The first weekend of December tends to have a rather festive feel to it these days. With the shopping chaos now starting earlier and earlier each year, come the start of the twelfth month the decorations emerge at a rampant rate. The children beam with excitement as the idea of the Toy Show finally hitting the screen after what feels like ages waiting, and the parents can tuck into a cheeky bottle of wine as a kickstart to one of the most self-rewarding months of the year. It’s a time of warmth and comfort in theory, but I’m watching the Late Late on an ancient looking screen, perched above the door of a rustic pub somewhere in the mountainous wilds of Co. Kerry. To rally folk, Christmas comes at the start of December, and it’s in the form of the Killarney Historic!
Now, it’s fair to say that Killarney is a significant hot bed of the sport, as is Kerry as a whole, with four Tarmac events each year, but Killarney, May Bank Holiday Weekend and the Lakes is the biggest deal. Crowds flock south each year for one of the country’s largest rally events, often marking the start of the Summer season. To the more hardcore followers though, and particularly those who long for a return to the days of old, the first weekend of December is cleared of all distractions and calendar clashes.
The Historics grew from a brave idea by KDMC to run an event with a strictly enforced age limit set on car’s available to enter. Setting the bar at Pre-1985, the entry is rather expectably chock full of Rear Wheel Drive, often sideways rallying hero’s, and is designed as a throwback to a time gone by now only experienced through grainy YouTube video’s and historic archives. While the spectacle may look similar, the reality of the modern world means that we aren’t treated to the week-long feasts of action that was somewhat the norm when these cars were in their prime, but Killarney has condensed all the elements needed to feel spot on.
I made my way into Killarney on a crisp Friday afternoon, typical of a December day, yet basked in rather un-seasonable sunshine. Scrutiny was an obvious port of call, an opportunity to get up close and personal with the machinery destined to tackle the iconic Killarney stages early the next morning. I was barely in the gate as an iconic BMW M3 grumbled off into the night, but right into his spot rolled the car everyone was hoping to catch for the weekend, Rob Duggan and the iconic 2.5 Millington Escort of Colin Byrne.
As the sun began to set, it was an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the golden hour in the presence of some of my favourite rally cars of all time. It was a blissful mix of my photography and rallying perspectives, and a treat for the senses.
Home, thermal gear on and car packed, it was time to set off. Much of the Killarney Historic appeal is built on the iconic stages available right on the town’s doorstep, none more of a draw early on a crisp morning than Molls Gap. The twisty ribbon of tarmac rising out of the town boundaries towards the mountains is a glorious place to watch rally cars in full flow, but I felt I wanted something different this year. As the droves plotted their way for Ladies View and the like, I struck for the ‘Other Gap’, and possibly Irelands most stunning stretches of tarmac.
High in the mountains, quietness reigns. Darkness is experienced on a level almost unmatched, with few if any signs of life dotted on the landscape. A small, rural bar, surrounded on all sides but foreboding peaks, is a natural hub of a remote community. Glencar feels like it’s a million miles from anywhere, and is as ruggedly stunning because of its surrounding. In the dead of night, my drive feels eerie and lonely. 90 minutes I drive down lanes after lane, not crossing paths with another soul. A phone screen, and its warm glow, keeps me company. Guidance is necessary in these conditions, and my destination is Ballaghbeama Gap.
Situated right in the foothills of Carrantuohill, Ballaghbeama is an anomaly. As roads go, it seems to serve very little purpose. Barely more than a car wide for the most part, the smooth tarmac snakes its way through vast expanses of true wilderness. To both sides, the eye casts over desolate yet beautiful scenery. Its absolute pinnacle is in the tight and twisty section, barely more than 2 or 3km long, in the middle that weaves through sheer rock faces. It has all the feel of the iconic twisting roads of Rally Monte Carlo or Corsica, and the second I drove it myself, I knew I had to see, feel and experience the spectacle of a rally passing through. I could gush about Ballaghbeama for hours, and rightfully you should add it to the roads worthy of a drive when you get a chance!
Reversed into a gap between a rock face and a waterfall, barely a few metres from the racing line, I bedded down for the night, yet again checking into Hotel de Peugeot to bring you all some pictures of Rally Cars. The crackle of a Mk 2 Escort road car was my wake-up call, and it set the tone. I couldn’t tell you about who was quick, who was leading or who was having troubles, as I had been off the mobile grid for about 12 hours up in the mountains, but I could tell you how glorious a sound a BDA engine makes as it reverberates around its surroundings. It didn’t matter a jot though, as I had a venerable playground to work with, working as many angles as possible. I climbed hills, hung off rocks, fell into streams and ploughed through bogs, yet loved every minute. The scenery wasn’t half bad either.
Come the end of the day, as the sun set, it would be the Duggan’s, Rob and Tara, who would taste the victory, leading from the off in a dominant display. More impressive was the utter domination of Denis Moynihan and Ger Conway in their MK1 Escort, taking an impressive win in the ‘more historic’ section of the rally. See I forgot to mention that didn’t I, that the single best part of Killarney Historics is that it plays host to a specific rally within, for cars which not only elicit the sight of rallying of old, but adhere to strict rules making them as close as possible in spec and performance of the glory days. While the Modifieds are something we are more accustom to with screaming Millington’s and the raucous bang of Sequential gearboxes, the historic section is the preserve of proper RS1800 Escort, straight cut Gears and all that is truly right in the world!
“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!!