HK-Beijing rally safety row ends with $1.5m payoff

BOARD members of the Hong Kong Automobile Association (HKAA) used a $1.5 million ''golden handshake'' to oust its former chief executive Phil Taylor, sources revealed yesterday.

The severance deal, to be borne by the 17,000-member HKAA, exceeds the organisation's current surplus of $1.4 million.

Mr Taylor, who would neither confirm nor deny what he was paid, said he had been forced to resign at the culmination of a bitter row with board members over safety in the Hong Kong-to-Beijing Rally.

Legal advice sought over a board member's role and his ''stinging'' comments regarding Mr Taylor in HKAA communications are understood to have further fuelled the row.

Mr Taylor said he was forced from the association's rally committee after unsuccessfully insisting the six-day, 3,800 km rally be postponed because it was unsafe.

''In the event, several Chinese citizens were killed by rally vehicles,'' said a draft copy of the former chief executive's resignation letter.

HKAA honorary secretary, David Reid, confirmed Mr Taylor had voiced safety fears about the rally after inspecting the course in July.

''There was a recommendation that we postpone it, but the committee decided we had some contractual obligations, so we went ahead with it,'' Mr Reid said.

A letter subsequently issued by a Wan Chai public relations company, hired by the HKAA to publicise the rally, aroused further concerns.

The company, PR PLUS, co-directed by association board member, Walther Nahr, told Japanese media co-ordinators: ''If you are asked about the replacement of Mr Taylor, the response as approved by the HKAA Rally Committee is . . . 'the organisers wanted to have an experienced and totally professional team in place to ensure the rally is run to the highest possible standards.' There is no need to detail further the reasons for the replacement of Mr Taylor.'' Mr Taylor said he had received no reason for his abrupt sacking 12 days ago, but was keeping tight-lipped on grievances within the committee.

''I've engaged a lawyer. If somebody tries to push you out the door at 10 o'clock at night, the automatic thing to do is call your lawyer,'' he said.

''One committee member said I'd retired. I hadn't. One said I'd walked into AA headquarters on Friday morning and handed in my resignation. That's also rubbish.'' Service crew members who worked on the October Hong Kong-to-Beijing Rally, supported Mr Taylor's concern over the safety of the race.

Details of serious and fatal accidents involving spectators and crewmen appeared to have been glossed over to avoid marring the international event, they said.

Service crew member Barrie Lea, who criticised safety organisers after he and a fellow crewman, Dave Thain, were injured in a crash near Wuhan, said reports of fatalities were widespread.

''I heard there were fatalities involving spectators, not participants,'' Mr Lea said.

''It wasn't a secret among the people and the participants.

''I saw photographs of [another] service vehicle upside down in a field.'' The Paris-based FIA, the international motorsports governing body, last week granted championship status to the Hong Kong-to-Beijing rally. Public safety and driver safety are among the criteria used to award championship status.

Mr Taylor, whose contacts with Chinese sporting associations spawned the Hong Kong-to-Beijing event in 1985, had spent 14 years with the HKAA.