Death of scin­til­lat­ing Scot still felt decade on

Kiwi ral­ly­ing fig­ures tell how Colin McRae amazed and in­spired be­hind the wheel

Weekend Herald - - RUGBY - Dale Budge

There was a photo some­where in my fam­ily’s col­lec­tion of my brother and I with leg­endary rally driv­ers Ari Vata­nen, Pos­sum Bourne, Richard Burns and Colin McRae.

It was taken in Ro­torua at a ser­vice park with the Subaru World Rally Team in the mid- 1990s. We were in our early- mid teens. My fam­ily are all ral­ly­ing fans and we of­ten talk about that pic­ture as it por­trays the tragedy that plagued the sport at that time.

Three of the men in that photo are now dead. Kiwi icon Bourne was killed in a road ac­ci­dent in 2003, Burns died of a brain tu­mour in 2005 and McRae per­ished in a he­li­copter crash 10 years ago today.

In a sport that can be so dan­ger­ous it is hard to fathom how th­ese great driv­ers had their lives so cut short in cir­cum­stances that had noth­ing to do with rally driv­ing. All th­ese years later the kids have long since left home, there have been mul­ti­ple moves from one house to an­other and sadly none of us can seem to find where that photo has gone de­spite the con­tents of it so vividly painted in our minds.

The death of McRae at age 39 in 2007 had the great­est im­pact on the sport. He was the big­gest name at a time when ral­ly­ing was at its pop­u­lar­ity peak. The first Brit and youngest world rally cham­pion, McRae was the high­est paid driver and most recog­nis­able. His pop­u­lar­ity was un­ri­valled and, by co­in­ci­dence or oth­er­wise, the sport has never re­cov­ered from his loss and the end of that golden era.

McRae, his 5- year- old son Johnny, and t wo fam­ily friends, Graeme Dun­can and Johnny’s 6- year- old friend Ben Por­celli, were killed when the Euro­copter AS350 crashed 1500m north of his home town La­nark in Scot­land.

The pain and sor­row re­ver­ber­ated around the world. And the emo­tion wasn’t lost on a gen­er­a­tion of rally fans in New Zealand. His all- out ag­gres­sive and fear­less driv­ing style caught peo­ple’s at­ten­tion while his down- to- earth, she’ll be right ap­proach to life en­deared him to fans. McRae was sim­ply the peo­ple’s hero.

Kiwi busi­ness­men and ral­ly­ing iden­tity Gary Smith was a friend of the McRae fam­ily and trav­elled to La­nark for the fu­neral.

He first met the fu­ture world cham­pion in 1989 at Rally New Zealand. “I met Colin through his dad Jimmy,” Smith re­called. “He was a nice young man on a mis­sion — he re­minded me very much of an Ari Vata­nen style of driv­ing.

McRae got his in­ter­na­tional break when he signed with Subaru in 1991 and he pro­gressed to their full world cham­pi­onship team in 1993. He got his maiden WRC win here in New Zealand — a feat he listed as one of his three great­est tri­umphs — later that year in the fac­tory Subaru team in a Legacy. He helped the team make the move from that older model Legacy to the Subaru Im­preza. McRae would go on to win three straight Rally New Zealand events from 1993- 95 — the last of which saw him be­gin a run to claim a maiden world cham­pi­onship.

“I didn’t have a lot to do with Colin’s ef­forts in New Zealand after that first time,” Smith said.

“So it was more of a ca­sual friend­ship re­la­tion­ship ev­ery time he came to New Zealand after that — we would just meet up and have din­ner and things like that.

“Out of our as­so­ci­a­tion from that first year we have grown quite a close friend­ship — they visit us, we visit them. The year be­fore Colin was killed — his last Christ­mas — my wife Frances and I were in­vited up to share Christ­mas with him at his home. That i s our fond­est mem­o­ries of our as­so­ci­a­tion with him. That was the last time I saw Colin.”

Smith re­mem­bers get­ting a call from a friend, who in­formed him of the tragedy.

“Once I heard the news I gave Jimmy a ring and found out when the fu­neral was go­ing to be and went up to see them. It was a mas­sive fu­neral, held in the La­nark Square. There were a heck of a lot of world cham­pi­ons and team own­ers that were there to pay their re­spects.”

By the time of his death McRae had driven for the fac­tory Subaru, Ford, Citroen and Skoda teams, had won 25 WRC events, was the high­est paid driver in the sport and had the global hit Colin McRae Rally video game fran­chise named after him.

McRae was the bench­mark in terms of the world’s great­est driv­ers ac­cord­ing to Smith. “Up un­til his time I have got to say he is the fastest guy there ever was. Since then you can’t make the com­par­i­son but I’m sure if he was here today at the same age he would give them a real hurry- up.”

Smith thinks McRae’s pop­u­lar­ity was a mix­ture of his phe­nom­e­nal driv­ing style and his like­able na­ture. “You could have a laugh and a drink with him — he didn’t put on airs — he was just an or­di­nary bloke,” he said.

Kiwi WRC star Hay­den Pad­don grew up idol­is­ing the Scots­man and claims he had a big in­flu­ence on his pas­sion for the sport.

“I was a bit young to have a chance to get to meet him or com­pete against him but he was my role model grow­ing up,” the Hyundai fac­tory driver said.

“When I was a kid do­ing go- karts was about the same time as he was win­ning his first world cham­pi­onship in 1995. I re­mem­ber watch­ing that video over and over again.

“It was a Christ­mas present my fa­ther gave me and I watched it hun­dreds and hun­dreds of times and that is what gave me the in­spi­ra­tion and am­bi­tion to try and be­come world cham­pion.”

Many fans in New Zealand still talk of McRae beat­ing top driver Di­dier Au­riol on the fa­mous Motu stage, renowned as the tough­est stage in the New Zealand Rally, in a two- wheel drive car while the French­man was in a four- wheel drive.

McRae was known as the Motu Master over the years. I re­call see­ing him fly around a cor­ner in the back blocks of the Waikato on one par­tic­u­lar Rally New Zealand with the car miss­ing a wheel. He was still go­ing flat out how­ever as the un­der­side of the car bounced along the road, throw­ing up sparks and dirt and dust.

“For me the thing that made Colin stand out was his never- give- up at­ti­tude,” Pad­don said. “There were never any ex­cuses — he was just there to drive the car as fast as pos­si­ble whether he was last or first. I also liked how he was ap­proach­able and al­most seemed like a Kiwi with his down- to- earth at­ti­tude.”

Sadly those sto­ries have be­come part of his­tory now, re­counted and told by ral­ly­ing fans in re­mem­ber­ing one of the greats of yes­ter­year. Like my fam­ily photo, the leg­end of Colin McRae has all but been con­signed to his­tory.

Hay­den Pad­don

Pic­ture / All­sport

Colin McRae en­deared him­self to Kiwi fans with his bril­liant driv­ing and easy­go­ing at­ti­tude.

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