History of Rallycross: John Sprinzel's Small But Crucial Role
"A small claim to fame is that I thought up the word 'Rallycross,' as it really was a kind of combination of autocross and a rally special stage. Nowadays there is a European Rallycross Championship (and there’s even rallycross on Hawai‘i), so we really were at the cutting edge of a new facet of the motorsport diamond." - From the book Lucky John by John Sprinzel
John Sprinzel is a gentleman who has made his mark in race history. He competed all over the world in rally, rallycross, and saloon racing. Within the race world he was a businessman, a competitor, and a commentator. Sprinzel was friends with not only Robert Reed, Raymond Baxter, and Bud Smith, but also race legends such as Vic Elford, Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Roger Clark, and many more well-known drivers from back in the day.
John on the left with Pedro Rodriguez and Stirling Moss
As a young man, John was never really interested in racing cars - he preferred riding motorcycles and even did a bit of yacht racing. His race career officially began back in 1955 when he and a friend, Lutz Arnstein, signed up for the RAC International Rally of Great Britain. However there was one problem. They lacked a very crucial piece of race equipment - a car. John convinced his mom to lend him her Austin A30 by telling her he wanted to go on a little holiday in the Wales and Lake District areas. She had thought it was a bit odd that he wanted to take a holiday in March but lent him the car anyway.
The rally began in Hastings. John and Lutz were given a letter by the Hasting mayor to give to the mayor of Blackpool, which was the halfway point of the rally where the competitors would overnight. The presentation of the letter was televised on the evening news, which was being watched by John's mom. She saw her car and asked her husband if he thought the car on television looked like her car. Then she noticed the lad driving and, well, as John says, "she was a good sport." They finished sixth out of twenty in their class, not bad for his first time out. A few years later he won the 1959 British Rally Championship in an Austin-Healey Sprite.
He went on to race in many different rallies and races around the world, including the Monte-Carlo Rally, RAC Rally, the Alpine Rally, and Liège-Rome-Liège. He also raced East African Safari, Holland’s Tulip Rally, and the Tour de France. In 1960 he won overall in his class at the 12 Hours of Sebring driving an Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite.
When it comes to racing, John has seen it all. We asked him if he could share a few of his favorite tales from the track and he simply said, "Far too many stories to pick one out. Many are in the book."
John had competed in a few rallycross events before taking on the role as a rallycross commentator for ITN (Independent Television News). In his book Lucky John, he recalled the meeting that led to him being sent up to Mallory Park for a test run as a commentator. "I competed in the first event which Vic Elford, who won with the borrowed Porsche UK's demonstrator and Peter Harper in a Hillman Imp. We were invited to the studios to see a tape of the program where we heard the commentator remark on the “front-engined” Imps. I was sitting next to Robert Reed, the director, and casually remarked that I could do every bit as well as this guy, and was a little stunned to be taken up on the offer. The next weekend I was sent up to Mallory Park to do a test commentary on the sports car race." He continued to commentate rallycross events for the next couple of years.
John shared with Rallycross360 a few of his memories and recollections of the humble beginning stages of rallycross and his small, yet crucial, role in its history.
"TV Director Bob Reed reminded me in an email that we met at the old ABC studios with Barry Gill and sorted out the format, and that I had dreamed up the name 'Rallycross.'"
Monte Carlo Rally
However, when it comes to the invention of the sport itself, John gives the credit to his friend, Raymond Baxter. "Raymond Baxter and the BBC actually 'invented' Rallycross more or less in the form it is run today a couple of years earlier at Brands Hatch in the car park on February 9, 1963," said John. "We entered the Work's Vitesses just back from the Monte. I think it was Vic Elford, Mike Surcliffe, and myself. Run at Brands Hatch car park, the invited drivers were those factory cars and crew who had just returned from the Monte Carlo Rally, and the events were televised with plenty of snow and mud.
"ITV World of Sports cottoned on to the idea with the events at Lydden and Croft. I then took over as commentator for ITV for the next couple of years....we did run one TV event on the RAC's special stage, the year the rally was cancelled because of the foot and mouth epidemic. The main reason the sport was so popular with the TV companies was that the races could be timed to exactly fill in gaps in the World of Sport programming, holding cars on the start while a horse race was completed to make Dicky Davis' hand over to me virtually seamless."
Did you ever dream the sport would become as popular as it has, reaching to the different corners of the world?
"At the time I wasn't sure about rallycross getting as popular as it has become. But I knew that it would be great for TV because you could fill the gaps in regular programming, and it initially wasn't too expensive to take part in. But, no, I didn't foresee a world wide championship nor even a series in Hawaii."
How does it feel knowing that you played a part of this sport coming to fruition and that you helped bring it to the masses? "It feels great to have popularized the sport, which proved to be a relatively inexpensive way to get into motor racing for many folks who would never have tried more 'conventional' racing."
In this day and age, do you feel that race car drivers are not able to hone certain skills because they have safety features and technology to rely on, or do you think the technology has created better drivers?
"As in all things, racing is doing the best you can within the limits of the technology at the time. It is much safer now, so people take far more risks with less chance of injury or death. But yes, I think the pure skills of car control were probably greater in my era, without all this aero and computer assistance. If you watch video of Moss, Hawthorn, Fangio, Clark, Hill, and company, you will see car control that is amazing, whereas today's heroes hardly ever drive anywhere near the limit. Also they seemed to actually like each other, which isn't often the case today."
If you could jump back into a rallycross car today, which current manufacturer's car would you prefer to drive? Why?
"Hard to pick, but I always loved Porsches, and if they were interested in rallycross, they would probably be successful. Dave Richards' Banbury crowd would get my vote for preparation."
What cars are currently in your garage?
"Up until last month my Bug Eye Sprite of 21 years ownership and a Toyota RAV 4. We are thinking of getting a Porsche Macan, but with only about 60 miles of paved road on our little island, that might just be a little extravagant!"
Do you still follow rallycross closely and, if so, which championships do you tend to follow?
"I watch a lot of motorsport on the telly (not much else to do on Molokai) though rallycross seems a little less adventurous these days as on the mud and grass of yesteryear. F1 is a must-see though, the absolute acme of skill and technology."
Who's your favorite current rallycross driver or team?
"Petter Solberg is one of my favorites. He is always so enthusiastic about the sport."
Sprinzel has lived a life full of excitement and adventure, taking advantage of almost every opportunity that has come his way. He says the pièce de résistance of his racing career was having an Austin-Healey model named after him called the "Sprinzel Sprite," or Jon Sprinzel's Sebring Sprite Coupé.
On behalf of rallycross fans everywhere, we're grateful to John Sprinzel for his contributions to the great sport of rallycross.