Stock car racing, Tallaght, 1994: ‘It was carnage’

‘Top Gear’ met ‘The Snapper’ in the mid-1990s, when an adventurous photographer ventured on to the mud-splattered racetrack

 

In 1994, a young Dublin photographer hopped on his bike and headed for Tallaght in search of a story. Marc O’Sullivan was working for The Big Issue magazine, where a fellow reporter had heard about a stock car track, set up by locals in a bid to combat joyriding teenagers by providing a place where they could race cars in a controlled environment.

“We covered a lot of social justice issues – anywhere there was a bit of a struggle, we were on it,” O’Sullivan recalls.

In those days, the area between Jobstown and Killenarden really was the wild west: a ragged patchwork of half-finished roads, unloved fields and new housing estates. The omens, he admits, weren’t great.

“It was a cold, flat day. There was no light and all these horrible grey clouds. I was a bit wary of going to Tallaght because I had all these cameras and stuff and I was on my own.”

O’Sullivan’s journey into the unknown produced photographic gold: what he found at the racetrack in Killenarden was a scene he now describes as “Top Gear meets The Snapper”.

Despite the freezing wind, an ice cream van was doing a roaring trade. The stock car action was eye-catching, not to say hair-raising. But as his vibrant black-and-white photographs demonstrate, it was the people who stole the show. Young men, boys, girls: whether drivers or onlookers, more than 20 years later their energy, enthusiasm and sheer cheek is as striking as ever.

“It was just one roll of film,” says O’Sullivan. “If I went nowadays, I’d have shot thousands of digital pictures, but in those days money was tight. I was in a Fás scheme, living in a bedsit in Drumcondra. So I shot one roll and managed to get all of the pictures out of that.”

Found negatives

As often happened in those predigital days, O’Sullivan’s prints were put into a drawer and totally forgotten until recently, when he found the negatives, scanned them, and put a series of images up on his Facebook page. They were spotted by the Tallaght Echo, which published them along with an appeal for further information.

One of the people who got in touch with the newspaper was David Smith, who not only remembered the track but had actually helped build it, using a borrowed JCB, when he was in his early 20s.

“A couple of us had been racing stock cars on the track out in Santry for a couple of years,” Smith recalls. “A priest called Fr Liam O’Brien approached us to see could we do something in Killenarden parish. At the time there was a lot of drugs and stuff like that. What the priest saw was that you did cars, and then you went on to drugs. We didn’t see it because we were only young at the time. But that’s why he started up the track.”

Like the photographer, Smith had forgotten all about the racetrack until he saw the photos. Then the memories flooded back. “I’m one of about 10 guys who ran it,” he says over a shared pot of tea in McClafferty’s pub at Tallaght’s Plaza Hotel. “To get it going we got a few cars in, and then we showed the lads how to build their cars. We didn’t lash into it because it takes a little bit of organising.”

It seems extraordinary that a group of people could create a racetrack out of nowhere: no planning applications, no appeals, no sheafs of paperwork, and little concern for health and safety. Or so it seems now.

“We had it as safe as possible,” Smith says. “We had marshals and flagmen. There had to be safety in the cars, within reason. You couldn’t use the original petrol tank. You had to have a roll cage in, and proper seatbelts and helmets. Mostly what we tried to do was keep their cars from getting mangled – just trying to keep them rolling up there on a Sunday.”

Racing ban

As Smith recalls, “We had rules for what was allowed and not allowed. The main rule was that if you were seen or caught in a stolen car or a company car, you weren’t allowed to race with us for a month or two months. The great thing was that we were all local, so we knew who was up to what.

“Now, whether the lads were doing it elsewhere, I couldn’t say. But I don’t think so, because what happened was they were getting their frustration out. They were getting to drive on a Sunday. There was a bit of competition in it, but in general the speeds weren’t high. They just wanted to go up and drive cars; that’s all. Over the period of time when we ran that track there was a massive decline in stolen cars and company cars. So the guards kind of turned a blind eye to what we were doing.”

The track opened for business at 10am, when beginners could have a sneaky practice lap or two before the first race at 11.

“We had two classes, under 13cc engines, which were mainly for the younger lads, and then anything over 13cc,” Smith says. “The track was small enough that a good number was eight cars on it. But at the end of the year we had a demolition derby. I think there were 42 cars in that. It was carnage – great fun.”

On a dry day, he says, there might be well over 3,000 people coming out to watch the action. When it was lashing rain, well, that was a different story. But the sense of community the track helped create wasn’t just for Sundays.

“We spent most of the week fixing cars for the lads. You’d look out and you’d see lads wheeling wheels around the estate and you’d say, ‘Where are you going with that? Have you got a wheel brace? Have you got a jack?’ It was good.”

Names from the past

As we flick through the pictures on the phone, Smith starts to put names to some of the faces.

“That’s Big Ray McGrath. He runs a trucking company. That’s his truck there with the cane on it. He’d take any cars that were totally wrecked and scrap them for the lads. He and his son Stevie still race cars all over Europe. They go to Holland and Belgium, and to England, where stock car racing is very big. There was a family who owned a massive big garage in Tallaght.

“This kid here, we used to call him ‘Millions of Clothes’. When we’d be going on holidays, we’d go to Sunshine House and Vincent de Paul and . . . I mean, we were poor. Killenarden was poverty-stricken. So he’d be going on his holidays and he’d say, ‘I’ve got millions of clothes’. He has a couple of kids now. His father still lives up there.

“And that’s me,” Smith says, pointing to a photo of a young man pushing a car. “And here’s me on top of my car. A Mark One Celica ST.” He smiles at the memory. “A real fancy sports car, it was. I bought it in Nutgrove. That car is worth a fortune nowadays.”

The Tallaght racetrack lasted for just over two years. “For the first year it was really only for the local kids,” he says. “Then the track in Santry closed down and the guys from the northside came over. They were well experienced, and there was a bit of northside-southside rivalry going on, so a lot of the older lads like myself took a step back. It was getting a bit rough.”

In the end it kind of fizzled out, and the council took action and closed it down.

Still knocking around

Smith says many of the track “regulars” are still in the area. “Loads of the lads are still knocking around, fixing cars and running trucks and all that kind of stuff. I’d see them around. But, as I say, we all forgot about it. You know what it’s like. You move on to something else.”

Having grown up in Killenarden parish, Smith eventually relocated to the other side of Tallaght. “As we like to say, Upper Templeogue or Lower Blessington, ” he laughs. “My mother still lives where I grew up. It’s a tough area even now.”

As he points, out, Tallaght people – “the ones who didn’t get into drugs or robbing and stuff like that” – are resourceful and can turn their hand to anything. Smith has run everything from pubs in Spain to an outdoor play centre in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath. For a while he supplied carnival equipment to, among others, Fossetts Circus.

“Then I had a bad motorbike accident and I decided to get into coffee. I’m a partner with Nick’s Coffee in Ranelagh. We also have a shop, Dave’s Coffee, in Wicklow town.”

And, he adds with a grin, he’s still into building cars. He scrolls through his phone and produces pictures of the “his and hers” mobile coffee vans he helped build for himself and his wife.

It may have been forgotten for a while, but the Tallaght racetrack clearly left its imprint on many people’s lives – and Marc O’Sullivan’s lively images have been instrumental in bringing it back to glorious, vivid life.

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