The race goes on: a tight community rallies round

 

The deaths of two spectators in Cavan last month shook the Irish rallying community. But danger is part of the sport, and large crowds are still expected at this weekend’s Donegal rally

THE ARRIVALS HALL at Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn is festooned with posters for the recently opened Daniel O’Donnell Visitors Centre, which has been hailed as a major tourism boost for the area. But this weekend, it is set to be eclipsed by the 40th annual Topaz Donegal International Rally.

The three-day event, which starts today, is expected to draw up to 70,000 people to Donegal, injecting €25m into the local economy, mostly in the hospitality sector. At the Seaview Hotel in Gweedore, Donegal, Motor Club president Damien Crawford is keen to stress the importance of the rally to the county.

“In terms of what Donegal has going for it industrially, rallying is probably as big an industry as we’ve got. Financially, it would be equivalent to a factory employing five hundred people all year round.”

Despite that popularity, rallying is not a sport that often percolates into the public consciousness. Its stars are not household names. This might be explained by the risks associated with racing high-powered vehicles down narrow country roads in proximity to the viewing public.

Motorsport Ireland chief executive Alex Sinclair estimates that 90 per cent of the authority’s resources go towards ensuring safety at events. Doctors, paramedics, air ambulances, rescue crews and cutting gear are always on hand. At this year’s Donegal rally, a new tracking system will allow officials to monitor the position of cars in real time.

Despite these efforts, there were fatal crashes at the Donegal event in 2002, 2008 and 2010. Indeed, a few days after this press trip, Joe Lane, a motorsports photographer from Galway, and Caroline Cleary, a spectator from Co Wexford, were killed at a rally in Bailieborough, Co Cavan, in an accident that also left four injured.

The recent deaths in Cavan are deeply mourned in the tight-knit rallying fraternity. Nevertheless, Crawford does not expect the tragedy to have a major impact on numbers this weekend.

Tadhg Buckley is a former amateur driver from Co Mayo whose younger brother Shane was involved in a serious accident in the 2010 rally. He will be among those making the trip to Donegal for the event.

“I was at the end of the stage,” he recalls, “when I got a call from another driver telling me that Shane had gone off.” Tadhg Buckley instructed the caller to help get his brother’s car back on the road. But the caller said, no. The rest of the stage had been cancelled. “That’s when I knew something serious had happened.”

Shane Buckley was critically injured and was lucky to survive. His co-driver, however, 24-year-old Thomas Maguire from Co Meath, died at the scene. Neither of the Buckley brothers has returned to competitive racing. But despite the loss of their friend, they still love the sport.

“I’d love to get back rallying,” admits Tadhg. “Shane would too. But it wouldn’t be fair to put my mother through an experience [of a serious accident] like that again. It’s hard going to a race now, because it reminds you what you’re missing out on. You’re not behind the wheel any more.”

So what is it about rally driving that makes daredevils even of those who understand the stakes at play? It’s hardly the glamour. The staging area for today’s test drive is windswept hillside in the middle of nowhere. In the ditch to the left, a driver is hopping about in his underwear trying to get into a pair of overalls.

Adrian McElhinney is a mechanic who has been racing cars since he was 17. He will be taking me for a spin around the course in his 1.6L Citroën today. Asked about the risks involved in rallying, he shrugs. “It’s just the sport we’re in. Footballers break their legs. We might have the odd crash. But it’s not too bad.” Let’s hope so.

Safely strapped into our harnesses, we barrel down a tiny back road at a speed that, while reckless, is not unduly terrifying. Just as I’m feeling that the experience mightn’t be all that bad, McElhinney brings the car to a halt at a rudimentary set of traffic lights. He revs the engine and the car fills with smoke.

The race hasn’t even begun yet.

THE LIGHT turns green and McElhinney’s car accelerates like a bullet. Bridges, houses, gates and stone walls all flit past the passenger side window in a deranged clatter. My overwhelming impression of it is that everything about this sport – the speed, the surface, the size of the road and the proximity of the crowd (there are children standing on a garden wall just feet from us as we pass at one point) – flies in the face of common sense. But that is its cachet, I suppose.

After a series of hairpin bends, the car veers sharply to the left and suddenly a glorious view of Gweedore Bay is laid out in front of us.

My anxiety is not entirely misplaced, in fact. Later, we learn that a car carrying another journalist has smashed through a hedge and flipped on to its side. She’s shaken, but okay.

Speaking this week, Crawford is keen to dispel any notion that the rallying community is inured to tragedy.

“The sense of shock felt by the wider community [in relation to the tragedy in Cavan] is mirrored within the sport itself,” he says. “Motor clubs around the country share their expertise and share their personnel. So on a personal level, a lot of people are very deeply affected.”

Would elevated platforms, further back from the road, be a feasible alternative for spectators? “The sport has evolved a lot over the years,” he says. “But you’re still looking at a 15-20km route. You can monitor people. You can do your best to ensure they’re in safe locations. But, really, you are relying on them to have an appropriate regard for their own safety.”

I mention the two (accompanied) children that I saw standing on a garden wall just a feet away from us, as McElhinney and I sped past. Is a three-and-a-half-foot garden wall really a safe vantage point from which to watch a race? “It would be unusual for someone to be that close. Certainly, you’d look to correct that.”

Nonetheless, he resents it when the sport finds itself in the firing line.

“If you look at the statistics, the safety record of the rally driving bares very favourable comparison to paragliding, microlighting or mountaineering. Of course, we’re always looking for ways to improve and we’re never, ever complacent.”