With Donegal Mini Stages just over a week away, what better time to take a look at what rallying means to the most North Westerly County in Ireland? Of all the counties in Ireland, they say these roads were built with rallying in mind. There are bumps, jumps, and wide roads, narrow tracks, off camber corners, tight hairpins and open junctions, all within 5-6 kilometres of road.
The roads of Donegal were used by the Ulster Automobile Club (UAC) as part of the Circuit of Ireland. They were normally used on the last night/morning of the rally and proved a stern sting in the tail for the remaining crews.
Donegal Motor Club
Donegal Motor Club was originally founded in 1970 by a small bunch of dedicated men and women who thought why not? Within a short time they had applied to run their first event and a few other small events followed. It is said that these first events hadn’t enough directional arrows to set up the stages, so they dug out sods from the ditch to signify the direction the crews were to turn at the next junction.
In 1971, the Rally of the Rosses was organised, with backing from the Mary of Dungloe Festival. It was a one day event and was won by Billy Coleman. By 1972 the club had applied for, and received, International status. The Circuit of Donegal International Rally was to run out of the Rossapenna Hotel in Carriagart, and over 130 crews left the start that Saturday morning. Cathal Curley from Derry led the crews home on Sunday evening. In 1973 the rally moved to Letterkenny, where it has remained ever since (bar one year when it moved base to Bundoran). Also in 1973, the club received permission from the RIAC to introduce ‘Pacenotes.’ This meant everyone got a chance to see the stages beforehand, to make notes, thereby avoiding anyone being accused of having prior knowledge of the stages, and gaining an unfair advantage. The early years were dominated by Curley, as he won the first three years. 1976 was a huge year for the club as they had their first European winner, Achim Warmbold in his BMW 2002TTi, and by Sunday evening he was the winner after strong competition from a number of Irish drivers. Also in 1975 a little known Finn was here in an Opel Ascona. That Finn’s name was Ari Vatanen, who would later achieve legendary status, not only on these shores, but also worldwide. Clerk of the Course in those early years was Austin Frazer. Austin and the club were honoured by being the recipients of the Ford Rallyman of the Month award, which was chosen by a selection of rally journalists. This reflected the high esteem the event achieved from a very early stage. This is a very brief look at the early years of Donegal Motor Club, and no doubt it will be something that I will return to in more detail at a later stage. If you haven’t already purchased ‘The Donegal Experience’ by Ivan Furey, I would go as far as to say this book should be regarded as THE bible for any Donegal Rally enthusiast!
The rally grew into a three day event and remains one of very few events outside of the WRC to still run a three day format.
The club now organise yearly, the International Rally, Harvest Rally, Knockalla Hillclimb (2 days), autocross, night navigationals and, on a rotational basis, the Forestry and Mini Stages.
What does Rallying mean to the people of Donegal and beyond?
Rallying is almost regarded as a cult religion, and the dedication and enthusiasm has to be experienced to be believed. It is reckoned that in June the economy gets a boost of 5-6million euro. It is regarded as the largest sporting event outside Dublin. For crews throughout Ireland it is the rally they want to win. Winning the rally outright, or your class, it is the Holy Grail to have that trophy in your possession come Sunday evening. Many people plan their annual holidays around the third weekend in June and return year after year.
The Mini Stages
On the 30th of January the Mini Stages leaves the Clanree Hotel. The format is two 15km stages, completed three times, and even with the increased insurance premiums this year (which has hiked entry fees by over €100), the organisers have pulled together an absolutely top class entry list.
The club pulled off a real coup in attracting two of the latest generation of R5 cars to the rally. Alastair Fisher and Brendan Comiskey (Ford Fiesta R5 Evo) and Desi Henry (Skoda Fabia R5) will debut these cars, and it is the first time either car has competed on a closed road event in either Ireland or the UK.
2014 Winner Martin Doherty is back to defend his title, in his GpN Mitsubishi Evo9. Whether the stages will suit the GpN car is unclear, but Martin likes to go hard and, if it’s wet, he can’t be discounted. Frank Wray is out in his Subaru WRC Spec S9 car, and as this car is no longer homologated, it can run in class 20. He has to be considered favourite for the event. Joe McGonigle is at number 6 in his S2000 Skoda, and his performance at the Harvest last year shows he won’t be far away from the top of the time sheets. In front of Joe, at 4, is Gary McPhillips and he leads the Escort brigade. If past performances are anything to go by, Gary will really fly on the Donegal roads. At 8 is Wesley Patterson, with Johnny Baird on the notes, and they lead a list of who’s who in the Escort field with Brogan, Pringle, Armstrong, Gallagher, Kelly, Toner, Condell, Tourish and Bradley filling out the next ten places. Rounding out the top 20 are GpN chargers Aidan Wray and Pat Kirk in their Mitsubishi Evo 10 and 9 respectively.
The quality extends throughout the field, and if this can continue to be achieved throughout the year we could be in for a bumper season. Every class is well supported and it is important these crews are appreciated, as each and every one of them has worked hard and made sacrifices to get their name on the entry list. So really looking forward to the new season and may the best man or woman win.