Its a Saturday afternoon. Mid August, there is a sense of late summer heat battling through a distinctly gray and ominous sky. Heavy rain was a feature of the 5 hour drive up the country, but in motorway mode it makes little difference. Weary legs bow in delight at the prospect of a sitting height section of ditch. Solid, grassy and ideal height, this feels more like a front-row seat than a means to provide a barrier between road and field. Sitting upright, the first strains of an engine note floats in the breeze. Tension rises, phones are held outstretched and those of us enjoying the temporary relaxation stretch out horizontally. And then it happens. Four Motorbikes come into view, chased by an enthusiastic helicopter, throttles pinned open above and below. The approach speed is frightening, and then your vantage point becomes the apex. A cacophony of colour and noise blast past and my face is filled with grass once part of the very ditch I am extended over. Its exhilarating. This is proper road racing!!
While I had one of the most soul inspiring moments I’ve experienced following motorsport in quite some time, less than a couple of feet away battle raged at a frantic pace. What I was seeing up close was the Superbike race of the Ulster Grand Prix, already being regarded as one of the greatest motorcycle races of all time, happening in real time. Purpose built rockets, these big-bikes are fearsome pieces of kit designed to tackle the quickest and most fearsome circuits in the world. But that doesn’t cut the mustard for a certain cohort, a certain breed that see safety barriers, run-off area’s and compact lap distance and begin to chuckle. Around here, its being able to rule the roads that carries the most kudos.
Speed is something that I have quickly learned goes hand-in-hand with this world of road racing. The Ulster GP, more so than most, uses the experiences of riders on the edge as their main selling point. Everywhere you look, men, women and children sport t-shirts bearing an outline of the Dundrod circuit accompanied with the slogan “The World’s Fastest Road Race”. In a world of cutting political correctness and storms arising from what someone says on Twitter, its refreshing to see an event being so old-fashionedly open about it’s USP.
Where the title comes from is the lap record pace. While fellow events like the Isle of Man or the North West 200 may have longer circuits, its the average speed figures that are of most bragging come the end of race day. The honour and title of being known as the world’s quickest road-racer now lies with Dear Harrisson, the 28 year old rider from England. As a rider, Harrisson is almost from a different era. While the majority of his rivals can be seen competing most weekends on circuits as part of the British Superbike Championships, Harrisson is all about the roads. Short circuits, as regular tracks are known, do nothing for him, and so he and the Silicone Engineering team concentrate their efforts on events like the Ulster, IOM, Scarborough and other road races. Come lap four of the Superbike race, Harrisson crossed the line at an average speed of 134.6 MPH. Let that sink in for a second. As you blast up and down the motorway at 120 KPH, these guys are nearly doubling that on average, over fence lined b-roads. Oh and if you thought that’s unheard of, the ultimate motorbike GP average lap speed was set at the old Spa Francomschomp circuit by Barry Sheene…..in 1976….at 136 MPH!!
What made this particular race so spectacular is that while Harrisson was blitzing lap records, the battle for the lead was a four-way duel. Leading the pack was the hard charging Peter Hickman, fresh from success the previous week in the BSB, on the flying BMW. Add into the mix the ever dangerous and crowd favourite Michael Dunlop then you know its gonna be epic, but come the end of lap seven it was veteran Bruce Anstey riding the Padgetts Honda who took a well received victory. Later in the day, the big bikes were wheeled out again to do battle. Hickman and Anstey’s hopes were dashed with reliability issues, and although fellow Manx-men Connor Cummins (Padgetts Honda) and Dan Kneen (Tyco BMW) pushed each other to the absolute maximum, it would be the impressive Dean Harisson, thanks to a proper rubbing-is-racing overtake at the hairpin, that would claim victory.
How I know the intricate race details here is thanks to the fantastic coverage available on the day, keeping all of us on the ditches right at the thick of the action. I have spent days off at rallies only to come home and not know who has won the event, yet here big screens lined the circuits while commentary was available on loud speakers as well as broadcast live on the radio. Every piece of action was broadcast, and you could get a real sense of the race unfolding in real time.
