Rallying holds a special place in the hearts of many in Ireland. Behind each driver, co-driver, organiser, and spectator there is a reason for their love of the sport. Local events, homebred international stars, and incomparable closed-road stages have all played a part in creating a fanatic community across the island.
When I think of experiences that got me hooked on rallying, spectating on stages at night epitomises the sensations that are felt on those rural roadsides.
The adventure of getting to a spectator point in the middle of the Irish countryside can be as memorable as the rally action itself. Following your passenger’s unconvincing translation of the ordnance survey map, finding a place on the access road wide enough to abandon the car, and tramping through gutters as you hear the Double-Os approach in the distance.
It’s all a bit of craic, part of the adventure. An experience.
When the pre-stage procedure above is played out in the dark, now that is when the fun really starts.
The sights, the sounds, even the smells, all intensify in the darkness.
Before the crews arrive in their finely-tuned rally cars the already peaceful surroundings seem even more serene under the night sky.
So when the top-seeded World Rally Car blasts its way past just a few yards from your feet, the power forces its way through your body giving a sensation completely opposite to that felt less than a minute earlier.
Then as the splutters and squeals fade into the distance the phenomenon repeats as each car comes and goes until before you know it, your body has acclimatised to the extremes of its sight, sound, and smell senses.
My memories of spectating in the dark revolve around the Circuit of Ireland and the Ulster Rally.
The IRC’s high-pitched Super 2000s left more than an impression on Good Friday in 2012 while a delayed Glendun stage left midge bites and a memorable midnight drive home from the Ulster Rally the August before.
After the rapturous modern-day machines cause your chest to tighten, the historic Sunbeams, Minis, and Avengers add an atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re back in the eighties. Classic spotlights, whining drivetrains, and if you’re lucky the unrivaled tune of a BDA-powered Escort providing the perfect background noise.
I’m sure my accounts are equally relatable to Magherafelt’s Sunset Rally, which ran a leg of gravel stages either side of dusk, or Killarney Historic’s stages in darkness.
Unfortunately, such memories seem to be drifting away into the past as the appetite to organise stages in the dark gradually fades.
Another piece to fall into place seemed to be the Ulster Rally’s move to a single-day event. I understand such organisational changes are necessary but I hope that the desire still exists to return to a varied format that includes some Friday evening stages.
Over the next few weeks, Rally Insight will cover how night-time stages challenge and reward event organisers, drivers, and co-drivers alike.
The first feature focuses on the additional duties that they give rally planners. Greg McCarthy and Andy Gilmore share their experiences of organising such stages for the West Cork Rally and the Circuit of Ireland.
Has the quest for cost-effective rally routes and time-efficient itineraries forced modern-day rallying down of path disparate to its heritage? Of course the Circuit of Ireland’s crazy night-long legs are well in the past but is there surely not still a place for a loop in the dark.
An extra challenge it may well be, and no doubt requires extra finances, but for the sake of the sport’s heritage, it is a task not taken in vain.
The atmosphere of a night-time stage is just one of those unique sensations that make rallying on this island as special as it is.
Photo by Alan Noonan