Drifting. A conundrum. An enigma. Somehow anti-establishment yet mainstream in equal measure. Its difficult do decipher, and a source of a lot of personal thought of late. There was a time, not that overly long ago, when I would have considered myself perhaps even a fanboy. I wore my Prodrift jacket to school every day, spent all night watching any obscure Japanese drifting DVD content available to find among the countless virus’s on Limewire and routinely went on long arduous public transport journeys to catch an event. I was in deep, but then I just sorta fell out of love with it all!!
Now, when I look back its clear of how my obvious attachment to the Rally world sucked me into Drifting. The ultimate car back when I attended my first event in 2006 was Declan Munnelly in the wonderfully bright shade of Green MK2 Escort, front end constantly looking to defy gravity and take off as the rear sat squatted to the ground under power. It was infectious. Growing up on a ditch watching tail happy Ford’s blasting by in 10 second bursts, the repetitive nature of drifting’s spectacle seemed like a constant highlights package. Looking back, I had never heard the name Silvia or Chaser yet it didn’t matter as AE86’s missing bumpers chasing KP Starlets and E30 BMW’s just did it for me.
Its a traditional Irish car scene idea, but back then the UK look was still the pinnacle. Superlites, Alpina’s, CB aerials were prominent, but so to were a growing sea of S-Body Nissans. I still maintain that the best event I ever witnessed in the flesh was the European Championship in Mondello around 2008. We were still at a point in the Irish drifting landscape where it would not be until some time in the following weeks when Paddy McGrath’s piece landed on Speedhunters that we would hear who had won an event, but the sea was turning. Darren McNamara was starting his Stateside adventure in the Corolla, Eric O’Sullivan was unbeatable in his AE86 and veterans like Mike Deane and Damien Mulvey were fending young guns like Martin French, Dean Kearney and a certain James Deane in a white S14!
What stands out from that event, more so than the fact that there were about 15 guys who could easily win as the power bracket was so even, was the sight of Bon Bon and the iconic Driftworks Chaser. There wan an audible grasp when talk around it’s crazy 550 BHP power output. Yes kids, it was shocking at the time. That was Ferrari power in a Japanese Taxi, and at the time it was mind blowing. Unheard of somewhat.
While its great to look back and reminisces of great times in wonderful sepia hues, fast forward to today and I doubt I could ever feel such excitement towards a car showing up to an event as I did then. As the sport has evolved, the competitive side of things seems to do less and less for me as the years have passed. Things have got to a level now that just doesn’t excite me anymore, with just a string of one-upmanship builds each looking to make a statement. When Christy Carpenter debuted the S15 in Ennis in 2011, it was a game changer. Until then, the drift landscape was littered with home brew shoestring builds, but this car was the catalyst for change and the birth of top level cars as we know them today. I consider it the first proper Pro Level build in Ireland, yet put it up against the current string of monster machinery and it’s obvious how quickly time has moved on as it would be left floundering today.
Now before this comes across as a bashing of top level drifting, it isn’t. The organizational side of the sport in Ireland is at the cutting edge of Motorsport worldwide, the talent we have is exceptional and the constant envelope pushing in events is so refreshing, as we hit a real plateau around 5 years ago. What the IDC crew are doing is creating special events with fantastic narratives, but I just can’t get excited for it in the same way I did before. From a time when I would have got to nearly every Prodrift event in a season, I gradually started going only to the Saturday Semi-Pro events right through to now when its easily 3 years since I last attended an event.
While the competitive side of things has slipped out my radar, what has filled the void in a big way is the constant growth we are experiencing in Grass Roots Drifting. There’s no big flashy branding or sponsors, well prepped tracks or polished 1000 break super cars, but a real sense of enjoyment. The pressure is non-existent, replaced with self achievement and people just out having the craic in cars. It’s a throwback to the early days that drew me into the sport, where a whole days hacking is affordable and accessible. With the strong reliance on Mondello Park as a pro venue over and over again, regional tracks have filled the void for those who can’t continuously spend hours trekking up and down the country. Tynagh in the West, Nutts Corner up North and Goldstone out East have become willing venues for those looking to shred rubber and bang limiters, and after a long absence us down South have the use of the wonderful Watergrasshill track.
While a number of crowds tried to keep grass roots drifting alive through the dark days of the early 2010’s, it’s only under the stewardship of Ultimate Drift that regular track days have began to boom again. Running under the simple moniker of ‘Have Fun, Go Drifting’, its reawakened not only my own passion for drifting, but opened up a cheap welcome environment for those looking to push their cars, learn the sport or test new builds.
