25th June 2011
(From Bob Moore)
Run only a week away from the longest night of the year, this year’s event could well have been called the “Long Night Owl”. It was certainly a long night for most competitors and, at 600 kilometres in length, a considerably longer rally than recent Night Owls. As a classic, ‘50s/‘60s-style rally, it was a triumph for the Australian Historic Rally Group, and the “terrible twins” Arthur Evans and Paul O’Neill who conceived it.
This year’s event saw the start shift from Raymond Terrace to Scone, in order to access new challenges. It certainly succeeded! In another innovation, the untimed Night Owl introduced a savage penalty for mistakes: ten points per kilometre over/less than the correct distance. Consequently it rewarded meticulous navigation, and negated the temptation to rely on speed as an antidote to navigation mistakes. If you used a wrong road, you were penalised, no matter how quickly you regained the correct route.
Did this make the event boring for drivers? No way! Firstly, the Night Owl required superior teamwork between driver and navigator to avoid inadvertently missing turns, and thus copping the dreaded point-per-tenth-of-a-kilometre penalty. Secondly, drivers were treated to some absolutely magic roads, and others that required tremendous concentration for 40-50 kilometres at a time. The other challenge for drivers was the sheer length of the event. Not only were the stages quite long – all were over 100km long – but the rally ran over one and a half days, with a total distance just over 600 kilometres.
This year’s Night Owl drew a disappointingly small field of 13 competitors, one of whom was unable to start. Not enough people know how much fun they could be having in events like these. The 12 starters were spread across Experts (6), Apprentices (3) and Novices (3). All crews bar one were classified as finishers. There was also a diverse range of vehicles: modern and historic, 2WD to SUV.
After a briefing by Assistant CoC Arthur Evans, the 2011 Night Owl started at around midday Saturday, heading west from Scone towards Merriwa. Almost immediately, all crews overlooked the proper interpretation of the route instructions for the first 10 km, and promptly dropped three VRCs! Road distance was 119 km (if you got it right!), comprising a mix of very good gravel and some lovely winding bitumen.The main control at the end of Stage 1 was unmanned – always a little unsettling. Even more unsettling was the start of the second stage, with VRC boards on both the correct and wrong choice of roads (ask me how I know!) The 108 km course took us back east towards Scone, using some challenging rural roads – winding gravel through open country, many unfenced, and with warnings of wandering cattle (lots!), and wildlife (not much, just enough black kangaroos to scare you!)
The smooth running of the rally was thrown out on this section when a Z-board with the wrong code letter was inadvertently placed beside the road by the course car. Originally intended to warn of some rough road conditions ahead, the incorrect code letter required competitors to retrace their steps. Worst affected were Thompson/Brocklebank who, first on the road, retraced their route until they encountered someone who checked the situation with the Clerk of Course by sat-phone. At this point the error became apparent, the code letter was changed to the correct one, but all excess- distance penalties had to be deleted for the first Division. It’s an ill wind ………!
Arriving back in Scone at dusk for the meal-break, the bright lights of the restaurant provided an excellent environment for plotting the next two sections. At 146 and 135 km respectively, this was going to be a long evening!
The first night section took us east from Scone to Ellerston, then north-west to the end of section control near Wallabadah. After about 35km on winding but smooth bitumen, this was looking to be a very relaxed stage. At which point the gravel started. While it was good quality it was quite twisty, often without any indicators like fences or tree-lines to show where the road was going, and with the occasional unexpected creek crossing. Even at seven-tenths motoring, drivers needed 100% concentration. This ultimately led to the drivers’ highlight of the event: crossing Crawney Pass at an altitude of 950 metres, arguably one of the best pieces of winding gravel road you’ll find anywhere. It included about 10km climbing through forest up to the crest, followed by about 5km winding descent on the other side. Just magic!
Arriving at yet another unmanned main control, we discovered why: even for Canberra crews, this place was cold. Pity the poor rally director who has to put in an incident report that explains that his controllies died of cold! This section was a mixture of everything: bitumen that ultimately led us via the New England Highway into Wallabadah, then to Willow Tree, followed by an off-highway excursion around Kankool, back onto the highway, then leaping off at Blandford for an east-then- south circuit back to Scone. Sounds straightforward, but not if, for 30km on gravel of that last circuit, you’ve inadvertently been overtaken by the sweep car which has picked up all the VRC boards! So it’s late at night, you’re tired, and you’re not sure whether you’re following the right course …………….
