Ireland in late September is a funny place. The sense of closure and conclusion equal the sense of excitement. A time, if ever there was one, to look back on the year to date, lament the loss of Summer that must have passed in a blink, reminisce of sporting endeavors and begin making lists. Lists of things needing work in the off-season, lists of highlights and more importantly, finalize a list of champions. The Cork ’20 has become the final swansong of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship for quite some time now, and it’s spot in the calendar is a bookend for many. After one final blast around some Cork scenery, countless cars will return to garages and sheds and begin prepping for next year. Drivers will chase funding and the usual planning of next years programme can begin. As for a list of Champions, this year has been easy!!
Utter domination is something that is mentioned in sporting senses on a regular basis, but Sam Moffett, Karl Atkinson and their Combilift Fiesta R5 have been the embodiment of the term in 2017. They finish the year having done the Triple Crown of Irish Rallying, winning the ITRC, the National and the Forestry Championships. They’ve done so by not only winning 9 events this year, including Killarney’s Rally of the Lakes, but consistently bringing the car home in point scoring positions. Cork has suffered at times with the championship being sown up beforehand, with many skipping the rally. But not Sam. Needing to start SS1 to become champion, the Monaghan driver decided to put on a rallying show.
But, to get to the top, you need to be pushed by the best. Hot on Sam’s heels all year have been Ali Fisher and his own brother Josh, both in similar R5 Fiesta’s. It was this trio who set the early pace, but Fisher would succumb to mechanical issues, something that ultimately ended his championship hopes on the previous round. As for the Moffetts, championship firmly in hand, they went nuts. Each stunning stage time stirred a reaction in the other. Over 15 stages, the pair were separated by no more than a handful of seconds yet remained minutes ahead of anyone else. In the end, Josh ran out of luck on the final test giving Sam to perfect send off to the 2017 season.
Behind them, the regular ITRC runners were joined by two quick local crews, with Kevin Kelliher being the sole WRC entrant in the S14 Impreza, while Owen Murphy made a rare apearance in the screaming S2000 Fabia.
In the National, bar a major crash in Donegal, the AE86 Corolla of Kevin Eves has been the pace setter all year, but as with Moffett, the northern crew simply had to cross the start line to become Champions. Cross it they did, but it wouldn’t have been worth the trip to not put on a show. The Baby Blue Toyata was sideways everywhere, throttle pinned as tyres scrabbled for grip in the tricky conditions. As with Moffett, Eves rounded off a stellar 2017 by adding a Cork ’20 victory to the mantle piece.
In the Juniors, FreshFix favourite Eric Calnan had No. 1 on the door of the Silver 106, but gearbox issues on Saturday dropped him out of the running. Michael Black was flying in the mean looking Toyota Starlet, but come the end of the last stage, the Toyota was nowhere to be seen handing both the event victory and championship crown to Jenna McCann in the R2 Fiesta!!
The conditions, to put it mildly, were awful on Saturday. Roads, already primitive and secondary in nature, became mud filled messes as a field of rally cars attacked them in the pouring rain. It was only natural that the conditions would catch out the un-wary, and while it resulted in stage cancellations and delays, safety is the most important element of our sport. The Escort below is a prime example of the conditions causing wreck. A low speed, off camber right hander became an aquaplaning nuisance, with tyres hitting water before tar and spearing into the scenery. Thankfully, they hit a soft part of ditch, and the crew contuinued!!
So while the ITRC season may be finished, rallying is not over for 2017. There are still plenty of smaller regional events pencelled in for the next few months, and then December technically see’s the ITRC start again, for Historic crew’s at least, in Killarney. As for me, well I’m off to invest in proper rain gear!!
So, last weekend, you likely heard that there was a festival going on. Everyone there was having a ball and filling social media, while all those not there had a serious dose of FOMO, although at times there would would have been a willing trade off when the rain hit on Saturday. All around, people were having a ball, music rained in from all directions, artistic decorations and niche stalls lined the periphery while much dancing and plenty of drinking added to the whole vibe. Heck, I even saw a guy with an actual Picnic basket…….next to his Drift car. You see, last weekend, while there was a singsong in a field happening in Laois, down the road in Kilkenny, Ireland was treated to it’s most unique motorsport event, The Festival of Drift!!
Car life, in general, is a very social identity. People build cars, or race them, and then stand around talking to the like minded about exactly what they’ve created or done. Most events, people come, magic happens, discussion is had and everyone goes home. Come 6pm, most of the action is confined to video clips and online chat. But why not try something different, have a party, crash for a few hours in a tent and keep the good times rolling straight away the next morning. That’s what the FOD was about, having a good time off the back of two days of interesting track time and all manner of fun and frolics.
A weekend of drifting is not a new concept, as people might know from events like the Matsuri’s or AwosomeFest, but here in Ireland this was a first. Promising something never before seen, a quirky competitive element, big-name stars and large prizes ensured that the driver entry quickly filled up, but what struck me from the moment I arrived was the stunning mix of true grass-roots guys right through to cutting edge Pro drivers, all going to do battle on an even keel competing for the same goal. I’ve talked here previously about my love for the have-a-go hero’s, and the chance to see them against the best was really exciting
While the cars themselves could probably differ by up to 600BHP in some cases, the venue itself was a proper leveller. Based alongside the Cattle Mart on the edge of Kilkenny, The Hub is an vibrant space, and on Saturday is was very much an interesting sight. Inside, one of the biggest Car-Boot sales I’ve ever seen was in full swing selling everything from ornate China to power tools, while outside Drift cars were running clipping points and sitting loudly idling meters away from casual afternoon shoppers. The track, while initially seeming small and confined, worked a treat in bringing the best out of the drivers. Lined with solid hay-bales, wall running was encouraged, and the occasional oopsie generally resulted in just a dusting off and no elongated track closures while concrete was repaired!
