As a fan, spectator, or even a competing crew, it is easy to become so fixated on the action of a rally weekend that we forget about the work going on in the background. In most cases, a committed team of organisers has been working round the clock in the preceding months to ensure there is a rally to run.
The management of an international rally is becoming a perennial responsibility but how much extra effort is involved in organising a stage that will run in darkness?
One can take a good guess at the obvious challenges: safety, marshal requirements, costs.
That list comprises three issues that are already at the forefront of any rally planner’s mind whether it be a single-day event or an event incorporating night stages.
Down Rally Clerk of the Course, Andy Gilmore, has experienced first-hand the challenges of organising night-time stages. From his stories, like many things in rallying, it is a case of expecting the unexpected!
“I was a Stage Manager on the 2010 Circuit of Ireland Rally,” explained Gilmore. “There were two stages ran separately during the day, McGaffin’s Corner was one. They were both between Loughbrickland and Rathfriland.
“The plan was to close the main road that linked the two stages to create one really big night stage. It was about 18 or 20 miles long.
“Everything was done and ready but when it got dark for the stage starting at eight o’clock, a bunch of guys arrived from Rathfriland armed up with alcohol.
“This main road section was really fast and the drivers had to take a sharp right turn to go onto a narrow road.
“This bunch of guys decided to stand in the box junction of the escape road, nothing was going to shift them, even the police tried to shift them and they wouldn’t move.
“Unfortunately the stage got cancelled purely on safety grounds.”
Gilmore’s current role as a Motorsport UK Safety Delegate has given him an even broader scope of potential problems raised by stages in darkness.
“Whilst they are great and nostalgic, from an organising and safety perspective they are difficult.
“Think about trying to get through to see where the spectators are in the dark. It’s hard enough in the daylight with high banks but at night it’s virtually impossible to see where they are.
“The other big concern from a safety perspective is that if somebody goes off, gets trapped in the car, and the lights in the car go off, they would be very hard to find if they didn’t have a tracking system.”
There are a lot of additional measures to consider and the importance of a tracking system for a night-time stage is undeniable. So what are the pros of a stage in darkness? Well, it goes back to that special atmosphere that is hard to replicate.
“Hearing the cars in the dark is something special,” said Gilmore. “There is a lot less noise at night and seeing the lights in the distance – all that stuff was awesome.”
One rally that isn’t necessarily associated with night-time stages is the West Cork Rally. However, in 2017 the then-Clerk of the Course, Greg McCarthy, wanted to mark the rally’s 40th anniversary with something a little different. And so, plans were made for a one-off run through Sam’s Cross in the darkness of Saturday evening.
“The stage we had picked to run at night was tough and challenging,” McCarthy described. “So we had to make sure the safety officer was happy.
“There were also all of the rules and regulations within Motorsport Ireland’s ‘Green Book’ which had to be met.
“More equipment was needed, such as lighting towers, which were required at each radio point. We were very lucky to have Eamon Hayes and his father, who supplied and set up all of the equipment, doing a trojan job.
“I suppose West Cork wouldn’t be at the ideal time of year to run a night stage. You would have been much better off if you were in November-February for daylight hours, but we did it.”
McCarthy’s vision was clear and his motivation to make it a success ensured nothing was left to chance.
“On the recce weekend I would normally travel up and down to Clonakilty each day, but that particular weekend I was around all day Saturday, stayed the night and was there all day Sunday.
“On the Saturday night I waited until the scheduled time for the night stage and drove the stage in the dark just to look at small things. You’d be surprised at what would stick out.
“There was one particular place around a mile into the stage. There was a house on the right-hand side, and whatever way they had their lights set up, when you came over the brow of the hill there was just a big lamp blaring straight into your face.
“So driving the stage at night highlighted these small things. We were able to go out to the person in the house and ask them to adjust their lights.
“It was a challenge, but an enjoyable challenge.”
The organisers were rewarded for their efforts as despite facing a battle against the weather, the stage was completed successfully. So, was it all worth the extra effort?
“I was glad I did it, absolutely. At the end of the Saturday I waited for the first thirty or forty cars to come through just to get some feedback, and they were delighted.
“Some of the guys further down the field were initially apprehensive about not having driven in the dark before and with the extra costs for lights on the car, but in the end, most were very happy to have done it.
“The feedback from spectators was phenomenal.
“Locals who would never have gone to watch the rally heard there was going to be a stage in the dark, so they made their way through fields and mountains to see the spectacle, and are still talking about it three years later.
“There is a challenge there certainly, but there is a challenge in any rally you do. If you have it in your plans to go and do it, it’s possible. The feedback from competitors was positive, and I think a stage in the dark can be organised to be as safe as a daylight stage with the right safety plan in place.”
From Gilmore and McCarthy’s experiences of organising stages in darkness the additional challenge is evident. In any form of live sport, one must expect the unexpected. Running a rally route in the dark certainly adds another variable.
Like all things in life, however, gaining that extra reward often requires a greater leap of faith. McCarthy took a step into the unknown ahead of the West Cork Rally three years ago. The hours were put in and with a determination to succeed, they pulled it off.
Is he glad he did it? You bet he is.
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Photo by Kevin Glendinning