With constantly rotating groups, its possible to feel a sense of reward watching someone progress over a few hours, trying new things and getting comfortable exploring their sideways limits. Each event is a lucky dip of cars on track, from top level competition cars through to battered Volvo’s and E36 BMW’s. Some of the fare may look decidedly un-kept, and this can draw derision in some quarters, but when a car is flying past at full lock with smoke pouring then I know full well that the person behind the wheel couldn’t care less how it looks as they’re having a ball regardless. At its core, grass roots drifting is free of hate and the sense of begrudgery of what someone else has, and its more about making the most of the freedom and getting to the core of what made drifting into the release mechanism that it was originally designed to be.
I know that many will say that getting to a pro event may re-light the spark within me for the competitive side of Drifting, but I always have and always will have a deep love for bumper-less Corolla’s, tatty BMW’s and screaming Charmants, and you don’t get that in competition any more. There is room I feel though for a series championing the proper style side of Drifting, definitely something left behind in the current era of Function over Form, and it’s something that is growing in the US and UK, but it feels a way off yet here in Ireland. For now though, get out to your local track, inhale some tyre smoke, support grass roots events, and who knows you might witness a future champion in the making.
“Can’t wait for June to come around, Can’t wait for that four cylinder sound. Flat shifting and rubber on the ground all weekend long”. Sport and music, forever a case of never the two shall mix. It’s been tried countless times, and many a list of worst abominations ever committed to a recorded media include the world of sport trying to cash in on improbable cup runs or qualification success with a corny singalong. Occasionally, events become legendary, and celebration ballads are recited as a reminder of happier times. Joxer will be forever imprinted as a memory of the glory days of Irish soccer, but to have an Irish motorsport event celebrated in song is highly unlikely. Then there’s the Joule Donegal Rally, which has 3!!
When I set out my calendar for the year , generally in early January so as to book time off work, certain events are permanent fixtures. The third week in June though, well that goes down first. A pilgrimage of sorts, there is just such an aura around the Donegal International that it just sucks you in. No matter what it is that draws you to the North West, the place just seems to tick all the boxes. For me, it’s a chance to cut loose for a long weekend and enjoy all manner of car life on show.
The rally itself is almost a relic of a bygone era, exactly like the current Lions tour or the Isle of Man TT which trades on history and mythical status of having remained undiluted as all else around them became more streamlined and economical in their approach. For quite some time now, the three day format has been unique here in Ireland and most of Europe. While other’s have struggled to muster entries to affordable singe day events, the Donegal Rally boasts the largest entry of any event all year, with nearly 180 crews looking to get a coveted starting slot, before considering the added 40 entries in the Junior and Historic sections.
While obviously attracting massive numbers of entries, it’s the quality of these that can be mind blowing when you stop and think. I’ve mentioned a few times now in rally reports of how the decision to make WRC cars in-eligible to score points has changed the look of many of our events, with the sole World Car in Killarney highlighting this, yet come Donegal there are nine on the start line, with the likely winner expected from the opening quartet. While there is a massive cohort of crew’s with Championship aspirations, it seems that winning Donegal is such an accolade that many have forgiven titles in the hunt for their own slice of history.
The sport of Rallying, while obviously a nation wide spectacle with events from Skibbereen to Fanad and everywhere in-between, has its strongest following in Donegal. Local hero’s are the talk of every town land and parish, yet in the 40 plus years of the rally only four county men have ever tasted success, yet when the roll of honour includes names such as Loeb, Vatanen, Fisher and McRae then it highlights the mammoth task involved in crossing the finish ramp after 20 grueling stages. This year, Donagh Kelly was determined that he would have his name added to rally folklore, and he was the man to catch right from the off. With the county crest emblazoned on the bonnet of his Ford Focus, he set a blitzing pace on the opening Friday stages. He maintained this wll into Saturday, but lurking with intent at every step was last year’s winner Manus Kelly. We in Ireland seem to have an affinity for WRC car’s of the 2 Litre variety, and to see the pinnacle of this era in the S12 Impreza and ’07 Focus going hammer and tong is a real throwback.
While up the front of the field was dominated by the four wheel drive machinery, as mentioned in my preview post the real searing battles would rage in the national section. The Modified Grand Prix is fitting, as nowhere else do we get to see the who’s who of Ireland’s grassroots rallying scene go toe-to-toe. Like winning the event outright, claiming the Donegal National crown is a huge thing in itself. As always, the entry list was dripping in quick Ford Escorts, but the added sprinkling of the always competitive Toyota’s seen up north, a brace of Darian’s and a few other oddities added some variety, yet the trusty MK2 when driven on the limit is somewhat unbeatable a spectacle.
