It was the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Ireland. We were both exhausted and as we drove round a corner I pressed the accelerator only to hear a horrible knocking noise from under the bonnet. “Oh, what are we doing?” I thought. In fact it wasn’t the first time I had thought that, it must have been about the twentieth time that day, not to mention during the previous year.
What started it all was a casual conversation with my friend Graham the previous October. He had just returned from competing in the Circuit of Ireland Retrospective Rally. He was the first over-seas competitor to have competed in the rally, and he brought back tales of the friendly reception he had received on this most enjoyable event. I couldn’t quite understand how he could treat his car so harshly, but more out of politeness than anything I said how it must have been great and how I wished I had been there.
Later that year Graham handed me the regulations for the Circuit of Ireland rally. There seemed no going back now and in a wave of enthusiasm I sent off my entry. There were a few logistical problems. Firstly, in the two years that I had owned the car I had hardly managed to drive it for more than a couple of days without something breaking. And secondly, I had just had the bodywork rebuilt.
However, I thought if I drove carefully, the car should be reasonably reliable and I wouldn't do too much damage.
For a navigator, I thought that my good friend Mike was just the person. Unfortunately he was in Australia at the time but he liked old Triumphs and adventures.
The months passed by and before I knew it we were only a few days away from the event. To my relief Mike arrived home from Australia on the Wednesday and at 6am on Friday the 9th of October we had the car loaded up and ready for off. I had been working on the front suspension on the car up until 11pm the previous evening, and hadn’t had much sleep that night due to the excitement of the forthcoming event. Mike was feeling rather sorry for himself. He had a cold and jet-lag and having just arrived home from an Australian spring to a Scottish autumn he was feeling the cold.
Graham arrived on time and we set off in convoy to catch the ferry from Stranraer. This was a bit of a cross-country trek and took longer than we expected. Towards the end of the journey we really had to push on in order to arrive in time for the ferry which we only just caught.
On the ferry we were able to relax with a plate of sausage, beans and chips and a glass of Guinness. At this point Mike asked, “Now, what exactly are we doing?”
Graham explained the rudiments of navigation to him and I realised that we hadn’t brought any navigational equipment with us.
We arrived at Larne and had to drive through Belfast to get to the start and so we were able to stop at a newsagent and buy a clipboard. Graham lent us a pencil and I found a pen in the glove box. We arrived at the start at the Balloo House Hotel near Comber and found all sorts of interesting cars parked in the car park. Competitors’ cars ranged from a 1928 Austin Chummy to a brand new VW Golf GTI.
We went into the hotel and bought a pile of twelve maps and were given an enormous bundle of papers. These included Route Instructions for Friday and Sunday, Final Instructions (No. 2 and 3), Calibration Check Route, Amendments to Instructions, Driving Test Instructions, Map of Athlone, Hotel Allocation Vouchers, Driving Test Diagrams, List of Entrants, Route Cards. (Nos. 1 and 3 to 8) and some numbers to stick on the side of the car.
Mike and I sat down in a quiet corner with a couple of glasses of Coke and plotted as much as we could onto the maps. Every so often there were big gaps in the route, which we initially thought we would just find the best route between, but then realised that there were to be navigational tests and regularity sections to be plotted later. The maps of Northern Ireland were fairly decent but the maps of the republic were awful. It looked like the next few days could be very interesting!
We then went outside to have a look at the other competitors’ cars. There seemed to be quite a number of cars that looked very well prepared and everyone seemed to be doing something to their cars. We topped up the oil, but couldn’t think of anything else to do. There were 42 cars starting the event and we were starting near the back. The advantage of being a late starter was that we were able to watch most of the other cars leaving. The disadvantage is that there are not too many people behind you, so if you go wrong or break down there are fewer people to help.
