Inside Revolution: My Motorsport Moment with Jimmy McRae
Jimmy McRae won the British Rally Championship a record five times in the 1980s. He was also a runner-up in the European Championship in 1982 and scored two World Rally Championship (WRC) podiums on home soil in 1983 and 1987. He and his wife Margaret had three sons, two of whom went on to compete at the top level in Rallying – Colin, who won the British title in 1991 and 1992 and the World Championship in 1995, and Alister, who won the British title in 1995 and competed in 77 WRC events. Grandson Max, the son of Alister, is now the third generation to get behind the wheel and, at just 18 years of age, is hoping for a JWRC drive in 2023.
Event: Burmah Rally
Car: Mk1 Ford Escort
The Burmah Rally was my fourth ever rally, and it was the one that changed my life. Before I got into the sport, I raced in motocross and trial bikes – I was actually runner-up in the Scottish championships – but I gave it all up when I bought a small plumbing and heating company. It didn’t want to end up with a broken leg when I had a business to run!
After a couple of years, I was getting itchy feet and my wife Margaret said: ‘you need to get something to take up your attention on weekends.’ She didn’t want me buying another bike, but I had a couple of friends who did rallying, so I went out with one of them for a test one night around the back roads of Lanarkshire. I liked it, but I immediately thought ‘if I’m going to start rallying, I’m not going to be sitting in the co-driver seat!’
I bought a four-door 1300 Mk1 Cortina, which had a lot of Lotus bits on it, and I entered the Arbroath Stages. There were quite a few of the Scottish Championship guys in the field but we finished 11th overall in my first ever event. I was on top of the world. My co-driver said, ‘you’re quite good at this!’ and the press at that time were saying: ‘who the hell is this?’
A lot of people couldn’t believe that it was my first ever rally, but I put a lot of it down to riding bikes. On a motocross bike you pick the best place to get grip. You read the road properly because if you come off, it hurts. In a car, with all the metal around you, you’re maybe a wee bit braver. So, I quickly became better in the car than I was on the bike!
A fortnight later, we bettered that first result at the Border Counties Rally. That event attracted some of the English guys and Malcolm Wilson was there in a 1300 Ford Escort. It was the second ever rally for both of us. He was 12 years younger than me and, well, I beat him! We finished fifth and I decided ‘bloody hell, I’m going to really concentrate on trying to do bit better here.’
I was a member of the Lanarkshire Car Club, and they ran the Burmah Rally, a big event that all the English guys came up for – people like Andrew Cowan, Roger Clark, Billy Coleman, Tony Pond. So, I sold that car and bought a Ford Escort twin-cam, but the organisers said I had to go and do another event to get another signature in my license if I wanted to enter it. I entered the Barrow and Furnace Festival Stages and finished third.
I called the Burmah Clerk of the Course, and we were in, seeded either 78th or 87th – I don’t remember which. The event started in the late afternoon and ran more or less overnight, so it was the first time I had rallied in the dark. It finished in the afternoon of the following day, and you went to bed, had a couple of hours sleep, then went to the prize giving to find out the results.
I will always remember the moment I went to look at the sheet on the wall. I was looking down around the 30 or 40 mark to see where I was, and Margaret said to me “you’re eighth”. I said ‘oh, bloody nonsense’ but she was right. I actually finished eighth! I was standing there, all these guys around me, and I was in tears. I just couldn’t believe it. If I had been in the 20s or 30s, I would’ve been happy – but to be eighth, the first 1600cc class winner, it changed my life. It made me decide to give it a proper shot and by the end of the year I was the Scottish Challenger champion.
Everybody rallied Escorts so when I wanted to buy a new car for the following season, I decided to try something different. The boss of SMT, a big Vauxhall dealer in Scotland, said ‘why don’t you drive a Vauxhall?’ I bought a standard road car, they helped convert it to a Group One, and I started rallying that. By 1976, I had a semi-works drive and I got the Vauxhall drive thereafter.
I had lots of great moments after that, and one I particularly remember was when I won the Circuit of Ireland for the first time. I went on to win it a total of seven times, but the first was a big, big battle with Ari Vatanen. Right through the whole rally we were never any more than a minute apart and to come out of that beating him, that was another joyous moment with tears. Another high point.
When Colin and Alistair started out, I was on the side watching – but I’m not so good at watching, to be honest. I don’t like the worrying side of ‘are they coming through, are they not, what’s happened?’ I co-drove for Colin in the first event he did, the Galloway Hills Rally, in a Vauxhall Nova. It was the last round of the Scottish Championship and after that I vowed I would never sit in that seat again! Then I sat beside Alistair, not in a rally but in testing, and I’ve sat beside young Max as well.
Who knows, if I hadn’t got that result in the Burmah Rally and gone into rallying professionally, would Colin have started? Would he have been World Champion? Would Alister have started? Would he have been British champion? And now Max, in Australia, is showing a lot of potential. All in all, I’m glad I started rallying and stuck at it!
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