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The North West

The North West

It’s the sound that hits you. That guttural, demonic roar that descends into an ear splitting crescendo of speed and disappears off into the distance with haste. It’s intoxicating and intriguing in equal measures. Your heart races to see more, while your head struggle to comprehend. As a chase helicopter glides overhead, what can only be compared to the buzz of a low flying Jet fighter filters into a now anticipatory silence. Eyes dart from face to face, each home to a similar expression of utter amazement. Jaws are dropped and mouths hang open. But there was no visuals involved here! Each of us, all seasoned motorsport followers and competitors, were rendered speechless by a noise. When I say the head struggled, here we were standing at the boot of a Seat Toledo, parked up against a grassy ditch on a mud strewn rural lane on a damp Saturday morning, we had not seen a single motorbike but that noise, oh that noise, it stirred the soul. “Welcome to the Northwest 200 son” whispered a passer-by obviously aware our facial expression, and if that was the opening shots, boy oh boy were we excited for what lay ahead.

Backtracking slightly, as we’ve discussed here before, we as a nation are masters of holding extraordinary events that happen in the shadows of mainstream media. While back pages and sports bulletins are chock full of GAA or soccer stories, us motorsport and car fans are sure to be found out taking in top level competition, enjoying a scenic drive or attending all manner of shows. We do our motoring activities in a wonderfully low key manner. Motorcycle road racing is one such avenue of auto-addiction, with a true hard core of competitors and supporters keen to maintain one of the final past times that has remained almost un-sanitised by political correctness and necessary safety advances. In the Republic, many large events like Skerries, HalfWay Drags and Kells happen without causing the slightest ripple in the public consciousness unless something disastrous happens. Up North though, these Motorcycle wielding titans live god like status.

During the dark days of the Troubles, Northern Ireland became almost a no go place for many, and sport suffered massively as many feared competing or spectating at events north of the border. Through all this though, the renegade anti-establishment nature of motorcycle racing shone as a beacon of national pride. The Ulster GP, Tandragee and Armoy provided a competitive breeding ground for a succession of local talent, but it was the North West that became the jewel in the Irish calendar. The Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, became sporting icons, while others like Phillip McCallen and his famous 5-in-a-day in 1992 provided shining light on dark days. The Norths love affair with Road Racing remains as strong as ever, and after countless years of talking about it, time had come to experience exactly how nutty this thing is in person.

For a second though, consider the sheer lunacy of this sport, if you can. Imagine your drive home from work, and consider any stretches of road you might encounter that are two lanes wide and borders by grass verges and barbed wire. Down here, seeing any more than an 80hm/h speed limit would be uncommon, and truth by told the likelihood of being stuck behind a tractor means we’d be lucky to hit 60. Now also consider that unless your car of choice is of the hyper variety, most everyday vehicles, on a flat out, perfectly conditioned test facility would likely top out at about 200km/h or roughly 120 mph. On the same road, in the damp, these guys pass at 200+ mph. It silly speeds, and while similar speeds are seen on the Isle of Man, here the riders are released in packs and so a train of up to 10 bikes are likely to pass in the blink of an eye. Its crazy!!

Our particular adventure kicked off just shy of 4am, but even the prospect of nearly a 1100km round trip did nothing to dampen enthusiasm. We were all Road Racing virgins, and as I said at the top it took merely seconds to get us hooked.

Track-side, the action is soo frantic that it is almost impossible to keep track of how races are going, but the excellent speaker and online coverage available was at a level I’d never seen before. People could watch the race live on all manner of devices merely meters away than the ongoing battles.

Access to the action is so lax in regards to what you would see elsewhere in the motorsport world. Run-Off areas, barriers and the like just don’t exist, as all that separates you from the high speed action is about a foot of grass and a barbed wire fence. This is the true beauty of the grass roots nature of the sport, where those on the ditches respect the danger of the event and there is upmost respect of the measures put in place to make the event as safe as possible for everyone.

I had never been to a proper road race before, nor photographed bikes or anything at that speed, but the trip to the NorthWest has lit a fire under me to get out and experience much more of this spectacular action. Other events have wormed their way into my calendar for the summer, while as of this morning it would look as if my 2018 summer holidays may revolve around a certain island in the middle of the Irish Sea.