In a bit of a master-stroke from the organizers, the initial event hosted two truly global stars of the Drifting world in Chris Forsberg and Ryan Tureck. These are people that I’ve watched online for years not only pretty much forming the US drift scene in the Drift Alliance days, but right through to being multiple Formula Drift champions, event winners and YouTube stars. Who thought you’d ever see Ryan Tureck running an FC RX7 against a hay bale out the side of a cattle mart in Kilkenny, but life’s all about surprises. For the two guests to really put on a show though, they needed wheels, and by god did they get treated. As I mentioned, Tureck was thrown the keys to Alan O’Neill’s turbo’d Rotary RX7, while Forsberg stepped in Neil Dunne’s pretty epic S13. As for driving in unfamiliar chassis on the wrong side of the car?? Id say they were on the clipping points after 20 seconds!!
While traditional drifting is obsessed with two cars twin battling through a bracket to find a winner, its a format that just wouldn’t have felt right at a unique event like this. Instead, competition was divided into a number of disciplines designed to showcase driver skill rather than all out power. Ranging from drift parking to barrel sprints, with some wall runs and clipping points thrown in, it was really open for anyone to do well, no matter what they brought to the line. On top of 2 days and nearly 15 hours of track time, the venue transformed into a full blown festival once the lights went down, with a sound and visual stage set-up you’d struggle to find in most permanent music venues.
Names that may seem familiar to some, and yet unknown to others, came out all guns blazing. First man into competition was Craig MacLeod from Scotland. A guy that I truly had only heard about in passing, he went out onto a cold track and ran within 2 foot of a perfect run. Mind suitably blown, driver after driver came and made some incredible impressions. King of the BMW fan-boy’s Mark Tynan, a regular around the track-days of Ireland, showed serious skills in his M-Powered E36 and carried all the battle scars to prove how hard he was pushing, while a fellow BMW man pushed just that small bit too hard and gave me a particular scare. Note to self, don’t leave expensive camera gear lying in direct line of fine on top of a hay bale. Quick reflexes from driver and photographer saved everyone from serious damage though, and the taxi lived to fight another day!!
Now, as I’ve said a few times now, this venue played so fantastically well to level the field in a way never before seen. Come the end of the 2 days, the final four drivers was made up of all small-budget, home built amateur chargers, and Chris Forsberg!! With large cash prizes on the line, some guys likely winning more than the value of their car, it was obvious to see the desire these fellas had to win and perhaps bringing their drifting to the next level. Coming home in Fourth was the screaming little E36 Compact of Jack Shiel. I’ve seen Jack evolve from practice day hero to a serious competitive threat over the past 12 months, and what the little BMW lacks in power, the driving style, precision and aggression more than make up. Built in that very cool of late Waterford Domestic Market style, this cars just screams cool and has a massive presence.
Pipping Jack to third place was another young star, and this was definitely a re-occurring theme here, in Declan Byrne. About 2 years ago, Deco burst onto the scene with a number of giant killing performances in the IDC behind the wheel of his mean looking and very low Nissan S14. Aggression is taken for granted every time Byrne hits the track, and the poor Nissan spent nearly 2 days scraping bales for fun. Come Sunday, the SR20 had done a good job of melting the gearbox, and then in true rock-star fashion Declan managed to break not one but both of the Volvo’s laid on for the final, but jumping into Neil Dunne’s S13 done the trick. A large cheque in the back pocket, is it now we’ll see the return of Black S14 to top-level competition??
Leading the Irish charge, and taking 2nd, was Alan Hynes. Come from great drifting stock with his father being drift-judge extraordinaire Kieren, and a long time member of the IDC backroom team, Alan has truly launched himself in 2017. On the verge of winning the Pro-Am title and getting a license for the big show next year, stunning levels of car control saw the moderately powered Silvia making clipping points for fun. One of a new breed who had years of Virtual drifting done before ever stepping behind the wheel for real, think of all those IDC track preview video’s on Rfactor and remember that’s Alan, these guys are quickly making the rise through the ranks, focusing on learning driver skills rather than gunning for big power, and I guarantee you each of these three guys will be challenging for Championships in the next few years!!
But, like every event, you can have all the great drives you want, but we need a winner. It’s a long running joke online that ‘Forsberg Takes The Win’ is a default scenario in Formula Drift, but seeing the man doing his thing in the flesh re-evaluated everything I may have ever felt before. Borrowed car, strange land, wrong side?? Not a bother. Neil may have felt un-easy handing over the reigns of his pride and joy, but he had no fear as Forsbeg is a really a driving god. It almost seemed effortless as the perfect line was replicated time and time again. To make the man even better, come the presentation of the trophy’s and D1 style oversized cheque’s, Chris announced that his €5000 prize was to be split between the three other finalists. This was a seismic gesture to these guys, and a huge pat on the back to Chris Forsberg for such a decision!!
And so, come Monday and we’re all back to reality. Perhaps I am still slightly deaf still from Adrian Walsh’s V8 Corolla, but that’s part of the fun of it. Others will have sore heads from the shenanigans and celebrations, but the event itself was a celebration in itself. It brought the best skills that drifting has to offer and showcased them in a way that everyone had a chance to compete. Watching the likes of Emma Healy outscoring a former ProDrift champion in Brendan Stone reinforced how bright the future is for the sport here in Ireland. It was a start, and a good one at that, but certainly it has the makings of an event we need to get behind and see blossom into the huge beast that it could become. Drinking, Drifting and Dancing, sher what more would ya want!!
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/
“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!!
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.