The first car set off at 6pm just as it was going dark and cars set off at two-minute intervals. Our start time was exactly 7pm, which made working out our times a little easier. We stood and watched the other competitors zoom away out of site until it was near our time to start. It was very exciting as we handed over our time card and were counted down. Almost immediately we got stuck behind a tractor. It didn’t really matter as the first time control wasn’t until after the first two driving tests. We arrived at the first test, and it was now completely dark, so it wasn’t possible to see the route before competing. It was held in a livestock yard. The next test was held in a wood yard and involved driving backwards and forwards amongst piles of wood. The combination of darkness and the dust thrown up made visibility a little difficult. I think I did OK and realised that all thoughts of driving carefully had gone out of the window. In the mean time Mike had been given the instructions for the next part of the evening - the navigational section, and at each test he sat at the side of the road with a torch plotting away. After the tests his neatly arranged piles of maps and paperwork were scattered all over the car, so there was a real panic when we arrived at the time control.
Most of the other competitors seemed to have illuminated magnifiers, stop watches, rally trip meters and all sorts of equipment to help with the navigation. We were relying on a small map light, Mike’s watch and the speedometer. I now wonder at how well Mike managed to keep us on route and on time with such basic equipment.
The navigational section was murder, but at least it was held in Northern Ireland, so the maps were up-to-date and legible. I don’t think we did too badly. We were stumped when we arrived at the first intermediate time control to be asked what time we wanted as we hadn’t realised that we should have worked this out. We just said that we didn’t know and took the time they gave us, only to discover that we had clocked in a minute early. At a couple of other time controls we arrived from the wrong direction. We quickly discovered that there were different routes and approach directions for cars depending on whether their competition number was odd or even. To the uninitiated (us!) it seemed like total confusion with cars going in all directions.
Still we survived and continued on to the petrol halt where we were able to have a quick chat with the other competitors. Things seemed a little more relaxed after that. In fact I was so relaxed that I almost ran down the soldier at the border crossing. After that we started on the real Irish roads. Single track, very bumpy and a multitude of junctions and we didn’t see any other competitors all night. I was almost beginning to doubt Mike’s abilities, but sure enough in darkness the headlights would pick out another group of friendly marshals. This would be a time control or a driving test set up at a road junction in the middle of nowhere. We would arrive, take a look at where the marshals had placed the cones, compare them to the driving test diagram, belt round the cones, be given our time and then continue along the road. It all seemed a little unreal and I think we were running on auto-pilot by then.
Anyway this is where we came in. In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Ireland. We had just dropped down into a dip and were accelerating out of the other side when a horrible knocking noise started. What were we doing? All sorts of thoughts ran through my head. Where were we? How would we get home? How badly damaged was the car? When would I get to bed? I lifted off the accelerator and was about to coast to the side of the road when the noise stopped. Mike and I looked at each other but we were almost too tired to worry. We pressed on and the noise didn’t come back.
We continued along the route and came across our last test for the night. That completed we were told that it wasn’t far to our hotel in Athlone which we found without too much of a problem. So at 4.30 am we arrived at the hotel. We had been on the go for over 24 hours now and were exhausted. We walked into the hotel and booked in, and on the way to our room we spotted Graham and Vans propping up the bar with a glass of Guinness each. The offer of a pint seemed too good to miss and suddenly all thoughts of tiredness were forgotten. We were in Ireland after all and we had just survived our first day of the Circuit of Ireland Retrospective Rally. Now we knew what we were here for. After all, the regulations for the rally did emphasise the fact that the event was primarily for having fun.
The following morning we were up reasonably early, but again being one of the last cars we had a later start. It is amazing what a good sleep can do for you and the morning seemed so much more relaxed than the previous night. We had a lovely cooked Irish breakfast, and I was a little concerned that we may miss our start time. Had we worked out our start time properly? Would the car start after all of yesterday’s exertions? Was there a petrol station nearby?