 

What the Faak is Wörthersee?

What the Faak is Wörthersee?

 

Right about now, a small quiet village in Austria is playing host to the VW Group’s single most important event where it aims to connect with its petrol headed roots and launch the latest breed of performance fare. All week, talk of the UP GTi, a Hybrid Golf GTi and all manner of other new models have been spoken about, but their launch is not at Geneva or the regular show halls, but a pilgrimage site for the VAG faithful. To try and explain the event, and perhaps entice you into making the trip next year, I’ve looked back 2 years to when I landed myself into 3 weeks of Europe’s maddest modified car festival.

 

Once you have to explain it, or even rationalize it, you’re onto a loser straight away. If you’re not into the scene, chances are you’ve probably never even heard of it. Worthersee is an enigma of an event. To VW guys it’s up there as their Mecca, the ultimate dream show to attend someday, and they spend countless hours online soaking in every last bit of coverage. To an outsider though, it’s pure madness. But that’s what makes it soo damn appealing. For such a well-known event, a lot of mystery still revolves around this most unique of gatherings. As part of my college degree, the option was available to spend a year abroad. Little did my parents know the true reason I jumped at 10 months in a very sleepy corner of Southern Austria.

The Worthersee, which lends its name to the festival, is a stunning alpine lake, roughly an hour from the Italian Border, surrounded by the foothills of the Southern Austrian Alps. The city of Klagenfurt lies at one end, and 10 mins driving later you have Velden at the other. The term picture postcard comes to mind a lot in this part of the world. Tourists flock for countless outdoor activities, and the clear calm waters are enjoyed year round. But then, for three weeks in April and May, the quiet serenity is utterly shattered, and all hell breaks loose. Living less than 10 mins from the lake, I was ideally right at the centre of what must surely be one of the world’s craziest car events.

The very first thing to note is there is actually no physical event called Worthersee. ‘Wait what?’ you ask! In the late 1980’s, as the popularity of the Golf GTi was at fever pitch, a group of owners left Germany looking for adventure and a good weekend away. Reifnitz, located along the Southern shore of the Worthersee, became the go to spot for a few days away, and word soon spread about the antics that went on. Year on year, as car modification grew, the connection between the area and the custom VW scene went hand in hand. GTi Treffen was born out of these early pioneers. Centered in the town of Reifnitz, a tiny spot home to no more than a few hundred people yet boasting a stone statue of a MK2 Golf, the GTI Treffen (essentially German for GTI Meet) has grown now to a 4 day long celebration of all things VW.

This is, to many, the ‘official’ Worthersee. Backed by local government, ferry’s and busses are on the go all day getting people in and out. Crammed among the small streets, the big VW-Group brands all have official stands, akin to full size dealerships advertising their latest creations. It not until you look back that you cop that it was all proper performance vehicles that were on display, and there were no cloth-seated, TDi A4’s on the Audi stand, but rather the full range of RS machinery.

It has also become common for the various companies to unleash their own modified creations at Worthersee. Audi brought a Twin-Electric Turbo’d TT, Skoda an R5 Fabia estate and VW had both the Golf Clubsport Concept, and the Golf R Wagon. The VW stand itself is truly massive, with regular shows, dancing, official Volkswagen Bratwurst and forever pumping out their GTI theme song. It exists, but god it’s awful.

The GTI Treffen is designed as an attraction. As you stand on the deck of the Seat party boat, drinking vodka from a Skoda cup, you’re treated to a bird’s eye view of Sebastian Ogier doing a few rings in the Polo WRC, and he’d give King of The Cone a fair run!! Trade stands are everywhere selling everything from vinyl sticker’s right through to 400HP engine packages, yet it feels stale. Vehicular access is expensive, so the few cars driving around get rather tiresome after a while, although then again you’re never far from the next mind blowing build rolling past.

