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Need for speed


As the Sol Rally Barbados celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2019, Joe Shooman delves into the Caribbean’s premier motorsport event

Engines growling, wheels squealing, adrenalin pumping, the heady aroma ofhigh-octane gas: for both drivers and spectators, motorsport must be one of the most visceral experiences on the planet. And the Caribbean is a hotbed of this exhilarating pursuit, with one of the world’s most talked-about and lusted-after rallies taking place right here…

The Sol Rally Barbados was originally called the International All-Stage Rally, under the aegis of the Barbados Rally Club (BRC), which still organises the event. The club was founded in 1957, making it the oldest motorsports club with a continuous history in the Caribbean. The first rally was held in 1990, making the 2019 event – held from 31 May to 2 June – the 30th anniversary.

In the early days, the BRC was very active, particularly with navigational rallies, where the focus was not on speed, but on accurate map-reading. Circuit racing and drag racing were also popular in Barbados, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Martinique and Trinidad & Tobago, with drags also in Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent. “As time went by, speed became more of a focus, so timed special stages were included in events, then some rallies became purely timed,” says motoring enthusiast and volunteer Robin Bradford.

Today, the Sol Rally comprises 22 stages totalling about 120km. Cars set off at 30-second intervals, and their combined times create the results. “The event is run on tarmac public roads, which are closed temporarily by orders granted by the Ministry of Transport & Works,” adds Bradford. “The entirety of the route differs each year, although there will be common sections included.”

A new racing age
One of the rally’s legendary local drivers is Roger ‘The Sheriff’ Skeete, who has accrued nine International All-Stage wins, four Rally Barbados titles and 20 top-ten finishes. He was also involved in organising the original event. “Just having the rally was a major achievement,” Skeete explains. “I was tasked by the BRC committee of the day to find some sponsorship and organise a rally. We obtained the sponsorship and it was not difficult to attract crews from the UK to come and take part while enjoying Barbados.”

It was a successful first outing, too. “It was a thrill for sure to win on home soil,” Skeete recalls. “The rally itself was a lot of fun, and something that all of us enjoyed. It was the first stage rally with a number of drivers from the UK, against whom none of us had competed. However, as time passed one thing became the most important objective: keep the trophy at home!”

One of Skeete’s main rivals is the talented Jeffrey Panton of Jamaica. Panton’s first win was back in 1998, but he has since enjoyed a storming run of four consecutive victories in the Sol Rally Barbados alongside co-driver Michael Fennel Jr in the team’s Ford Focus WRC06. “Rallying is a team effort. I attribute much of my success to experience, an amazing co-driver and a solid team backing us up,” says Panton, keen to note the collaborative nature of the sport. “Careful attention to detail, proper routine maintenance and component rebuilds on the car ensure reliability during an event.”

Panton has been rallying for 35 years, and is considered by many to be the most successful Caribbean rally driver. “There is quite a bit of mental and physical preparation; in recent years I have worked with a mental coach to try and improve in any way I can,” he says. “My competitiveness drives me to push boundaries and sometimes beyond limits to succeed.”

Worldwide reach
People come from far and wide to experience the Sol Rally. In 1990, there were 30 entrants in total. Now the race welcomes around 40 overseas crews each year, in a field of 90 to 95 entrants. In 2018, one crew shipped three cars all the way from New Zealand; last year also saw the largest number of female participants so far, at 23. However, it can be tricky for visiting drivers to get a good result in Barbados without a great deal of preparation and experience.

“What tends to catch out particularly UK competitors is the heat, if they don’t plan ahead,” says Bradford. “It can get very hot inside a competition car, in a full fireproof race suit, while car engines can suffer overheating; ‘cool suits’ are common kit these days, with piped chilled water through an undershirt. But then I’ve seen a driver collapse getting out of a race car at Snetterton in Norfolk [England] during a particularly hot race day.”

Also, the region has some class drivers with some class cars. “It takes a year or two for the visitors to understand the road surfaces and stages used,” Bradford adds. “Island drivers have competed throughout the region regularly, some having also rallied further afield.”

