One of the first 40th birthday parties for the Austin-Healey Sprite took place in Tasmania, that large and beautiful island off the southeast coast of Australia. It has long been the home of some of the most devout Sprite enthusiasts in the world, and no less than 14 of them prepared their beloved classics to compete in the Tasmanian Lactos Rally. As the name suggests, Lactos is a large cheese producer in “Tassie” which has been associated with the classic half of the event for some years.
Arch Frogeye preparer and driver Tony Bennetto of Melbourne not only managed to prepare his own immaculate Bugeye entry, but also several others, including an immaculate red car for your columnist. Considering that I haven’t driven any kind of car at over 55 mph since the Pirelli Marathon in 1991, this certainly showed an optimistic and charitable approach.
When his email insisted that all he expected of me was to have fun and to talk the story with the other Sprite nuts, I was easily convinced to fly down under. Tony even loaned me his 19-year-old son Allan, who also owned the car I was to drive, to fill the codriver’s seat. Although he had never competed or read pace-notes, this partner turned in a very professional performance to keep car 109 on the right road at somewhere near competitive speeds.
Tasmania is perfect for rallying. Good, deserted tarmac roads are capable of being closed to other traffic. With a host of happy, smiling, and handwaving policemen and women, this was not something that most of us often experience! The 500-mile route in the northeast of the island has just about everything a good rally needs, with mountains and valleys producing varied road conditions from very fast swerves, sudden sharp and frightening corners, and enough blind brows to keep most drivers’ hearts in the region of their throats.
40-odd classics took the start on Friday evening in a prologue to decide the running order. These included Ferraris, Porsches, Alfa Romeos, Lotus, various U.S. and U.K. Fords, a Mark II Jaguar, a 2002 BMW, a Mini Cooper and S, an MGB, a Healey 100-4 and even a Datsun Fairlady. Through Bennetto’s efforts, over a quarter of the oldies were Spridgets of one sort or another. Some were full race versions, with the lightest of panels, the lowest of suspensions, and the loudest, most powerful of 1275 plus motors. Even their drivers had the full monty of Schumacher-style overalls and flame-proof balaclavas under their Darth Vader helmets. These young competitors had the beady-eyed look that I remember well on the faces of the serious professionals of my own competition heyday.
The other (they would claim the better) half of the entry was as up-to-date as most world cup events. Even more serious crews manned Porsche Carrera 4s and Turbos, Mitsubishi Evolution, Subaru and Toyota missiles, and an assortment of other serious fast stuff—even a new Lotus Elise. On the few occasions when we were there early enough to see these incredible machines take their special stage starts, one could only be amazed at the acceleration, speed, and limpet-like cornering of the modern rally car. The Carrera 4 and Elise were even more surprising in that they left the start line without any fuss, noise, or wheelspin, in sharp contrast to the big V8s, which left clouds of rubber and smoke around their noisy departures.
Even our modest Sprite seemed to produce far more power than anything I rallied in 30 and 40 years ago—especially noticeable was the extra torque from a well-tuned 1275cc motor compared to our old 998cc engines of long ago. But perhaps the most sensational difference was with the sticky Bridgestone competition tires coupled with a limited slip differential. Even on wet tarmac, I could hardly make the rubber move more than a few inches, which was certainly disconcerting to someone who was used to slipping and sliding around from one edge of the road to the other for hundreds of thousands of miles of serious rallying. Learning to make full use of the incredible roadholding would take more than two days.
Even so, as we returned each evening to rally headquarters in the mining port of Burnie, the increasing number of dented and missing cars showed that quite a few drivers had found the limits of their own car’s adhesion. On the final few stages on Sunday afternoon, there seemed to be a lot of cars buried deep in the undergrowth or upside down and half blocking the route of the speed stages, as competitors tried even harder to overtake the competitor leading their class. Tony Bennetto won our hotly contested class by just eight seconds from the ever-smiling Mike Gigante—a race driver of serious weight having his first ever rally. Allan and I managed an undented fifth place, ahead of Porsche, Jaguar, Alfa, and quite a gaggle of the beady-eyed Sprite brigade. Hey—it felt just like the good old days!