But hang on a second, what of the famous petrol station, the daylight burnouts and the millions of scene points. Well, let’s take a step back. While GTI Treffen is a large event, it is merely the end of one of the maddest months I’ve ever experienced. Three weeks before the Treffen, Vor Dem See kicks off. Many would assume that this is an organized thing, but genuinely it isn’t. This is the true side of what people would know as ‘Worthersee’. Velden is where everything starts. A very affluent lakeside village, this spot is the getaway retreat for countless wealthy continental tourists. Boats line the water front, and swanky restaurants and boutique’s rule the high-street. But up at the top of the hill overlooking the town lies Mischkulnig, a very non-descript Eni petrol station. It’s just like any other petrol station I suppose. The fuel, in typical Austrian standard, is similarly priced to Ireland. The day I first made the trip to Mischkulnig was a cold wet Tuesday in April. The forecourt was full of everyday vehicles and all seemed normal.

Then it begins to attack your senses. The concrete area next to the petrol station is home to 15 or twenty highly modified cars. Each bares a German plate, and each almost more stunning then the rest. This is 2pm in the day, yet not unlike what we’d know of Irish stations at night, the owners stood about talking about their cars while sheltering under the canopy. A constant stream of more modified cars roll past, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

What brings these people here is the allure and cult like following this event has gained. Groups generally travel in groups, convoys of 5 or 6 cars making the journey together. My plate spotting instinct sets in. The Germans are out in force early on, as naturally are the Austrians. I spot nearly every EU plate over the next few weeks, I only found one Irish plated Jetta, as well as cars from further afield. But they all come simply to hang out and enjoy the cars. Guys from Amsterdam drove in a static MK1 Golf for 8 hours, washed the car, sat on deckchairs on the side of a road for a few hours and headed home. It’s all bonkers. Over the next few days, Mischkulnig gets busier. The wash bays are working round the clock, and the spaces next to the shop soon spill into the car park across the road.

But this isn’t just a case of park up and sit back on your phone having a nose at who’s checking out your car. People set themselves up on the banks along the road to take in all the cars coming and going. Queues back up for a few hundred meters as everyone wants to bounce off their limiter in front of the crowd. The braver fall for the chant of ‘Gumi, Gumi, Gumi’ and leave black rubber lines on the road. Oh and the beer is flowing!! Public drinking is legal, beer is cheap and everyone’s having a good time. By the end of week 1, the weather had picked up, and soo too had the crowds. Velden main street was a constant bottleneck, yet nearly every car in the traffic looked deserving of a prime spot had they been at a show like Dubshed or Players.

Now starting to get my head around what was going on all around, I got more adventurous. The sole reason that the name Worthersee is soo apt is that the whole are comes alive. Any large public space is liable to become an impromptu car show at a moment’s notice. Overlooking the whole lake is the Pyramidenkogel. A pretty tall radio transmitter, it’s known for its views, and the chance to travel down its 100m height on Europe’s largest slide. It’s a cool place, but even here the car parks are swamped with modified VW’s and plenty more. The road up the mountain is littered with lay-by’s, yet every one of them seem peppered with small groups of cars, their owners planted firmly in a deckchair enjoying the stream of cars blasting up the Pass.

Reifnitz lies below the mountain, and although preparations are underway for the upcoming GTI Treffen, every inch of footpath is covered in expensive, polished metal. Rotiform are holding a social gathering of a few cars running their wheels, while others scurry to similar events held by Vossen and others. Among these gatherings are properly big names in the tuning world, all enjoying their holiday in Austria among fellow petrol heads. Towards the end of the second week, the amount of British cars becomes noticeable. The Players crew are in town, while Brian Henderson is floating about in his bagged R8. Cars you know only through your phone screen are suddenly right in front of you, and you constantly have to stop and think before your head fry’s with the sensory overload.

The openness of the event, both in its loose nature and ability to hang out with car people is something I’ve never experienced before. There is very little parking up and just walking away from cars here. Owners really enjoys chatting about their creations, little tricks they’ve used or even just chatting about the adventures of getting here, or for a few lads from Belfast the adventure was in getting home!!

While I was able to take in soo much of the event through public transport and plenty of walking, there were obviously parts I’d not see. Secretive late night locations are the stuff of legend in any car scene, and Worthersee is no different. There are certain remote spots where burnt rubber has to be shoveled off the road each day, and it’s not uncommon for the walls of some underpasses to be black from exhaust flames. It’s all part of the underground appeal of this side of the event.