Jeffrey Panton is one driver who has competed outside the region, and reckons the sport has come a long way since he began his career. “When I started in Jamaica at 14 years old, rallying was not a big sport in the Caribbean at all. But the changes have been overwhelming – I have watched the Sol Rally grow from a small regional event to a massive international event that can rival any in the world.”

Roger Skeete agrees, adding that interest grew quickly in motorsports, taking him and many of his fellow drivers to other competitions. “Travelling to Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Martinique was always a great challenge, and offered the opportunity to meet many new people in the sport, many of whom remain great friends.”

Economic effects
The BRC’s own research has indicated that the Sol Rally has a massive effect on the island’s economy, bringing in around US$2 million during the rally each year. That’s thanks to the estimated 350 friends and family members who travel with the participants, plus the boost in tourism – around 4,000 tourist nights – which is welcome during the island’s slower season.

“Over the past 20 or so years, it has become a bucket-list event for competitors, particularly from mainland Europe,” Bradford points out. “The combination of the relaxed ‘club’ atmosphere with an event that, these days, is run to the highest standards, plays a major part. Whenever I am at an event in the UK, Sol Rally Barbados is a topic of conversation; word of mouth is a massively important way in which the event has grown. It has now hosted approaching 500 overseas competitors, many of whom come back time and time again.”

Panton has watched the event grow over the years and is in no doubt about its status. “I think the Bajan government will agree when I say it’s extremely important!” he says. “The by-product of the event is the international exposure – showing off what Barbados has to offer as a country with its beaches, personalities, food, and so on. The increase in additional foreign exchange and hotel occupancy during the period is significant.” At least two entrants from the UK have bought property in Barbados as a result of falling in love with the rally and the location.

People power
Of course, nothing can happen without the hard work and expertise of a well-drilled team. Volunteers are vital to the staging of any sporting event and the Sol Rally Barbados is no exception, says Bradford. “I remember the last time a chum of mine volunteered to work at the Olympics. He was among 2,000 volunteers who helped make the event function. For our event, the number is more like 200, which, in a country of only around 260,000 people, is a lot.”

It is incredibly democratic, too, with volunteers’ day jobs ranging from company directors to security guards and farmers. “[It is] because they fell in love with the sport at a very early age,” Bradford adds. “In a small country like this, family is important in pretty much everything you do. You will tend to follow your family interests. We have second- and third- generation motorsport competitors and organisers on the island.”

Roger Skeete is also quick to credit the wider team. “The growth of the sport has benefited from exposure to the international competition, and so too has our ability to put on a truly international event. That influences participation of new competitors as well as volunteers who run these events and provide the timing and safety crews that are vital to the sport. I am sure we will continue to see more technology introduced to make the sport even more attractive by giving organisers, competitors and spectators greater access to information as the event unfolds. That can only enhance the quality of everyone’s experience.”

An event that involves up to 100 cars and 25,000 fans, on public roads, always has an element of the unpredictable about it. “From time to time, one or two stages have been lost,” Bradford notes. “Perhaps dealing with an incident in which a car has been damaged may take some time, so the team will make on-the-spot decisions to cancel a later stage to bring the event back on time.” Which, of course, only adds to the excitement of the event.

To the future
The Caribbean is certainly responding to the international class on show, with youngsters getting into motorsports at a fast pace. “The next generation has embraced motorsports,” says Panton. “This goes for Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, with youngsters competing at a high level, from karting to circuit racing and rallying.” Barbados is one of only ten Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) affiliated countries with a population of less than one million, and has one of the highest per-capita rates of motorsports participation in the world.

And though Sol Rally Barbados celebrates three decades of zooming and vrooming, perhaps the seeds were sown a little earlier in the last century. “The island’s population of petrol-heads used to turn out in their thousands back in the 1970s,” Bradford explains. “There is anecdotal evidence from back in the day of a Test Match at the Kensington Oval that clashed with a major rally. The Test Match recorded a record-low gate, because the fans could listen to live commentary on local radio while sitting in their favourite cane patch watching the rally!”

Sol Rally Barbados 2019 will be held 31 May-2 June •