Welcome back! (Missed part 2? – find it here)
My son was born in 1976 so that year became a non-rally year. I had plenty of domestic things to do, and there was no suitable ride on offer. However we ventured up to Port Macquarie as spectators (Daniel saw his first Escort BDA at age 4 months). I went out to one point where the rally cars came over the brow of a hill heading straight at the spectators, then did a hard right turn. The first car to arrive was Roger Clark in a BDA, totally sideways as he came over the crest. Half of the spectators turned and ran away, convinced they were about to die. Wonderful stuff.
In 1977 I was offered a drive with the Canberra based Gerry Ball Rally team following the departure of Greg Carr to drive for Ford. Gerry had been given a hail damaged Datsun 120Y by the local Nissan dealer, and set about making it into a quite quick car. Gerry designed a very technical but frail radical rear suspension, and with much re-welding of parts we finished second behind Carr in the Castrol Rally. However, this was a mixed up year, as I also managed the Australian Peugeot team in the Singapore Airlines London to Sydney marathon and co-drove Ross Dunkerton in the event.
The 1977 Southern Cross followed not long after the marathon, and the Gerry Ball team had been given a Datsun 710 Violet to run. After playing second fiddle to Andrew Cowan’s Lancer for numerous ‘Crosses, Nissan were determined to win. They ran the latest two litre twin cam 710s for Rauno Aaltonen, Harry Kallstrom, Timo Makinen, George Fury and Ross Dunkerton. Our car was an old single cam 710 built up from left over bits and pieces by John Bosua in Melbourne, and tuned and serviced by Gerry Ball’s boys during the event. I had a brand new co-driver, who I had never met, Peter Godden, because my regular man Wayne Gregson was offered a chance to go with Greg Carr in one of the factory Escorts. It was his big chance to win the Cross, so I was pleased for him.
Peter and I got on famously, and we had a great rally. The only problem we had was when I spun the car and we ended off the road in long dry grass. The grass caught fire under the car and the starter would not work. We both had to push the car clear of the flames. As the rally wore on more and more of the top runners fell out, and we were well into the top 10.
The third night of the ‘Cross consisted of three stages: the first, 50 kms, the second 100 kms and the third a mammoth 240 kms. Most teams elected to refuel half way through the long stage, but we decided we could make it without stopping. This was a hugely eventful stage, as most long ones are. Greg Carr had alternator problems, George Fury rolled over, Shekhar Mehta ran out of fuel, and at the end of the night we had moved up from eighth to third.
We were shaping for a Nissan 1-2-3, and the Nissan big wigs were delighted. Our only worry was Kenjiro Shinozuka, who was not far behind us in a Mitsubishi Lancer. We held a slender lead over Shinozuka going into the last stage of the event and the Nissan team manager, Wakabayashi, who was about six feet six in the old money, put his head into the car on my side and said, “Mister Wattason, we do not want to lose third place”. Aaltonen had the event won, with Kallstrom comfortably in second, so the pressure was on us. “No Sir”, I said.
This final stage carried a special commemorative trophy awarded in honour of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth the second. With Wakabayashi’s words ringing in my ears, we went like cut cats and scored fastest time on the stage. Oh, what a feeling! Third outright in the ‘Cross behind two leading Internationals! My only slight disappointment was that I did not go to the presentation because I had my family with me, and the trophies I should have received are presumably residing on Gerry Ball’s mantelpiece.
The Southern Cross lost a lot of its gloss when Total finished their sponsorship in 1977, and I was developing a new business, so I missed both the 1978 and 1979 events, both won by George Fury. For 1980, the final ’Cross, I was offered a drive in a VW Golf, allegedly an ex factory car now owned by the VW dealer in Port Macquarie and driven (unsuccessfully) by Andrew Cowan in the 1979 event. It was not a good car, no power, four speed gearbox and drum brakes on the rear, which quickly disintegrated, putting us out. I wondered later if the “factory” parts had somehow gone missing!
It was a disappointing end to a fabulous era of rallying. To all of you who were never fortunate enough to compete in a Southern Cross rally, unfortunately you missed something which may never recur in Australian rallying.