Certain cars will always attract a crowd, eager to take it all in. Nothing, and I mean nothing, drew more people in than the Donkey Tech MK2 Golf. To the casual observer, here was a very clean looking white 1980’s VW. It came complete with steel wheels, had a nice sedate brown tweed interior and even boasted knitted covers on the rear speakers. The only noticeable visual clue was a large, neon green sticker of a donkey on the side. Oh and it was pushing nearly 850BHP to the four wheels. Ya get the attraction I suppose. This was the epitome of sleeper, yet every time I was in its presence you would have to battle the masses to take a look. Everyone knew the DonkeyTech crew were coming though, as anything less than 4 of their cars banging anti-lag in traffic was highly uncommon. But that’s the beauty of Worthersee, that form and function exist soo happily side by side.

But there was one last spot worth getting to. While Mischkulnig and Velden are the marquee locations, out at Faak-am-See is the core of the madness. It’s probably known better as its alter-ego, TurboKurve. A small family-run entertainment venue not unlike Funtasia or Trabolgan, the site is your standard holiday park. During the high season, tourist flock, but during Worthersee, the huge car park is pushed to its max. Cars are parked for miles either side along the road, while during its height the traffic is backed up for 5KM!! This is a special place. A large sweep in the road is black with people, 5 or 6 deep in places. That car park I mentioned, well it just happens to hold 800 cars, and it’s full. Limiters are banging everywhere, tyre smoke fills your nostrils, everyone’s drinking, the sun is shining and it feels like heaven. The fact this is all happening on a public road in the middle of the day makes no difference in the slightest. The police look on, but are there to facilitate rather than disrupt the goings on.

So that’s just a glimpse of my Worthersee experience. Nothing has ever come near touching that madness, as  there are just very few places in the world that would take the swarm of 3/4000 modified cars over a few weeks, and make them feel welcome. This isn’t an organized show, more so a chance for car guys to go and chill together. If you don’t get it, its perfectly understandable, but Worthersee is something much bigger than anything we may ever see on our isles, so should be a bucket list item to go and experience at some point. Anyone looking to go, google the date of the GTi Treffen, and work back 2 weeks!!

Obviously, the dream is to drive over. It will take you minimum 2.5 days each way, and be aware that you must purchase a valid toll tag to drive on Austrian roads. Also note the police can be strict on certain vehicle modifications. To fly, Vienna is a direct hop from Dublin and is a 2 odd hour drive, whereas a much better option is to connecting flights to Ljubljana. About an hour’s drive across an Alpine pass is a great way to start any trip. Don’t want to drive, then public transport will get you round the spots, with regular trains and buses running. Prices are similar to Ireland, although Beer is about 80c a can in the shops so can’t go wrong!!

Sher It’s The Lakes!

Sher It’s The Lakes!

 

Have you ever got to a point, where the only logical question to ask is “What the *expletive* am I doing with my life?”, and all possible answers seem soo much more appealing than your current situation? It’s a point when every choice made in getting to the here and now is thought over, analysed and its sanity evaluated. Had anyone the misfortune of crossing my path last Saturday evening, it’s easy to imagine the barrage of moany, life questioning drivel they would have had to endure. One thing is for sure though, I would have sworn blind I was never going to look at a rally car ever again.

 

Let’s backtrack a little here before my look back at the Rally Of The Lakes, round 2 of the Irish Tarmac Championship, turns into a desperate misery log of what Saturday was like. We’ll come to that in time, but all seemed soo rosy 24 hours previously. In the run up to any big rally, I get a real sense of excitement that builds all week. Constantly checking my work computer calendar would add to the buzz, as plonked between all manner of important meetings and deadlines, a bright red ‘Laaaaaaakesss’ icon had sat since early January. Leaving work Friday afternoon, it was all go to get home, changed, camera loaded and on the road to Killarney. The car itself had got hours and hours of polishing and deep cleaning for the weekend, as god forbid you were seen driving about in a filthy vehicle. As always, seeing the ‘Keep The Race in Its Place’ signs is the start point that truly marks the start of Rally Weekend.

