Chasing the Camel: A Short History of Land Rover Racing

If someone asked you to close your eyes and picture a race car, your mind would likely conjure up the image of a typical NASCAR, Generation-6 racer—which basically looks like a street-legal car, but with the logos of its sponsoring entities plastered over every square inch of its body.  Or you might imagine an Indy-style racer—a one-seater with open wheels and an open cockpit—that basically looks like a rocket on wheels.

On the other hand, if you picture a Sandglow Yellow Land Rover, then score yourself extra points for recalling one of the most colorful and exotic competitions in car racing history.

In the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, a race known as The Camel Trophy—so named for the cigarette brand from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company—captured the imagination of thrill seekers the world over.   The expeditionary-style race began peculiarly enough when six Germans, selected by RJR’s West German office, set off in 1980 to compete in a twelve-day off-road adventure across the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil.

Designed and built in the 1970s, Rodovia Transamazônicthe road’s Brazilian nametraversed most of the country, winding through the Amazon rain forest and across seven Brazilian States.  Intended to facilitate interstate commerce and establish a ground link to other South American countries, high construction costs and a perilous Brazilian economy left much of the 2,500-mile road only partially paved.   While this made for horrific driving conditions during the rainy season and gargantuan potholes when things dried up, it also unwittingly created an exceptional off-roading venue.

The six German drivers, divided into three teams, failed to fully complete the treacherous 1,000-mile trial race in their Ford U50’s (which were actually Jeep CJ5s licensed to and built by Ford Brasil).  But no matter.  The race was only intended to be a one-time promotion for Camel Cigarettes; and in that regard succeeded brilliantly, even if the race did not.  The driving teams returned to Germany as heroes, having captured the imaginations of adventure junkies everywhere; facts that the executive team at Land Rover did not fail to notice.

Indeed, that first race proved so popular that Land Rover stepped in the very next year to help underwrite a second race—this time through Sumatra—by supplying a fleet of heavily modified Land Rovers built to withstand the country’s rugged tropical terrain.  Each team of drivers was issued an identical, factory-built Land Rover V8, each sporting Sandglow Yellow paint  (aka, Camel Trophy Yellow), Camel logo stickers, roof rack, bridging ladders, snorkel, spotlights, and more.  And thus, an iconic race was born.

With an elite group of German off-roaders regularly controlling the hunt for the Camel Trophy, the event was eventually broadened to include drivers from all over the world.   When all was said and done, each year’s race featured the world’s most talented off-roaders, driving the world’s best 4X4s over the world’s most treacherous terrains.  It was the ultimate test of man and machine and millions of drivers eagerly applied for the opportunity to bring the next Camel Trophy home to their country.

During the period in which the race featured Land Rover vehicles, Italian teams won the trophy three times—in 1982, 1984, and 1987—and teams from the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Turkey each won the Camel Trophy twice.   A team from the USA won the trophy once, in 1993.

Over the next 17 years, the race would carve itself through such exotic locales as Papua New Guinea, Zaire, Borneo, Madagascar, Sulawesi, Siberia, and Tanzania Burundi, just to name a few.  The models driven included the Land Rover Series III 88, Defender 110, Defender 90, Range Rover TD, Discovery 200tdi, Discover 300tdi and the Land Rover Freelander.

Eventually the race was modified—presumably to heighten interest and expand its audience—by requiring each team of drivers to perform a set of mandatory tasks along the way.  Among these designated tasks were winching, river fording, orienteering and timed rallies.  Plus, there were non-automotive competitions like running, swimming, kayaking and mountain biking.  Indeed, it was this new combination of physical and automotive feats that earned the series its nickname “The Olympics of 4×4.”

Twenty years into the race, as these requisite tasks began to eclipse the event’s original premise, Land Rover bowed out of the Camel Trophy to launch a new expeditionary race.  This move effectively ended the series, which was probably doomed anyway as the ban on tobacco advertising and promotion in many countries was beginning to gain serious momentum.

In fact, it was the ban on tobacco advertising—particularly on television—that prompted companies like RJR to seek out such non-conventional promotional opportunities as the Camel Trophy in the first place.  Longtime NASCAR fans will recall that RJR also sponsored the Winston Cup series of races—beginning in the early ‘70s—as a way to circumvent the ban on tobacco advertising on television.   If that was RJR’s intent, it worked extremely well.  The Winston name and brand logo were visible everywhere in the broadcast of these races, except in the ads!

Five years after walking away from the Camel Trophy series, Land Rover launched the Land Rover G4 Challenge, another global off-roading competition.   Scheduled to be held every three years, there would only be two such events—one in 2003 and again in 2006.  A third, scheduled for 2009, was cancelled due to the extreme financial crisis that was upending economies around the globe.

Although an amazing spectacle in its own right, the G4 Challenge never achieved the iconic stature of the Camel Cup; and never returned after the financial crisis receded.  Still, the Camel Trophy and its offspring, the G4 Challenge, solidified Land Rover’s reputation as the undisputed champion of international off roading.



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