Nittymaki later in the day to ensure Great Britain held the lead overnight.

Shield won the opening heat on Sunday before Rennison, whose crew had worked through the night to replace the engine with one which was some 200bhp less, won also with Gollop again victorious to extend the British lead. The Europeans battled back into contention despite another win for ‘Renny’ in the final set of heats as the all-important finals beckoned.

Swede Ollie Arnesson won the ‘E’ Final in his Audi Quattro with Shield in third whilst the ‘D’ Final went the way of Finland’s Matti Alamaki (Lancia Delta) with Welch (Opel Xtrac) second. London-based Cypriot Dimi Mavropoulos won the ‘C’ Final for GB in his Audi before Gollop scorched to victory in the ‘B’ Final in his MG Metro 6R4.

That meant that all Rennison had to do was finish the ‘A’ Final to clinch the crown for Great Britain, who had finished third and second in the two previous INC events, and he did just that, finishing second to Seppo Nittymaki’s Peugeot 205 T16. The end result saw Great Britain finish on 159 points ahead of Finland on 148 and Sweden on 135 whereby many claimed it was the best rallycross meeting ever, not only at Croft, but in the UK.

Rallycross continued at Croft for another two decades, even hosting the British Grand Prix on a number of occasions but despite its heritage from the very start, rallycross no longer features on the schedule at Croft and although venues such as Langbaurgh in Middlesbrough and Tockwith near Wetherby hosted the odd rallycross event in the recent past, for the first time in half a century, the region is devoid of the sport.

Dateline: 29/29 November 1987 and 28 December 1968

Location: Croft Circuit, North Yorkshire

Meeting: Internations Cup & World of Sport Rallycross