 

Having moved into the world of a steady Monday to Friday job, I’ve got a much better chance these days of making it to events nice and early, often visiting the scrutiny area o even ceremonial launches. Neither of these excite me greatly, as my love is watching these machines at full chat on a country lane, but yet it’s fascinating being able to get up close and personal with the machinery. Small details that completely invisible at speed seem to jump out at you, while noticeable differences in car building styles ignite my inner motorsport geek. Taking place right in the heart of Killarney on a Bank Holiday Friday, the launch was among the busier I’ve seen. Crowds were out in force to see what us rally folk have to offer, and it’s this level of outreach that helps built ties between events and local communities.

Once the cars were tucked up for the night, eyes were glanced towards a difficult route in store the next morning. In a traditional move, an early morning blast up Molls Gap was a decent test of bravery right from the off. Over that, what lay in store was over an hours driving South to a loop of stages that could only be described as breath taking. I decided to base myself on the Healy Pass for the day, and having taken a midweek spin down to get a sense of the place, there’s a strong reason why I’ll be soon doing a feature on this glorious stretch of tarmac. Leaving home at 10 past 6 in the morning, all was well. The excitement was palpable looking forward to the rally, seeing the Healy Pass at full chat and trying out a few new camera bits. Nearly 2 hours later, I was simply hoping the car wouldn’t be blown over in the storm!

 

Watching the marshals, all volunteers, out battling storm force gales to get the stage set up was a glimpse into the dedication that lies at the heart of Irish rallying. People turning up five minutes before the first car have no concept generally of the huge effort that has taken weeks to get the rally ready to go live. As the first of the safety car’s passed, the rain came. You might start to get the mood I was in Saturday evening already. As a shower turned torrential, Ali Fisher came roaring over the apex of the Pass. Scrabbling for grip, the R5 Fiesta banged through the gears as it headed for the ribbon of asphalt below. Generally, we are lucky to get any more than about 10 seconds sight of a rally car, but the unique nature of the Healy Pass allows over a minute’s action from even the quickest machinery. Sam Moffett came hot on Fishers heels in a similar Fiesta, while the still novel sight of Robert Barrable’s Hyundai was a big change in a sharp end dominated by Ford’s.

 

As the day passed, times began to filter in from Cod’s Head & Ardgroom. Fisher had hit trouble and had retired from the rally, taking a coastal wall with him. Leading the pack was Roy White in yet another Fiesta. Last year’s National Champion, Irelands second championship based over 10 single day events, has really got to grips with the step up to a World Car, and it was the noticeable performance difference helping guide our sole WRC entrant to an overnight lead. Passing the second time through the Pass, I’d decided to relocate to a location before the top, sacrificing the allure of the countless hairpins in the other direction for the stunning scenery. It’s crazy at times to stop and think about some of the beautiful places in this country that rallying brings us to, and sometimes it’s easy to ignore the backdrop when viewing a rally through a viewfinder!

In the national section, Killarney has always seemed to struggle when it comes to attracting the real superstars of modified rallying. While the Likes of Donegal and West Cork are right at the forefront of attracting large entries in the ITRC, many of the country’s fastest crews give Killarney a skip. That is not to say that we had a massive entry here, but when the overall battle boils down to two cars jostling for the win with minutes to spare over the closest competitors, it does show how important it is for events to attract the best entry that they can. That being said, the National section on the Lakes was truly spectacular to follow. The key battle proved to be an all Donegal affair as the perennial challenger of the AE86 Corolla took on the MK2 Escort, with Kevin Eves storming to a second championship victory in his Toyota. After a disastrous venture into 4wd machinery, Kevin is really starting to show the speed we always knew he had, and the wee Corolla looks well dialled for a championship push. Hot on his heels all weekend was the returning Declan Gallagher. The Milkman has been absent the past 18 months, and returned in an unfamiliar Ford. With the trusty KP Starlet sat at home in waiting for Donegal, the Fear Bainne was pushing Eves all weekend while getting used to new surroundings. Come Sunday evening, barely 40 seconds separated the pair.

