In days when Ireland’s rallying faithful fear for the future of their most loved motorsport, Down Rally’s organisers proved that there is still plenty for the Irish roads to give back to competitors and spectators alike.
Down Rally’s success didn’t come out of nothing though, and it is very much a story of enthusiasts putting the event before any personal gain or individual loyalties.
Originally organised by Rathfriland Motor Club, the Down Rally has gone through a difficult period in recent times. Tragically losing Ryan Bradley during the 2014 event is something the rallying community will never forget; his bright personality and entertaining driving will be forever remembered with Down Rally permanently leaving his Number 41 blank from the entry lists.
For this year’s event, it was decided by club chairmen, Andy Gilmore and Brian Crawford, that Rathfriland Motor Club and Ballynahinch Motor Club should join forces to put on the best possible running of the Down Rally.
And therein lies the secret to Down Rally’s success. Two neighbouring clubs working together to put on a better show, who would have thought it!
“We wanted to make an event the whole county was proud of,” said Down Rally Clerk of the Course, Andy Gilmore. “We went to each club and asked for people to volunteer to be part of an organising team just for the rally itself.”
“The organising committee was made up of fairly equal numbers of people from each club.”
Ballynahinch chairman, Brian Crawford, added:
“We’ve called it the Down Rally.
“We don’t see it as a Ballynahinch Motor Club rally or a Rathfriland Motor Club rally, we see it as the Down Rally.
“If we don’t work together then I believe we will go under as we are very much a minority sport.
“If we can get past the loyalties to our individual clubs, focus on it being for motorsport and our
customers, the competitors, then we can start to move forward.”
While Rathfriland held the exclusive road-closing order, Ballynahinch helped with extra manpower, and backing from Carryduff Forklift enabled the use of the Eikon Exhibition Centre as rally headquarters and service park.
With the infrastructure in place, it was down to the hard-working volunteers to help pull it off.
“For just over a year we have been meeting every fortnight to get the rally put together, designed and organised,” explained Gilmore. “It was a very fresh start with a totally new team to do it.”
“It wasn’t difficult, what made it easier was the enthusiasm that everyone brought to the table.”
“Whenever we started we didn’t actually realise how far we wanted to take it.
“We did want to take it up a few levels and I think that’s what we have done.
“Carryduff Forklift came through with sponsorship and we got this place [Eikon Exhibition Centre].
“Because of the expense of renting the Eikon we had to charge spectators to get into the service area.
“That’s fairly unusual in Northern Ireland, people don’t like to have to pay to get into the service area, so we had to put something on here which turned into the spectator stage.”
Along with all the planning, the two key aspects of the event were the superb stages working in turn with a beautiful array of cars on the entry list.
The return of Hamilton’s Folly stole the headlines, and rightly so, the rollercoaster through the Mourne Mountains is up there with Ireland’s best stages. It will have been a good shakedown for the crews going on to brave Torr Head in August’s Ulster Rally.
However, it’s the reasoning behind the selection of the other two stages, Lough Erne and Drumaknockan, that shows the depth of thought put into the event by Gilmore and Crawford.
“We went out and found two new stages that we don’t think have been used before,” said Gilmore. “Essentially to create a level playing field for the competitors outside Northern Ireland against the local competitors.”
“We looked for roads that were technically challenging and twisty, but one of our big objectives was to have no chicanes on the rally.
“Chicanes are a false way of slowing the car down so that they stay within the 75 mph average within the stage.
“But they can create even more danger because of the nature of them, normally bales situated on high-speed sections and you’re putting competitors at risk trying to get stopped for them.
“So we had no chicanes on any of the stages, which we are happy about, the roads are natural stages.”
Spectating at rallies in Ireland is a privilege. We’re fortunate to generally have a closed-road event somewhere in the island most weekends and with machinery gracing the stages that many countries would crave. What the Down Rally did though, through the MSA Asphalt Championship, was bring a variety of cars to the stages that we’re not used to seeing.
One Ford Escort Mk2 in the top 35 of the entry list, now how often does that happen in Ireland? Yes, the Mk2 Escort will always be Ireland’s favourite and its performance on Irish asphalt can’t be argued but it was refreshing to see something different blast around the Co. Down roads.
“We had 35 cars from the Asphalt Championship at the rally,” said Gilmore. “It brings a lot of cars that don’t be seen in Northern Ireland, people from England, Wales, France and Jersey, bringing a lot more variety to the rally.”
“Mixing in with the Northern Irish championship it creates a bit more competition as well for both championship runners.
“If we can maintain this standard and level of enthusiasm and interest we would be delighted.”
The Down Rally put a big effort into what proved to be an excellent social media campaign. The excitement built up ahead of the event and had a lot to do with the maxed-out entry list.
The test on Saturday was whether the actual event could match the pre-event buzz on Facebook. With two brand new stages as well as a short spectator stage, the event’s reputation was on the line, a potential make or break scenario. Did the risk pay off? It sure did!
“The rally has been great, to be honest,” said Melvyn Evans. “You can see that they have put a lot of work and effort into it.”
“You can see that the people running this rally are obviously past competitors to organise this sort of set-up.
“They’re stages that I haven’t been on before, maybe Hamilton’s Folly as part of the Circuit of Ireland, but they’re great stages, there’s a lot of work in them.
“Nice and relaxed, compact and on the button.”
“Loving it, it’s good,” said David Bogie. “The format of the rally is good, the stages are good and the organisation is good so it’s perfect.”
“There is a bit of everything in the stages, the jumps, the big compressions, the flowing jumps, the high-speed braking.
“There’s everything in them so I think if you picked three stages to use they’re pretty much perfect.
“The facility as well [Eikon Exhibition Centre], I don’t think there is a service area in the world that could rival this.
“The amount of space is just perfect and for me coming from Dumfries it was so easy to get here.”
Since the demise of N. Ireland’s government and in turn the Circuit of Ireland, rallying in the north hasn’t had much to get excited about. The Down Rally has given the locals something to get behind.
The Easter Stages returned earlier in the year and with the Ulster Rally back to its favoured base in Antrim could 2018 be a fruitful year for N. Irish rallying? The Down Rally has done its bit, we’ll find out the rest in less than a month’s time.
Until then it’s worth congratulating everyone involved in making Down Rally 2018 a success. Care, thought and lots of time was key to raising it up a level.
Not forgetting putting club allegiances to the side to work together in creating an event that justifies the potential Irish rallying has. Looking back, I’m sure both clubs think it is a sacrifice worth taking.