It’s Not Every Night That One Gets To See Old Sports Cars Sling Mud Under A Starry Sky
Photography by Will Broadhead
This is the final entry in my three-part series on the 2018 Le Jog rally from Land’s End to John o’Groats—you can find parts 1 and 2 here.
There’s something about being out in the wilderness late at night, it feels even a bit carnivorous. Especially in the darker parts of the countryside when the sky is full of light from billions of stars. The silence of the early hours takes on a deafening quality in its own way, but when cut by the noise of approaching engines the ethereal night gives way to a new kind of excitement, the kind created by the anticipation of cars sliding through the dirt as fast as their drivers can muster.
The Le Jog endurance rally is has plenty of night stages, by virtue of the fact that it takes place during wintertime when the sunny parts of the day are brief, plus the fact that there are two dedicated overnight drives scheduled along the way from the southern to northern tip of the UK.
The first of these night stages took place at the end of the first day out, a tricky traversal of passes through the Black Mountains of Wales, along with time-controlled regularity-style runs through the higher reaches of the Shropshire hills. The day had seen a constant barrage of wind and rain from the moment the train of cars left Land’s End, and it would be a theme that continued for the duration of the night’s rallying.
As if driving on difficult roads in the dark without much sleep was not enough of a challenge to begin with, the assault of weather that had battered the area all day continued to all but bore its through the land, leaving road surfaces saturated with puddles and covered in a carpet of debris. As I found myself parked up waiting for the approach of the cars at 2AM, the wind noticeably shaking my vehicle on its springs, the rain seemed to be angling in from all directions at once. It was worth the discomfort, though, to see the waves of headlights illuminating the gloom, making silhouettes of the topography of the mountains and hills sliced with scraggly shadows of bare trees, before the cars themselves appeared like specters from the black that disappeared as fast as they came.
As demanding as flicking between mountain switchbacks in a storm is, by far the biggest night time challenge to the crews was the last handful of stages of the rally through the wilds of Scotland. Some 14 hours of driving in the dark—after beginning the day at 9AM— through some of the most remote and exciting roads you can find out here, and this was accompanied by some perplexing navigational challenges. While none of the crews would have been taking the task lightly, a stark reminder of the perils the teams were facing was issued when crew #2, in their 1937 Bentley, ended up coming off of the road and careening into a ditch in the bowels of one of the first of many Glens to be navigated. Thankfully no one was harmed, but the shock of seeing the stricken car was enough to put everyone’s guards up a bit.
The teams were afforded a two-hour break to get some food, fix pieces of their cars, and in many cases, snatch some precious moments of sleep. The other guests of the Ben Nevis Hotel looked on bemused as a throng of weary drivers slept wherever they could in the bar and lobby of the guest house while they tread a carful path between these sprawled bodies. Time waits for no man, though, and before long the teams began to depart one by one into the dark cloak of the night to begin a three-hour regularity run along the banks and hills adjacent to Loch Ness, a stage aptly titled “The Loch Ness Monster.”
As I followed in the midst of a convoy of dirty and scarred sports cars, the empty roads providing a wonderful playground, we tackled hairpins and switchbacks in a wonderful hour of free-flowing driving through the night as the convoy split the atmosphere with the sound of rev-limiters and beams of halogen. As the timed runs began the cars were let off in intervals, leaving myself and the teams in solitude once again.
I can only imagine how difficult it is maintaining a defined pace through the dark on roads like these while navigating with paper maps, never mind squeezed by this much fatigue. These late-night stages, while more hazardous than others, add an element and an edge to this rally that separate it from other vintage driving parades that it might get incorrectly lumped in with. This is one of the great tests of endurance for classic cars, and it is testament to how much of an onus is put on the challenge of navigating and driving that the most picturesque scenery of the route was driven through at night.
This event is no vineyard tour nor sightseeing bimble through the countryside, it is a test of mechanical and physical and mental willpower, and many entrants are pushed over their limits. It is not for everyone, but after experiencing some of the madness of these adventures through the night, those that do take up the challenge seem to get more than their money’s worth, cost of post-race touch-up paint included.