Behind the two guys above, third on the time sheets was yet another spectacular drive from Cork’s Vince McSweeney in the flying Honda Civic. As I said earlier, getting up close with the cars in scrutiny gives a chance to get a feel for the cars, but getting close to Vince’s chariot is a stark contrast to the polished, professionally prepped cars that surround it. The epitome of the home built clubman spec vehicle, function certainly drags form along as an oft abandoned after thought. A plethora of perhaps non-automotive screws and bolts keep the Civic held together, but looking at a 1600cc car finishing 3rd in the National is a sign that skill will always win out over budget in people’s estimation.

While battles raged for victory, down the field, as in any rally, crews fought tooth and nail for all manner of class awards, personal battles or even driven to record a finish on the results. People like Art McCarrick and Ed Twomey are exactly what our sport needs at the minute. Both young and ambitious, their enthusiasm for Rallying is immediately evident in their company, and it’s this sort of person we need to attract to the sport if we are to have a long-term future and continue to fill entry lists for years to come.

And then there was Saturday evening!! As I said at the start, had anyone met me on the way home, I would have sworn blind that I would never see a rally again. After battling the stormy winds on the Healy Pass, all looked well as the convoy headed for the final stage of the day. I had the opportunity a few days before the rally to travel over a few stages, and certain locations stand out in a photographic sense. Right down along the coast, a sweeping right hander with the stunning backdrop of the Atlantic seemed ideal. Arriving, all was well, the sun was out and the scenery was as breath-taking as always. First few cars passed, and then the down pour arrived. Now, as a rally follower, a variety of weather is naturally expected, but this was a monsoon. Waterproof clothing soaked through, puddles formed in shoes, cameras started acting up and for well over 5 minutes, it was impossible to turn left and face the rain. Stuck on a grassy bank, this felt more like torture than fun!!

Saturday also had the novelty of playing host to the Lakes Junior rally. The massive entry list fascilated the need to switch days, and the action was naturally as frantic as to be expected. We looked in depth at both Junior Rallying and Eric Calnan and the giant killing 106 at the start of the year, and unfortunately it was yet another event to be remembered for mechanical difficulties. Jason Black showed pace for long periods in his RWD Starlet, but come the end of the final stage it would be Shane McCarthy who would be celebrating a pretty dominant victory, leading pretty much from start to finish in his EG Civic.

Come Sunday, I had decided not to bother going to see any rallying. I was fed up, still cold and suffering the opening bouts of a flu. But, opening the curtains and being met with scorching April rays makes it almost unmissable. Thankfully, a quick glance at maps showed a nice spot on a nearby stage, and an hour later I was back on the ditches. No matter how bleak Saturday evening was, watching rally cars at full chat down a country lane in blazing sunshine is up there with the best ways to pass an afternoon.

Heading back into Killarney, the sunshine was a chance as well to scope out some high-quality road cars that had emerged. Rally followers are well known as hard core petrol heads, and there’s a huge amount of fun standing about and enjoying the spectacle of the Lakes cruising scene over the weekend. It’s fair to say that the dark days of Booing TDI’s seem to be over, and people are seemingly less fearful of spending money on big cars yet again.

While results matter, and congratulations to Sam Moffett on taking the win after Roy White hit trouble, to me rallying is soo much more. It’s about atmosphere, personal triumph, an addiction to speed and an enjoyable escape for a day or a weekend. Leaving Killarney though, the drive home left me time to think about how the weekend had been. While the rally action was as fast and frantic as always, all did not seem well. The crux of what hit me was a sense of feeling unwelcome being a rally follower in Killarney for the weekend. When you arrive in Letterkenny or Clonakilty, you feel like people are happy to see the rally in town, but not so in Killarney. Heavy handed police tactics smothered the town on Friday, forcing people out of the area. Now, I know full well that a certain cohort attach themselves to rallying here in Ireland with the sole intent of ‘causing wreck’, but I feel it’s the blacklisting of the event that works to feed the anti-establishment motivations of some. Locals hate the event, and many vocally want rid of it, and it feels as if Killarney is a town that could happily live without the rally.

I do not in the slightest mean this as a dig at KDMC, as they organise a fantastic rally year after year, but it’s just an awful shame the passion for the sport is not shared by those around them, and as such your left feeling bad admitting that you’re there to watch rallying. The Championship needs the Lakes, as they have some of the most iconic stages and backdrops in Irish rallying, but it seems that the relationship with Killarney seems to be strained at present.

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