The Southern Cross Rally. Ever heard of it? Drew McPhee has. Drew grew up in a rally family that made regular trips out to follow this famous event. Imagine what that must have been like…
What’s your name? Where are you located? What do you do for a living?
Drew McPhee from Sydney, Australia. I’m a software developer. It’s not very exciting.
What got you interested in rally?
Pretty much born into it, my father Ian McPhee used to rally a Renault R8 Gordini in the 60’s and 70’s. When I was young we used to go to Port Macquarie every year to follow the famous Southern Cross Rally So from a very young age I watched and admired the super human skills of internationally renowned drivers like Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Makinen, Andrew Cowan and many more, as well as Australia’s rally stars of yester year like Greg Carr, Colin Bond, Ross Dunkerton and George Fury. My mother also raced formula V (formula fords with Volkswagen engines) in the 70’s so racing is really in my blood and it’s impossible to get out.
Then in 1988 my father decided to get back into rally driving and all his years of training me to read maps and generally develop my sense of direction were put to good use as I navigated (or co-drove) for him for the next 10 years till 1998. We started off in a LA Lancer coupe, and then moved to a JA Starion which we converted from a Group 2E Production race car, which was driven by Kevin Bartlet. That car had some very nice ex works bits, including a very rare X-Trac straight cut close ratio gearbox. Then Dad brought Bruce Robinsons ST185 Toyota GT4 and we started doing some east coast rounds in the 1993, 1994 and 1995 Australian Rally Championship’s including Coffs Harbor, Wagga Wagga and the Essanda Rally of Canberra, which was a round in the APRC as well.
My dad got a bit fed up of the running costs of the 4wd, and having kept the gearbox from the Starion, decided to put it to good use and build another RWD rally car. The brand, Mitsubishi of course! Series 5 Galants were known as Sigma’s in Australia (unfortunately); they are big and heavy but are strong and available, and have the 4g54 as stock. I found an engine from a midget sprint car that pushed out nearly 300hp normally aspirated and we mated it to the X-Trac gearbox. The result was a tire shredding rally weapon that Dad loved driving until his health deteriorated and he had to give up rallying. That’s when I decided it was time to start driving in 1999, something I always wanted to do but was never in the financial position to do so. The decision on what rally car was not hard. My dad has instilled a lot of brand loyalty into me.
Tell us about your rally car’s. How long have you had your current car?
I have rallied Mitsubishi Galants exclusively since I started driving. I started in a GA Galant, which just so happened to have a Starion 4g63b Turbo engine fitted with a Starion 5 speed. I did my first rally in very torrential rain with this engine which was very interesting at times and my Dad, who was navigating and I are lucky to still be here having almost put the car down the side of a mountain, but finished an encouraging 17th outright. The turbo engine was not legal in our regulations at the time, and I had stored the colt speed engine from my Dad’s LA Lancer, so I put that in and did a few years of learning with a 1700 4g32. Much safer way to get used to driving on dirt and you can learn a lot driving a small capacity engine quickly.
Pretty soon I felt like we were at walking speed, so I had a 4g52 built up to 2.2 liter and dropped that into the GA Galant. It made good power and made the Galant a real treat to drive. However eventually the rear suspension ripped out of the car from fatigue, so I built my 2nd Galant rally car, a GE (aka sigma). Most of Dad’s car had been sold off, so it took some time for me to get all the bits together to make it a competitive car. I did manage to get a few bits off his car which really helped. We rallied that for nearly 8 years without any major issues, but the engine was starting getting tired. It was either dump even more money into it, or go in a new direction…
Did you buy your rally car or build it?
Whilst I was researching fitting a VR4 engine to the Blue Galant/Sigma, an e38a VR4 RS rally car came up for sale and I decided to defect to the dark side of rallying, 4wd turbos. I had done my time in RWD and it was time to move up. It was pretty cheap, and it had some history; it had been a rally car since it was purchased new in 1989, 21 years ago! No doubt it had won a rally or two in its day, but now the rules for old 4wd turbos have been freed up a bit, some more modern parts can be fitted.
