The Planai Classic in Austria is for dyed-in-the-wool classic car fans only. We went along – sitting in the passenger seat alongside motorsport legend Hans-Joachim “Strietzel” Stuck.
We’re finally at our destination. However, where we were expecting a gate, a light barrier for timekeeping and cheering fans, we find nothing. Just head-high snowdrifts on either side of the dark road, while the wind blows thick flakes through the light of our front beams. Perplexity reigns aboard our Beetle, model year 1971.
We have coordinated the 4,800-meter route up to the Dachstein mountain in the Austrian state of Styria (or Steiermark, in German) precisely so that our trip is as close as possible to 13 minutes in length. Both trip counters are at exactly 4.80, and we counted the last ten seconds out loud. Something must have gone wrong. “That’s funny,” says Hans-Joachim Stuck at the wheel, and steps on the gas again; the Beetle accelerates, chugging. We reach the correct destination after three more curves, having significantly exceeded the target time of 13 minutes, of course. This brings us 1,000 penalty points and takes us down from 37th to 48th place. This is not the prologue to the three-day Planai Classic rally that we had in mind.
“We want to have fun there,” Hans-Joachim Stuck had said on the phone a week ago. “Don’t worry, we’re not competing to win.” The Planai Classic is not about being the fastest to arrive at the finish line, Stuck went on to explain, but about completing the tests as accurately as possible. That sounded reassuring for this rally novice who had promised to step in as Stuck’s passenger.
But anyone who climbs into a car next to a motorsport legend like Hans-Joachim Stuck – nickname: Strietzel, Formula 1 driver in the 1970s, two-time LeMans winner in the 1980s and German touring car champion of 1990 – doesn’t want to be a complete disappointment, even as a newcomer. Strietzel Stuck is relaxed. “Great route, isn’t it?” he says, after we cross the light barrier late, then laughs. We park the Beetle with a skid to line it up with the other cars. The cable car ride to the almost 3,000-meter-high Dachstein, which was planned to follow the rally, has had to be canceled because of strong wind and snowfall.
The rally Beetle
As in previous years, a number of unusual vehicles are lined up at the start for the 23rd edition of the Planai Classic. The oldest model is an open Sunbeam Supersport, model year 1930, 2,980 ccm, 120 hp. A yellow Opel GT is also there, alongside classics by Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Volvo, Porsche 911s and 912s and a Volkswagen Buggy from 1966 with a soft top and zippers on the side windows. Most strongly represented in the field, however, are Volkswagen Beetles. “It’s the ideal vehicle for this,” Strietzel Stuck explains: “Rear-wheel drive, sits low at the back – it’s perfectly suited.”
Strietzel Stuck’s Beetle from the Volkswagen Classic collection is actually a star in Austria: it is a replica of the “Salzburg Beetle” from 1971, which the Austrian importer Volkswagen Porsche Austria had specially converted in the early 1970s for use in motorsport. The engine has almost 140 PS, and the car has a racing chassis and characteristic matt black paintwork on the hood and tailgate.
The driver and passenger are protected by a roll cage, and getting in and out requires a certain amount of agility. “Compared with my Formula 1 cars from back then, this is pure luxury,” says Strietzel Stuck. The Beetle is also equipped with four additional headlights. “In rally sport, you only have enough light when the person in front gets a sunburned neck,” explains Dieter Landenberger, head of Heritage at Volkswagen, with a grin.
As beautiful as the Beetle and all the other cars are, it still requires a particular brand of enthusiasm to drive them for three days in deepest winter for around 200 kilometers over highways, dirt tracks and forest roads, which are so snowed under in places that even new cars can only progress thanks to four-wheel drive and chains.
“You have to be a real car obsessive,” says Strietzel Stuck as we prepare for the first test of the second day on the Alpine airfield in Niederöblarn. With us at the start are collectors and classic car enthusiasts from all over Europe and the USA – including, for example, the father and son team Alexander and Florian Deopito; 16-year-old Stella Ochabauer and her father, the TV moderator Christian Clerici; and the collector and vintage car dealer Franz Wittner. “They’re all hard-core freaks,” says Striezel Stuck.
