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by Larry Roberts

June 27, 1997

Formula Atlantic cars are "spec" (specification) racers: small single-seaters built to a very exacting set of size and weight dimensions and all powered by identical Toyota engines.

The same can be said for Formula Ford 2000, Formula Vee, and The Legends single-seaters: they're all built and kept within specific rules that keep the competition even and prevents run-away winners.

Land Rover, that prestigious British builder of classy off-road sports/utility vehicles, goes the spec racer formula one better and provides 20 identically-prepared Discovery models for two-person teams that participate in the annual Camel Trophy off-road rally.

Now in its 18th year, the Camel Trophy rally is a grueling event that takes contestants through harrowing terrain that can range from the rain forests of the Amazon to the rolling savanna grasslands of Africa. They usually involve around 1500 miles of driving and they're entirely cost-free to the participants, but there's one major catch: those that win a seat in these unique race cars have to beat out over a million applicants from around the world.

Twenty national teams are picked for the event and teams are selected to represent Austria, the Canary Islands, the Czech Republic France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Portugal, Rumania, Russia, the Scandinavian countries, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland Turkey, Great Britain and the USA. Needless to say, the competition is keen since the sponsors have a wide base to select from.

Since its inception, the Camel Trophy has been sponsored by Worldwide Brands, Inc.(WBI), a trading company based in Germany, and Land Rover, which was recently acquired by BMW. It was interesting to me that while the Camel Trophy has a tobacco-industry connotation, and the WBI is owned by the RJR Nabisco, the promoters keep the tobacco stigma at arms length. They point out that the Camel Trophy brand name is a trademark for a range of outdoor clothes, boots, watches and other "outdoorsy" items that enjoys great popularity in Europe. The brochure states that neither the WBI nor its products "... have anything to do with cigarette sales or merchandising." No NASCAR team would say that.

Speaking of NASCAR racing, imagine the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte modified so that during the pit stops, the driver has to get out of the car and do a variety of non-automotive activities. These would include riding a mountain bike up and down the stadium stairs for a couple of hours, finding various locations around the town using the Global Position System, kayaking down the Catawaba Lake to the dam 10 miles south of town and then having to jog back to the track. These are the extra trials that Camel Trophy contestants have to undergo and their aggregate times are what determine the overall winning team. These are the challenges that face Camel Trophy racers.

This year, candidates who were chosen nationally converged on a farm in Seville, Spain on March 21, to undergo four days of intense training and testing. Two Americans, Doug May of Corvalles, Ore. and Chris vanNest of Bethlehem, PA. were chosen to represent the U.S. Both come from a background of sports that included mountain biking, camping, canoeing and other outdoor sports that would qualify them to make it through the hard event ahead.

That event took them through 1440 miles of rugged, unpredictable terrain through the mountains and deserts of Mongolia. The pair had to plot their own routes from point to point using existing trails and tracks to reach their goals and had to undergo the various trials that the organizers had set up for them. The rally concluded on June 1.

This year, the American team of May and vanNest finished fifth.

If this event sounds like fun, you must either be crazy or willing to try anything. To get in on the action, you can contact Camel Trophy coordinator Tom Collins at Box 587, Snowmass, CO. 81654. But be ready: this ain't no sissy event like the Coca Cola 600 or the Indy 500.