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!!
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.
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.
Have you ever looked at the world of drifting and wondered what on earth are they doing? Destroying tires often in a couple of laps-wait I mean corners!Spending thousands on cars with engines producing four figure brake horsepower. I have followed drifting since we started FreshFix back in 2010, I can honestly say now that I have never really understood the rules 100%. Recently Rob and I were down at the Irish amateur drift championship and wanted to answer all the questions we had. Thankfully head judge Kieran Hynes gave us some of his time to explain exactly how the IDC drifting is judged.
When drivers arrive the must sign on and head to drivers briefing. At every event, the drivers would be introduced to a course layout which is printed out and stuck on the wall for everyone to see. The system which they run in the IDC is called Line based which they have developed over the year and is very much so about precision. When you look at this “map” so to speak you can see the course, clipping points, speed gun and the line which the judges want you to follow. The judges could spend up to twenty minutes explaining to the driver’s what they are looking for and what’s in the judges head of the perfect qualifying line.
To make it easier for the drivers and also for the people watching the drifting from the banks of the track or online they paint the clipping points on the track. Unfortunately, at winter the track does not stay dry long enough for the team to do this so cones can often be the replacement for the painted boxes.
So what do these painted boxes mean? Well, the front or the rear of the car must run through these boxes depending on where the box is positioned. This all sounds very easy but when you have to drift a car to these exact points at high speed it can be difficult. They also can place these boxes at points which have the concrete walls close buy. Some can skim the rear bumper or spoiler along the wall while others come in too hot and can often write the car off like we saw with the 240sx belonging to Darren mc Namara which was driven by Robbie Nishida.
The briefing is over and the drivers and judges all understand what they need to do. Drivers must go through qualifying first. In qualifying a speed gun is used- for what I hear you ask. Well during the practice session the speed gun is used to set the target speed for the qualifying run. For example, if the speed is set at 70mph the automated system will add and deduct points based on how much above or below the driver is from the target speed. The point of the speed gun is to encourage the drivers to push as hard as they can. The driver starts off with 100 points as they leave the start line and points are deducted as they go along. Points can be deducted for corrections, missing clipping points, entry speed and not sticking to the line. Kieran commented that “it needs to be nice and flowing to score well”. The driver only has two runs to qualify for the battles. There are only 32 spots available with over 70 drivers on the grid your day could end very quickly.
With qualifying finished the driver who qualified first will battle against the driver who qualified last and so on. This seems tough for the person sitting in 32nd trying to take out the person in 1st. It can easily happen with one simple mistake ending the day. Kieran went on to explain how the battles work, “Again you have two runs, one time you are the leading car and the second time you are the chase car”. The leading car must do the qualifying run while the chasing car must mirror the run while being as close as possible to the chase car-they have a 3-meter rule. The three judges will do the scores based on their opinion and the driver’s return to the start line reversing positions. The new lead car must then do the same and at the end, the judges will decide who wins the battle with the scores tallied up.
Going back to the 3 meters, now obviously they don’t get the measuring tape out to see are they exactly 3 meters apart but if the chase car is close and is twinning well with the lead car they will have the advantage for that run. If a big gap is pulled between the two cars the run is judged on two qualifying runs with points deducted for the chase car for having such a large gap. If the lead car runs the perfect qualifying line they make it easier for the chase car to twin with him, to encourage this they can also award points to that driver.
As we are aware you get points deducted from your run, if you mess up the start of your run and a judge decides that you lose 10 points by clip two you are unable to get them points back. If you spin on your run be it in qualifying or a battle you are scored an automatic fat 0-Pressure is on for the second run! If the car understeers you again get points taken away depending on how bad and long it was, this is up to the judge to decide.
Contact is allowed in this sport but only recently, years ago if you made contact with the car it was a 0 straight away. If you hit the car enough which causes it to spin or having to correct you will be deducted points, BUT if you are on the door of the other driver and have slight rubbing and nudging you cannot be penalized for it. Not also does it put on a great show for the fans alike it really shows off the drivers skill.
If you watch come dine with me, Judge Judy or drifting you are always going to have some sort of conflict with a decision over what a judge said or did. Kieran pointed out that every judge is different in every series around the world. He went on to use Kevin O Connell as the example with ” Kevin is a very technical judge, the line is very very important to him” ” Other judges are about angle and style”. I can agree on the angle part but style? how can you show style, if you are reading this and can clearly explain style please do? Maybe judging needs Gok Wan to get into the judging tower and he can be the judge of style. ” At the end of the day as long as a judge is consistent that is the main thing”
Kieran when on to finish off with ” At the end of the day with sit in the judging tower and it doesn’t matter what actually happened out on the track it’s what appears to have happened from where they are sitting, its the only way drifting can work.
Photo Credit: Paddy Mc Grath