While the big 1000cc Superbikes are the obvious bill toppers, some of the support racing was ferocious to watch. Something familiar to the more referent road racing fan is the Lightweight/Ultralight race for 2-stroke machinery. Although we saw very little of this race, by god did we smell it and smile. In the SuperTwins, it would come down to the final meters of track to find a winner as Ivan Linton sneaked it by 0.024 from Dan Cooper is a finish that seemed almost too dramatic for the excellent BBC television coverage.
Come the end of race day, it was Peter Hickman who would head off with three victories, twice in the 600’s and in the SuperStock, but with the disappointment of not grabbing a SuperBike victory. Personally speaking, I felt somewhat confused. While the NW200 had been spectacular, the Ulster brought better racing. Obviously the need to pay to watch the action is something Id never experienced at an open road event before, it was a clear indication of how I personally see things like rallying going in the future. On Rallying, I was left speechless the first time I saw a WRC Subaru properly at full chat down a tarmac rally stage. It was mind blowing speed it seemed, but on reflection it likely geared for about 120 MPH. After a few bike events, anything shy of 180 now seems slow!!
Racing is such a wonderfully simplistic endeavor, setting out a pair of designated points and then championing those who handle the task of negotiating the in-between part the quickest. Getting from Point A to Point B is the mentality we live our daily lives by, but to be the quickest can become an obsession. Motorsport is merely a collection of opportunities to get from A to B in a variety of rapid vehicles, all dealing with differing tasks in-between. But to some though, things only get interesting when you throw a sizeable hill in the way.
The sport of Hillclimbing is one I’d personally been aware of for quite some time, but had never really experienced until earlier this year. Similar to a rally stage, competitors take-off up a piece of closed road aiming to set the fastest time to the top. In truth, the cars all around you quickly dispel my naive thought of this being nothing more than a glorified rally sprint, as for every familiar MK2 Escort there are four or five incredibly purposeful looking single seat race cars that would look more at home in Mondello Park than an Irish B-Road.
With most track averaging about 2.5/3km in length, hill climbing is all about short, sharp bursts. The terrain, while naturally hilly as the name suggests, is often good flat tarmac which explains the attraction for the plethora of track machinery lining up for the latest run. Being a normal public road, its natural to expect camber and wear in areas not exactly bang on the racing line, so drivers have to be right on it to challenge the clock. Every rasp of a bike engine screaming through the gears is almost matched by the hard hitting sound of splitters and under-body protection meeting tarmac.
Like any sport that makes use of public environments, dealing with the surroundings adds both to the danger and the thrill. Drivers fire themselves towards stone walls, trees, grass verges and drains, eking every last inch of road possible to nail the perfect run. Generally done and dusted in about 70 seconds, Hillclimbing is certainly one for the braver of racers.
When we mention diversity in sport, we often accompany it with the argument that repetitive and mundane spectacles make things boring to watch. With Hillclimbing, you truly have no idea what to expect emerging from the tree-lined road below or over the blind crest in front of you. Classes are wide and accommodating of almost everything, from the already mentioned single seat weapons, through historic race and rally cars right down to the Fiat Cinq/Seichento challenge, which truly is as exciting and mesmerizing as it sounds on the tin.
If you have ever had the notion of wanting to compete in competitive motorsport but lack either the funds or the space, then the Fiat challenge is exactly for you!! Taking the Italian company’s mid-90’s city car, the challenge allows for very little in the way of expensive modification. The majority of the field are made up of the sporty Seichento Sporting pushing out 54hp, but at full pelt these little cars are rapid! Naturally, roll cages are a necessity, but the rules stipulate that the rear seats remain in place hence why some competition cars still bear road plates. Entry’s for this class are nearly as big as the leading competitive classes, so these little cars are truly pushed to their limits up the hill.
As with all facets of the car world, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the competitors, as the nationwide scheduele is nothing more than a list of destinations to meet and compete with old friends and fierce rivals. In times of need, all hands reach for the pump in an effort to see everyone get the maximum enjoyment out of their weekend. While there is a core there, many events continue to rely on a strong local entry to support event running cost. In most cases, it is Rally guys who wheel their machinery out of sheds to pit them into the unknown world without navigators and the like.
While I may be a total noob in this world, the name McKinley was one I was always aware of, generally mentioned following the words Simon or Escort. The late Simon McKinley became a cult hero after a video of his antics in his home built MK2 Escort became a Youtube hit. The clip was spread far and wide, jaws dropped in front of computer screens and I knew then that I had to get out and see this thing for myself. But I never did. In 2015, Simon tragically lost his life competing in the sport that he loved, surrounded by those who loved him. The Escort became a memory, until standing on the side of the road last weekend, a familiar silhouette came sideways through a square junction and slithered up the road past me!