The early favourite to take the National was Brian Brogan, a true hometown hero and Donegal Motor Club stalwart, but his rally would come to an abrupt end early on. Others hit trouble, leaving a trio of Gallagher’s leading the way. Kevin in the Darian was on a charge until hitting issues on Sunday, leaving namesake Damien to steer his Ford to victory, while Declan made a rare appearance and brought the ever enjoyable KP Starlet to a well deserved second place.
Down the field, whereas many rallies have very distinguishable classes with specific cars being the weapon of choice, in Donegal it felt as if every class was won by a MK2 Escort such was the deluge of them right through the field. Even when the historic runners made an appearance on Saturday, a lone Mini Cooper was the only top-10 car not bearing the blue oval upon its grill. As ever, it was a toe to toe fight between Ernie Graham and Barry Jones, a reoccurring theme of this years Historic Championship, and after two hard days it was Graham who left Donegal victorious, with his Welsh adversary just behind in second.
The R5 class has, to me at least, become a small big stagnant of late. Its a case of the same faces every rally, and the element of competitiveness just seems to not be hitting the high’s of last year. That been said, it’s still a frantic battle to watch, and the perhaps it’s just that we have been spoiled with a few years of rapid driving that we expect these cars and crews to be pushing for event wins. Donegal did see the Tarmac debut of Richard Tannihill’s stunning Peugeot 208 R5, and what a glorious piece of kit it is to watch at full chat. We have a rich history here in Ireland of always being a home to a succession of brand new rally machinery down the years, and that continues to this day with a stream of brand-new R5’s making appearance throughout the past few years.
To me, I have become more enthralled of late with the battles in the R2 class. Very much a star of the future proving ground, and a proper stepping stone into the higher reaches of the sport, watching well driven little hot hatches will never cease to be a proper spectacle. I have an immense affinity for Callum Devine’s Opel Adam, possibly due to its constant desire to corner on two wheels, but it has its work cut out defending from hot shots like Marty Gallagher and Will Creighton in their Peugeot 208’s. These guys will go places, and more really has to be made of this side of the championship to help gain the recognition needed for these guys!!
Sunday is moving day. It’s Championship day. Tiger wear’s Red, Manus Kelly wears wet’s. In a misty Millford, it would be a tyre choice that swung the balance of play for the whole rally. The Subaru, starting the day 7 seconds off the lead after a Saturday evening charge, truly began to fly. The damp roads hindered the slick wearing Focus of Donagh Kelly, meaning a succession of stage wins left the Impreza leading for the first time all weekend. In deep trouble, Donagh had to push beyond anything he’d done before, but alas it was too much and on the penultimate stage the dream ended up rolling into a ditch, and the stricken Focus was out. For the second year in a row, a dramatic Sunday gave Manus and Donall Barrett the victory. Sam Moffett brought his Fiesta R5 home in second after a much publicised ‘moment’ on the final loop, with Gary Jennings finishing third in another Impreza WRC.
While the rally action raged all weekend, Letterkenny was thriving. I said in my Lakes post that I felt unwelcome as a rally follower in Killarney, and last weekend re-affirmed my belief that Donegal Rally Weekend is the best event in the Irish car scene. Under the weight of more than 70’000 people descending for a weekend, Letterkenny felt so welcoming. All along the stages, homemade signs adorned gates with greetings, home owners opened their homes for parking and a number of house porch’s were turned into home shops to cater for rally followers. In town, entertainment venues actively sought to attract rally followers in for the night, with the town being turned into a pedestrian zone in a friendly manner rather than a clampdown.
They say Donegal has it all, and did feel that way. If your of the mentality that doing rings in a Lexus is great, a number of events were ongoing to cater for demand and the numbers queuing for things like King of The Cone all weekend showed how much of an opportunity there is to put on events that people wanted. Car washes ran from early morning to well past dark, petrol stations became impromptu car meets, as we showed with our look at the Zero7Four crew earlier in the week, and I certainly believe that about 3 months production of Buckfast must have been shipped direct from the monastery to the North West. As the evenings passed, I got strong flash backs to my Worthersee days, as everywhere you looked crowds just parked up anywhere possible and enjoyed the seeming thousands of cars floating around, with everything imaginable from brand new BMW M cars right through to a Triumph Herald, and all manner of stuff in between.
A week later, and I still feel drained from the madness of Donegal. As an event, the rally has been able to maintain its standing as arguably one of the premier Motorsport events in Europe, but its the buzz around it that makes it special. It’s 51 weeks until the trip will be made again, and I might aswell tell work that I’ll be missing the third week of June next year….and the year after again!!
