The first Premier Stages Rally ran in September 1980 and was born from the long standing road event called the Sherwood Road Rally. At that time road rallying was suffering from a down turn in popularity due to complaints about the timing system used on road rallies resulting in accusations of ‘road racing’. Conversely, stage rallying was increasing in popularity, and Dukeries Motor Club took the decision to organise a stage rally on the weekend of old Sherwood Rally.
The first Premier Rally was sponsored by a Renault dealership in Clarborough just north of Retford on the A620 which was owned by a club member. The dealership was called the “Premier Garage” which is where the event got the name that it retains to this day, even though the Premier Garage only supported the event until 1982. The event still awards an original trophy presented by Premier Garages for the first two wheel drive car. The garage itself is long gone and replaced by a housing development.
The original concept for the event was to combine stages on the disused airfields in Lincolnshire such as Hemswell, Hiblestowe and Blyton (then called Enid by the comedic Clerk of Course) with a single run through Sherwood Forest to round off the day. Access to Sherwood Forest came about originally because the Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain did not come to the East Midlands in 1980 so its ‘allocation’ was used by the Premier Rally. This mixed surface format was retained for a number of years with the disused ammunition depot at Ranskill (now a nature reserve) being added for variety.
Almost from the beginning, the Premier Rally was a qualifying round of the East Midlands (EMAMC) and North East Midlands (ANEMMC) Stage Rally Championships and it has retained this status throughout its history.
The first event was won by ‘Jumping’ Jeff Williamson co-driven by his wife Jackie. Jeff getting his jumping nickname from his days in Rallycross was followed by another husband and wife team of Pete and Kath Doughty in 1981. Subsequent years essentially followed the same format and in 1983, Jeff Williamson himself took over the sponsorship of the event which started from his premises in the centre of Retford. I also recall the service area/lunch halt being on a car park in the centre of Retford before again visiting the forests and finishing at the Old Bell Hotel. The 1982 and 83 event were both won by local Haulage Contractor Richard Walker.
1984 saw the Peugeot dealership, Walkers of Mansfield, take over the sponsorship for two years and the event also moved to their premises on Nottingham Road in Mansfield (where B & Q is now). The event also dropped the disused airfield tests and became an entirely forest event which was won by David Bell from Lincoln (the first of his two wins on the event) and the 1985 event again being won by Pete Doughty (his second win on the event). In 1986 Dukeries Motor Club joined forces with Mid Derbyshire Motor Club to promote the event, and gained a new sponsor in the Ford dealership of Hooleys of Worksop, resulting in the event moving to their Worksop base. The event was won by Yuk Hodgson, followed by the double wins for Brian Bell in 1987 and 88. Difficulties with obtaining suitable forest mileage saw the 1989 event cancelled but it was resurrected in 1990 with a new sponsor of the VW dealership Newbolds of Mansfield. The 1990 event also moved its base to the Mansfield Civic Centre and was won by Dukeries’ own Bob Morley and Geoff Moss.
In 1995 Dukeries Motor Club took the important step of introducing a separate category for Historic rally cars on the event and this has gradually developed over the years into the current Premier Historic Rally which runs at the front of the field. The first was won by Brian Bell and Phil Mills in a Porsche 911.
In the Premier Historic Rally, local driver Stephen Hall in his remarkable Triumph TR4 (known as ACE) was successful in 99, 02 & 03 whilst double winners include Andrew Haddon / Mark Crisp (06 & 07) and Richard Hill in 02 & 09.
In 1998 the event organisers tried to vary the challenge of the event and increase the stage mileage by re-introducing some airfield stages on Swinderby and Winthorpe but this revised format was unfortunately not attractive to sufficient competitors and the event did not happen that year.
Dukeries Motor Club has had a long association with the RAC Rally of Great Britain in its various guises and in 2001 the organisers of Rally GB and the ISC (Technology) were looking for an event to conduct a full scale trial of a new vehicle timing and tracking system for the World Rally Championship. The Premier Rally was ideal and so that year 20 cars were fitted with the FIA ‘roof pods’ to track the vehicles on the stages and link into the timing modules at the stage controls. This required extra effort with duplicate timing crews because the more traditional rally clocks were still needed to time the event and produce the event results. The trail highlighted a number of technical issues with the new system but just six weeks later it was used successfully for the very first time in the WRC at Rally GB.
On Sunday 27th of October 2002 a severe storm swept quickly across the country and as the event got underway there were reports of trees blocking the stages. There was a possibility that the event would have to be abandoned because it was dangerous for the marshals and competitors to be amongst trees in the high winds. Fortunately the storm abated, but not before many trees had been blown down across the stages. Thanks to the efforts of the marshals, recovery units and the Forestry Commission the event was able to continue but certain sections exposed to the high winds had to be abandoned.
The event has had the pleasure (and challenge) of hosting a round of the Peugeot 205 Challenge on two occasions in 2002 and again in 2006 which brought an extra spice to the event.
The 2006 event received a record entry of 113 cars, including many Peugeot 205’s, and was won by Will Nicholls / Nick Broom in a Subaru WRC. However the organisers remember this event because it became a huge logistical challenge as the day progressed. Although it did not have a high retirement rate, there were five separate rally accidents during the day which required competitors needing evacuation to hospital. At one time there were more Rally Rescue vehicles than NHS ambulances at Kings Mill Hospital and even with spare Rally Rescue Units the event suffered delays and a stage cancellation.Fortunately all the competitors made a full recovery.
The Premier Rally has always tried to provide a value for money event aimed at the club competitor and the current format with all the stages within Sherwood Pines Forest and no public road mileage epitomises that concept. The last 4 events to run were in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 and all were won by Robert Swann with a variety of codrivers.