While I’ve mentioned the diversity on display, new regulations have allowed cars of the more sideways orientation to compete on closed public roads. Led by Brendan Stone and the crew in Stone Motorsport, the chance to hear a 600BHP 2JZ Toyota Aristo unleash in an environment so different to a circuit is spellbinding, although the more priceless aspect is seeing the faces of hardened rally folk once the get their first dose of fully blown anti-lag and a face full of tire smoke.
While small, hillclimbing is a sport with a strong future. Based around a strong core of eager followers, the discipline can expand. People like Naylor Engineering are providing the necessary backing to the national championship, but there’s plenty of room for improvement yet. As long as clubs running events continue to be rally-centered, then Hillclimbs will always be a distant after thought. But this will change in time just like anything. People will realize that Hillclimbing is an affordable day out, a chance to push their cars on new roads and a form of motorsport with a bright future.
Pictures from this article are combined from both the Imokilly Hillclimb in Dungarvan and the Limerick Hillclimb in Glenroe. Further information on events and the sport can be found at: www.irishhillclimb.com/
The modified car show scene is something that has an interesting life cycle here in Ireland. We lack the marquee, established dates in the calendar that you might see elsewhere in the world, but we have a history of putting on all shape and size of show. In the height of the 90’s era Max Power modding phase, places like Green Glens, Punchestown and City West hold fond memories of large scale modding extravaganza’s. As that phase passed, the mantle of hosting large scale displays of modified metal fell to a somewhat side show existence alongside drifting events in Mondello, but there was an appetite there for more.
The core of the resurgence of the modified car show scene, and I purposely choose not to class it as the stance scene as I’ll explain in a while, has been in Belfast. Strongly influenced by the always strong UK scene, we’ve seen shows like Titanic Dubs, Castlewellan and the ever growing Dubshed really emerge and flourish into true staples of the show landscapes, and this has filtered down into other successful shows like VAGE, Limerick and countless others. But the question on everyone’s mind this weekend, was how would another heavyweight contender coming into the fold go down. This is Districts!!
Now, jump back a step. Every show I mentioned in the previous paragraph have a defining thread, and that is that their core revolves around the VW modding scene. Mention any of their names, and for those that know, the immediate reaction is all air suspension, expensive wheels and un-driveability. It’s perhaps a VAG thing, but shows celebrating this particular style have had a following for the past 50 years. Some have held the exclusivity factor as a defining feature, but Dubshed 2016 was a seminal moment that caused a shift so large that it’s still felt today. Doors were thrown open, alien concepts were thrust upon the traditional VW guys, big turbo’s met big stance and for people like myself with a passion for anything cool and automotive, it was savage!!
The people behind the smash and grab effort were ILOVEBASS, a Northern Irish website which has become a massive champion of the modified scene both at home and abroad. On the back of their ever growing presence at Dubshed and the popularity of their online content, time had come for the crew to step forward and throw their own bash.
Now, most of us have had the misfortune of spending ungodly hours trekking around B&Q of a Saturday afternoon helplessly lost in the pursuit of an elusive part needed to sort yet another DIY job, yet have you ever stopped and looked at the big picture. Has your head drifted to the dream of clearing all the apron clad staff and metal shelving and starting with a blank canvas?? Well, when the plug was pulled on one of Belfast’s largest B&Q’s, that idle dream became a reality and South 13 came into existence, as an open space for all manner of events and cultural initiatives.
What you definitely can’t see when shopping is the vastness of the space available, but walking through the distinctive retail entrance was like entering an aircraft hanger. Even with a few hundred cars inside, trade stands, stages, facilities and displays if still felt vast. As a clean slate, it was a fantastic venue with fantastic access for us making the trip up, and based in an area where even more hours can be passed ogling over local forecourts while waiting for the show to open.
In terms of content, the shift seen through Dubshed continues here, with an obvious emphasis place on diversity. The Districts name denotes the differing area’s under which vehicles could enter, with sections like Japanese, Race Car, Exotic, Off Road and Motorbikes joining the obvious VAG content.