The car life is a weird phenomenon. As a hobby, it becomes all consuming, drawing every last drop of spare time and money that it can until your left tired and broke and very confused. On the flip side, cars have brought countless people together, creating lifelong bonds and friendships that add enjoyment to the whole thing, as well as feeding creativity through like minded ideas of style and car design.
As the madness ensued all around Letterkenny over the rally weekend, a closed garage on the edge of town played host to one of the most impressive line-up’s of road cars I’d seen in a long time. Like something straight out of Osaka or the like, a string of well built JDM machines will always catch the eye, but among the swarm of IS200’s about the town it really was a special treat. The gathering though, was more a crew meet-up than random car people.
The crew in question here is the Zero7Four brigade, a group of serial JDM car fans from north Donegal. We previously featured this Nissan S14 built in the wilds of the North West, and while that car screams presence, seeing a multi-car line highlights the aggressive styling cues that seems a trademark touch, with plenty of big wheels, spoilers and aero attachments.
The most impressive and eye catching car was a Midnight Purple, wide body Nissan S13. Sitting on a set of Rays TE37 below the bolt-on over fenders, the plethora of JDM stickers and body kit hark back to the street drifting world of the Far East.
Elsewhere, a pair of R34 4-Door’s, each a very rare sight in their own right, served as a reminder that I have a deep love for a well executed saloon, especially those built in such an aggressive nature. I am sorry now that I didn’t take the time to rightly investigate the spec list on any of these cars, but surely its an excuse to follow up with some more in-depth features. Nearby, another Nissan Skyline, this time an R32 lurked with intent, and from talk online I do know that the trusty RB power has been sacrificed for some V8 grunt.
The Honda S2000 has long been revered as an incredible driving car, but we don’t see many modified examples. Here, a stunningly clean example has been subtly enhanced with nice touches, but out back a pretty tasty rear wing makes things a lot more interesting!!
Out by the roadside, the Pro Fit Kits demo S14 was stunning, and a car I’d wanted to see in the flesh for quite some time. A plethora of aero bits and large dished wheels seem to work so well with S-Body’s, yet its a design we see very little of on this Island.
Its just shy of 9500KM from Tokyo to Letterkenny, yet the lads and lassies of the Zero7Four are keeping that Japanese style alive while at the same time they are building some of the most impressive cars on the island right now.
Every person who’s life revolves heavily around a hobby generally has a key date in mind when planning their year. No matter the interest, we all have that single point in time where we know exactly where exactly we wish to be, and I’m no different. For myself, and countless motorsport or simply car enthusiasts, the third weekend in June is special. For me, it’s pretty much my summer holiday, a chance to unwind and enjoy one of the nicest corners of our Island while taking in some stunning action. It can only be Donegal Weekend!!
This year, for the first time in a long time, I have made the trip North on the Thursday. As this remains the countries only 3-day rally, action kicks off on Friday afternoon, yet the necessary side events begin from early in the week. While the crews have done their recce at this stage, today was mainly the formality of getting cars through scrutiny and parked up ahead of a long weekend of challenging stages. Safety items checked and documents cleared, the crews must now sit anxiously waiting for the mornings alarm.
The way that Letterkenny welcomes the rally is like a breath of fresh air, with hundreds of people out watching tech inspections and countless adverts for ‘Rally Weekend’ social activities. Its an attitude like that which keeps people coming back year on year, and over 50,000 people are expected to visit over the weekend.
In terms of the runners and riders, last years winner Manus Kelly leads the pack away in his Subaru Impreza WRC. An oft dwindling sight of late, Donegal and its allure have attracted a plethora of WRC machinery back out, including similar Subaru’s of Gary Jennings & PJ McDermott, while the Ford corner is stacked with Donagh Kelly in the Focus and crowd-favorite Declan Boyle in the Fiesta.
Donegal has the name of the Modified grand Prix, and the line up of top class modified machinery is clear to see, with a venerable who’s who of star drivers. The same can also be said for the R5 category, with all the regular championship protagonists in attendance, ready to go to war over 20 tricky tests.
Donegal is a temptress that attracts some special entries, and I for one cannot wait to hear John Coyne getting to grips with the Tuthill’s built Porsche 911 RGT car down some twisting country lanes.
The action kicks off tomorrow with 3 stages repeated twice west of Letterkenny. The weather today has been showery, but having driven the stages the surfaces seem incredibly prepared and in great shape. Stay tuned all weekend for more updates and pictures. Cian.