Penalty points for every hundredth
We have an extensive program ahead of us today. To warm up, we drive several rounds on the airfield runway at the most constant speed possible; a deviation of even a hundredth of a second incurs a penalty point. We become more practiced with each round, and even manage to climb slightly in the overall rankings. We drive on the highway to Gröbming and complete a time test on the harness racetrack there, before climbing uphill through the small and even smaller villages of the region, all the while following the instructions in the roadbook. “Turn right after 300 meters. Yes, there, after the railway tracks.” Many of the road signs are covered with snow. The field of drivers stops briefly for a small snack, then we continue. It’s not such a leisurely drive after all.
At certain sections, we have to keep as accurately as possible to the average of 35 kilometers per hour – which does not seem like much, but is not so easy on a snowed-up forest road. Strietzel Stuck is grateful for every opportunity to drift rapidly around the bends; the Beetle proves to be the perfect vehicle for this. “80 percent of this is down to the car, and only 20 percent is down to the driver,” Strietzel says, slipping around the next curve. We agree that, in his case, the driver’s contribution might actually be 21 percent. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. But boy, how I love driving sideways,” says Stuck.
Driving the Planai rally in a Salzburg Beetle with Strietzel Stuck means driving with two legends at the same time. Wherever the tour stops, spectators come and ask for an autograph or a snapshot with him. When the Austrian television channel ORF knocks on the windshield and asks for an interview, Stuck, who turned 68 on January 1st, speaks to the camera spontaneously and with self-assurance, a professional after 42 years’ experience in auto racing. In the pedestrian zone in Schladming, a woman approaches him: “Have you ever had a photo taken with a Greek lady? Would you like one?” Strietzel Stuck puts his arm around her shoulder and smiles into the smartphone camera.
At the end of the long day, a final test awaits us. The objective: to drive 1.1 kilometers in 2.48 minutes and to reach a speed of 20 kilometers per hour at the finish. Sounds feasible. We start at a leisurely pace; the route takes us into the woods and the road becomes curvy. Stuck steps on the gas. Suddenly, two other rally cars appear in our headlights; the first car had become stuck in the snow, and the second one can’t get past. We hit the brakes. The stopwatch shows 1.25 minutes. “We can forget the test,” says Strietzel Stuck. But he doesn’t give up yet. Millimeter by millimeter, we push past the first car, then the second, and the road is clear. I read the clock, “One 48”, and look at the trip counter: “600 meters to go.” Full speed ahead.
We go around the bend. Up the incline, to the left, to the right – a minute’s worth of rally feeling that this passenger had previously only known from YouTube videos. Strietzel whirls the steering wheel, changes gear, steers, onward to the finish. Light barrier. The Planai official time is later revealed to be 2.40 minutes. And 50 kilometers per hour at the finish. We couldn’t have messed up the test better. “Now we’re hungry, aren’t we?” We are. We are in 24th place in the overall rankings. That’s not so bad.
The third day brings another test on the harness racetrack, driving five rounds with varying times, and we perform well. Then the route goes up to Planai, Schladming’s local mountain, for two rounds up to the Planaihof Hotel. Several cars get stuck en route, and at one point, a car slips down the slope into the woods. The third round has to be canceled so that firefighters from Schladming can salvage the car. But all the drivers arrive safe and sound at the finish line in Schladming.
“For us, this has been the best Planai we have ever had,” said moderator Christian Clerici at the presentation ceremony. We finally worked our way up to 20th place. The winners in the overall rankings are the Deopito father and son team, once again. Clerici asks them the secret of their success. “Experience and a large portion of being cool”, says father Alexander Deopito. If that’s the case, surely nothing can go wrong for the Salzburg Beetle team at the next classic car rally.