While in it’s infancy, it was entirely natural that many of the cars on display may appear familiar to regular show goers, but this makes it easier to notice subtle changes made over the past few months. In the case of this particular Porsche 944, among my favourite cars at Dubshed 2017, its utter perfection remained unchanged.
As a motorsport fan, the chance to get up close with Norlin Racing and its brace of BTCC Chevy’s was rather special. I follow the championship as much as possible on ITV4, but its only when you can see and feel various components that you truly understand how special these machines are. In board suspension front and back was passed off as being completely normal. Because Racecar I suppose!!
The off road area had it’s own corral out the back in the former loading bays, and while there were all manner of go-anywhere vehicles on display, two completely different vehicles caught my eye. Firstly, it may be physically impossible to ignore a Land Rover Defender caked in an impressive layer of mud, especially when it was got a massive suspension lift complete with huge tyres and is then parked at an obscene angle highlighting its imposing stature. Genuinely, there was a Hummer H2 nearby, and it looked like a Nissan Micra in the company of the Defender. Then though, hidden in a corner was something only freaks like me would appreciate. Yes, an absolutely immaculate Bedford Rascal. I liked it a lot!!
Elsewhere, although the Exotic section of the show was fairly spartan, its a rare treat to see a modified Aston Martin of any manner, and a plethora of tasty Porsche 911’s dotted around the venue really made for an interesting addition. Then though, and I honestly missed it at first, its quite an oddity to find a completely slammed Jaguar XKR.
A popular side of the stance scene that has really become more noticeable of late has been the subtle modification of executive cars. Here, a number of examples really highlighted for me just how impressive a wheel and suspension swap can be in changing the look of a car and make it rather epic. The BMW 7 Series of the 1990’s just screams cool, and sitting on a later set of OEM wheels and air ride suspension, this was undoubtedly my favourite car of the show. Just like the E34 5 Series we featured recently, its becoming noticeable to me now just how right the BMW design department were doing things at the time. Elsewhere, a Merc E-Class was eye catching, but for old school appeal its hard to walk past a decked Jaguar Mark II.
With the openness of admission policy, everywhere you turn it was easy to find something eye catching. If you like your JDM stuff, well there’s a smattering of Toyota Supra’s and a supercharged EP Civic, there’s enough stance to keep VAG boys happy, even if they are in search of brand new Golf R’s or classic Polo’s and Jetta’s, and even the classic car brigade are catered for with some pristine OEM Ford Escorts and BMW’s.
If you want to make a visual impact, turn up somewhere in an EM1 Civic covered in an incredible Ninja Warrier wrap from Blackwater Graphics, a set of So-Cal curb crawlers, a katana sword gear shifter, 4 (!!) bucket seats and air suspension. Job done right there!!
While it was an onslaught of road hugging cars, the bike section of the show was equally impressive. A string of unique cafe-racers and all kinds littered the show floor, but a twin headlight Honda VFR in a period race livery will always draw me in. But, for pure showstopper effect, it may be impossible to resist the urge to spend ungodly amounts of time staring at a Ducati Panigale. I deride those who own vehicles and refuse to ever use them as intended, but I would happily have one of these Italian beuties on a stand in my living room, such is its beauty.
And then, there was the MK2. To see an Escort in such surroundings was unexpected, and it caught me off guard to be honest. Unassuming, it appeared at first to be a typically rally inspired Ford complete with Gravel Arches, cage, bucket seats and the like. Its something Id seen countless times, but a few steps around the front had me looking for a scoop to pick my jaw off the floor. Where most would place a trusty Pinto or Zetec lump, the engine bay here was home to a stunningly impressive Nissan SR20 install, complete with a huge Garrett turbo. Later investigation would put power at over 400BHP at a conservative 1.3 Bar of Boost. Holy God indeed!!
All in all, Districts is a show in its infancy, and its definitely felt like that. Most of the cars on display would be familiar to regular show goers and the venue looked spartan in places, but as a first attempt it was mighty fine. Things like this need time and space to grow, and the latter is definitely no issue here. The idea of opening the doors to all manner of vehicles, under the proviso that it’s cool or interesting, helps to break down stuffy, old-fashioned barriers that govern other shows and perhaps turn people away. ILOVEBASS preach awesomeness in all things automotive, and I for one reckon they’re on the verge of something big.
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.