But I didn’t need to worry. The oil and water levels in the car were fine, and she started first pull. The day continued with four more driving tests all at junctions on single-track roads. During one test an old lady in a Metro drove straight through the junction not realising that there was a driving test going on. We did reasonably well throughout the day and were only beaten by six people on the regularity test. I don’t know how much this was by luck or through navigational skill. Half way through we encountered a herd of sheep being driven down a road and had to reverse back and wait about five minutes. We were now running quite late and had a lot of time to make up. We came across a straight section of gravel road and I said to Mike that I wasn’t going to try and make up any time on it due to the extreme camber as I thought we might slide off. Graham and Vans had not resisted the temptation and we found them stuck in a peat bog having crashed into the only rock for miles. We offered help, but they were stuck fast and waiting for a tractor to pull them out.
It was amazing how rural the scenery was. All of the roads were very small and most had grass growing up the middle of them. It was difficult to imagine how anyone could average a speed of 30 miles per hour on them. In fact at one point Mike said, “Take the next left, in about half a mile.” All we could find was a gate into a field so we continued straight on. There was no junction to be found, so we doubled back and checked out the gateway. There were fresh tracks in the grass so we gave it a try and, sure enough, this turned out to be the correct route and we emerged out of a gate on the other side. Unfortunately some of our maps were a little out of date and so a couple of controls appeared to be in the middle of fields which made it difficult to not only find them but to also arrive from the correct direction. We were forever coming across tractors, donkeys pulling carts, and herds of cattle, sheep or horses on the roads and at most farms a collie dog would come running straight out and stop just short of the car. You had to be brave and trust that the dogs would stop in time, as there was no room to swerve. As we passed through villages or farms there would be groups of children sitting on the fence, shouting encouragement. At junctions kids would be pointing in the direction we should be going, but we couldn’t always believe them!!
That evening we joined in the fun at the bar and listened to all of the stories of people’s adventures. Despite our tiring day we stayed up into the early hours again.
Sunday was taken at a much slower pace. The route took us up the Healy Pass, which is an amazing Alpine style road with several hairpin bends on it. We got a little lost in Kenmare as the map didn’t really resemble the town layout and after trying just about every exit from the place we discovered that a road was almost completely obliterated by a market stall. This didn’t loose us too much time though. But after lunch we got a little blasé and got lost on the regularity section. Unfortunately we were just following the tulip diagrams and hadn’t transferred them onto the map. So once they stopped matching up we were totally lost. We eventually found ourselves back at the start and so retraced our tracks and picked up 1460 penalty points.
The last two tests were held in a car park and as we arrived early, due to our previous misdemeanour, we had the opportunity to watch some of the other competitors for the first time during the event. One Sunbeam missed the brakes and reversed straight across the grass verge and onto the main road. They just returned over the same route and continued the test much to the bemusement of the locals. Mike told me that the marshal was concerned that my car was going to tip up as is was leaning so much on the test, which may have slowed me down if I had known. Graham and Vans arrived with steam pouring out of their bonnet. Apparently they had a blown head gasket and had been stopping at ditches and streams all day to fill up the radiator.
We were all invited to the Killarney Motor Museum for a wine reception and it was strange wandering amongst the cars supping wine. The prize giving evening was enormous fun with the whit of the Irish, and it continued once again into the early hours. We ended up second last, but did not mind as we had had such an enjoyable three days.
On Monday morning we rose a little late nursing sore heads. Graham and Vans had some work to do before the return journey. By the time that Mike and I had had our breakfast they had already managed to find a Massey-Fergusson cylinder head gasket. We helped them fix this to their car and try to re-attach the exhaust system using a Coke can. They followed us back up through Ireland and I watched in the mirror as they tried to negotiate corners with their loose steering. As darkness fell, because their headlights were pointing at the ground about six feet in front of the car they relied on following our tail lights. Just as we crossed the border into Northern Ireland the wipers stopped working on our car and as the rain got heavier we too had great difficulty seeing where we were going. The light reflected off the road signs blinded us and so we missed several turn-offs. We had a lovely Chinese meal in Larne while we waited for the ferry and then slowly made our way back across Scotland. I think it was about four in the morning when we arrived home again.
Unfortunately I was working the next day, but I think the adrenaline kept me going for about the next week. What an amazing adventure. So good in fact, that I have competed in another five Circuit of Ireland Rallies since, but none of them had quite the thrill of my first every historic rally.