It has a lot of Evo 3 bits which makes it stronger and faster, but transmission wise its pretty stock. The car is an RS so it has the goodies like close ratio gearbox, viscous centre and rear diff, and of course a much lighter body shell. An Autronic SM4 makes the ex ralliart evo3 td05-16g really work nicely all the way up to 2 bar of boost! I have detuned it for reliability, 2 bar is awesome but with the gvr4 trannies that sort of boost will not last long.
What challenges did this cause? What benefits did you realize as a result?
The biggest thing with buying a car is, you just don’t know. It’s taken quite a bit of work to put straight all that was wrong with the car, some things I can’t put right due to the age of the car; the underside is getting very second hand. Most things were bent, suspension arms, cross members, all that sort of thing needed renewing, replacing and general maintenance. Electrics are also usually very dodgy in a cheap 2nd hand rally car which requires specialist time and money to get right. My car had burnt out wiring here and there which almost cost me the engine as the thermo fans would stop working!
I think in the long run, it’s much better and more rewarding to build your own car, but if you are not mechanically minded, or have a bad back, there is nothing wrong with buying an already prepared rally car. Just expect some things to be wrong with it.
Tell us about a time when you stuffed the rally car (or maybe had a nasty off).
I have never written off a car, touch wood. I have always driven to rallies, which might sound nuts, but it is a form of insurance. You need to drive to survive, keep it on the island and get the beast home. Having a trailer is pure luxury. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to push hard… I smacked 3 trees in 1 stage once, and only had to replace 1 front guard to fix the panel damage. We have had plenty of offs over the years, but I’ve always managed to get the car back on the road and home in various shapes and mechanical conditions. Actually I have trailered the blue car home once when the brake master cylinder packed it in.
Tell us about a time when you narrowly avoided a DNF. How did you press on regardless?
The worst one was Rally of Port Macquarie 2005. We were pushing hard and on stage 5 of the rally, we went through a left hand corner fairly rapidly (80kph plus) and there was a unseen dip right in the middle of the corner. We were already sideways when we hit the dip and it kicked the car even more sideways. The nose of the car was heading straight for a 1 meter high stump which was on the side of the road past the apex of the corner. I managed to get some steer back and got the nose pointed away from the stump, but because I had full right hand lock on, the wheel was sticking out from the side of the car. The wheel hit the stump, which instantly pushed it back into the wheel arch, which in turn pushed the drag link back under the gearbox, giving the car about 40 degrees of toe out on each wheel!
We were well and truly off the road by the time I pulled it up, so I went to work on getting it fixed with the tools I had on board. By the time our service crew arrived, I had the drag link out of the car; it was the only damaged part but was bent like a banana. I went up with my service crew to the local winery which was just up the road, where they had an anvil and solid hammers. We managed to straighten the drag link enough to get it relatively straight, went back and put it in the car, and re-joined the rally having only dropped one stage!
What’s the most rewarding part of being involved in rally? The most challenging?
Any form of motorsport is expensive. There lies the challenge. There comes a time when you really have to make tough decisions, but having people around you who support you and your crazy addiction really makes it easier. As it’s a tight community, you always have friends to call on when needed, rally friendly sponsors to supply goods, services and funds, and competitors to drive you to limits and beyond. Having someone come up and ask for your autograph is also pretty cool!
How many events did you enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
I can only afford to run about six rallies a year, but I also enter a few other events like auto tests – motorkhana’s and khan crosses as we know them in Australia. These can help shake the car down and keep your eye in. Rallies are the big expense; the rallies I go in are usually two day events with up to 350km competitive driving, these sorts of rallies take a lot out of you and the car. I hope to be entering more events soon as a few possible sponsors come onboard.
What kind of cash prize structure would entice you to enter more rallies or push the car harder?
Any cash prize would be awesome! In rallying, cash prizes are very rare. We usually risk it all for a little bit of plastic known as a trophy, so goodness knows how hard we would all push if cash was involved!
How important are car classes? What class/region do you race in? How many competitors in your class at each event?
Very important. I believe young drivers should never jump straight into fast rally cars. Lower classes allow you to gauge your performance, and then be recognized for them. I belong to two clubs and am involved in two different championships. One club I am in Open 4WD class, the other it’s known as P6 for older 4WD cars. My class is fairly open and I’m up against some much older and newer machinery. There are usually at least 10 to 15 cars to battle with at each event.
What do you think about recce vs pacenotes vs blind rally?