Arriving back at the rally centre, Airlie House Motel, we were delighted to see that the management had kept the bar open for us stragglers. Consequently the suitably-revived field finished the night on a (modestly) high note; “modest” because the action recommenced early the next morning.
Starting in Scone again at 9 am on Sunday morning, we were confronted by just one stage of 105 km, to take us to the finish at Singleton at lunch time. How hard could this be? Cue hollow laughter. Early in the stage, crews had to decide between two choices for the correct route, with about 0.1 km separating the two options, each about 10km long. A washed-out bridge saw the course redirected efficiently, and we then headed out east from Aberdeen to Rouchel along good but narrow bitumen, some corners of which were showing the after-effects of recent heavy rain. At Rouchel we headed south along the most challenging road of the entire course.
The next 30km via Goorangoola to Dawson’s Hill will be etched in our memories forever: a tricky, rocky creek crossing followed by kilometre after kilometre of narrow gravel through open farming country, with just enough of a crown in the middle of the road to generate a constant attack on the height-challenged BMW’s sump guard (must see if it’s worn through!) We spent most of the course trying to drive the BMW with one wheel on the crown, and the other on the roadside verge and, on some corners, abandoning the road altogether because the grassy edges were far more inviting. However, it was well worth the effort when we crested Goorangoola Hill to be confronted with the most fabulous vista of rugged rolling hills stretching to the south. Some competitors (hi, Lui!) even stopped for a photo-opportunity here.
At Dawson’s Hill we were back on bitumen – after all that gravel, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! However the bitumen followed the river closely, so closely that there was a long sequence of fords, the most fascinating of which was curved: you entered the water and followed the ford around a tight bend before emerging (hopefully!) on the other side. We then reverted to more conventional roads via Greenland into the finish at Singleton. Just over a hundred kilometres, but it felt like at least two hundred!
So, who got the glory? The Experts category was taken out by Laurie Cunningham and Lui MacLennan in a Ford Territory, followed by Graham Thompson and Winton Brocklebank in a Volvo 244 which has seen service in historic BP rallies in Victoria. Third were Bernard Corbett and Steuart Snooks (Lancer Evo 2). Steuart is better known to some people as the driving force behind the Bega Valley Rally, a round of both the NSW and Victorian State Rally Championships, and had made the trip from Victoria to see how NSW navigation rallies compared with their counterparts run by the Historic Rally Association in Victoria.
The Apprentices category win went to Peter and Liz Meddows in their Renault 12, followed by Brad Rooimans and Chris Cherry (Subaru Liberty). The Novices category was won by David Chippendale and Paul Martin in their Mitsubishi Starion, with second going to Dan and Jane Robinson (Datsun 1200), and third to Geoff Thomas and Tony Metcalfe (Fiat 131). The Robinsons’ second place was a particularly sterling effort: the Night Owl was their first rally on maps, and Dan had a migraine on Saturday night so could not tackle that Division, but returned on Sunday morning. They’ll be back because they enjoyed themselves so much, despite Dan’s migraine.
Interestingly, the innovative point-per-tenth-of-a-kilometre penalty for being over/under the correct distance had enormous impact on the results. Without that penalty, three of the first four Experts would have had identical point scores, and the third-placed Expert crew would have won. So precision of navigation was properly rewarded – as it should be in a navigation rally.
The last word
It’s hard to know how to sum up an event like this. It’s not a speed event like a forest rally on closed roads. It’s far more challenging than a navigation rally on mainly bitumen roads, especially with the significant night-time component.
Perhaps the neatest summary came from 2nd Experts driver Graham Thompson, on the BMSC web site: “I urge all rally fans to embrace this rare old-style event run by the Australian Historic Rally Group; they are great value for money and allow one to simply enjoy motoring in your car of choice.”
I couldn’t have put it better; the key word is “motoring”. In an era when what we like to call “driving” is little more than just steering, the Night Owl was real motoring. I couldn’t face up to another for at least a month. But, if Arthur, Paul and AHRG were to run a similar event in another two months, I’d certainly be there. It will be hard to wait another 11.5 months (but who’s counting?) until next year’s Night Owl.
Results: 2011 Night Owl Results