Well they both still have their place in rallying. Blind rallies are certainly the hardest. They are slower obviously as usually they are unpracticed, but stages can be re-run over the years , however you will never remember all of a forestry road, they just change so much from year to year. I usually do blind rallies. It’s very difficult at times to judge how fast to go, and pushing too hard can have grave consequences.
I have done some pacenoted events, and that is the other extreme. You know what is coming, which allows you to go faster. Going faster means if you have a moment, it will be larger than normal. Glancing off a bank in a blind rally can mean burying the strut into the firewall in a pace noted rally. Most say that pace noting is much safer, but sometimes I fail to see the logic in that argument. Either way, you need to drive to the conditions in rally.
Spectators: Dream come true or worst nightmare? Why?
Always good. You can gain up to a second a corner if someone is watching!
How do you get local gearheads involved in rally?
That is the million dollar question, and one which has kept rally in the dark for so long. It’s so difficult to get people who don’t have a deep love in rallying to get involved. Sure they can and will watch it on TV, but getting someone out to an event to watch, or even better official, is a different story. In my rally club, we actually supply free meals and accommodation to people who come help us out by officialling, and we have easy to follow spectator instructions published well in advance, and this really helps to get them out in the forests. Proper media coverage is also imperative.
What do you see is the most critical issue needing addressed by the rally community today?
Insurance. With popularity comes responsibility. Competitors need to know that if something may happen that there will be help for them. I for one have organized my own insurance and public liability so I am covered, but it is not widely known just what your rights are as a competitor. This needs improvement.
How would you address that issue if you were in charge?
That’s difficult to address. It’s a very grey area here in Australia. I would like to see more information published about just what we, the competitors, are covered for insurance wise, so people can rest assure if the inevitable happens, that financial assistance is there for them. This is not always the case when entering a rally. I actually have my own personal insurance that covers me in the event of an accident.
How do you help out at rallies when you aren’t racing?
I spent about 5 years on the club steering committee which helps the clubs executive with all sorts of matters. I have done many “setups” in the past, which often requires taking a few days off work before a rally and driving the course preparing it for competition. I also built two versions of the clubs website, the first being in 1999.
Your favorite Group B car?
Starion of course, closely followed by the Lancia 037 rally….The Group B Starion really never made an appearance in the WRC, but a lot of its technology worked its way into the GVR4, and so it remains the legend that never was.
We’ve all got a rally hero. Who’s yours?
Local is George Fury, International is Walter Rohrl. George was a very quiet farmer from Albury, NSW, who drove the local school bus and went on to be a works driver for Nissan. When I was 5, I wanted to be a bus driver because that’s how George started rally driving! Walter needs no introductions. He is the only driver to win four Monte Carlo rallies in four different cars.
Do you have a local rally club? Tell us about it! (If not, why not?)
My club is a little unusual. The Australian Motor Sport Action Group (AMSAG) is a non profit association of some 300+ members which run rallies in country New South Wales. Its members come from various walks of life, split equally between the country and the city. AMSAG strives to have its rallies match the excitement and competition of those “hey days” of rallying epitomised by the Southern Cross Rally which was run between the 1960’s and 1980’s in some of the same forests AMSAG use for competition. Lately they have allowed a modern section within their competition, which gets 4WD turbos in the mix with old school classic rally cars.
How often do you get together with other rallyistas to talk shop?
Not often enough. Our club has a great social side but we only seem to get together when events are on. Social networking websites has generally improved this; there are quite a few of the rally community now on networking sites like Facebook all the way up to WRC level so you can really keep in touch with what is going on.
Tell us about some people who have made your rally dream a reality.
Thank a volunteer (or group of them) here.
I currently don’t have any sponsors, so it’s really my family and friends that I have to thank. Especially my wife Karen, who has funded a few rallies over the years, and my Father Ian who has provided me with so much help over the years. I would also like to thank all of the people that run our club and come out to help official when the rallies are on. Without them there would be no rally.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your time in the rally community?
Always make the effort to help someone, no matter what. You never know when you will need that help yourself.
Thank you, Drew, for sharing your story with us. We wonder, have any of our readers grown up in a family that rallied? What about manufacturer loyalty? Did the vehicles your parents drove impact your choice of rally car at any point in your rally career?