50 years of the Galway International Rally

Mention the Galway International Rally to any Irish rally fan and several thoughts will immediately spring to mind. Dry stone walls, inclement weather, changeable conditions, slippery roads, star names, new cars, the Tarmac Championship, and a lot of anticipation are all part of the mix.

In normal times rally fans should have been looking forward to the Galway International Rally this weekend and the start of another compelling Irish Tarmac Rally Championsip.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of its very first running as an international rally, the first in the Republic of Ireland to do so.

The brainchild of Eamon Cotter, the first Clerk of the Course, and Galway Motor Club; the event wasn’t totally new as it had run for a number of years prior to 1971.

The first international took place on 6-7 February with over 100 crews starting. Cathal Curley and Austin Frazer were victorious in 1971 after a great battle with Mervyn and Harry Johnston’s Mini.

The event grew the following year with McCartney brothers Ronnie and Dessie taking victory despite their lowly 19th seeding.

Because the event ran in February, night stages weren’t uncommon. In the early days it wasn’t a shock for the top drivers as the National Rally Championship was mostly a navigation series anyway.

The excitement of closed road rallying was still in relative infancy in Ireland but the popularity was growing.

A fuel crisis meant the 1974 event was cancelled but when it returned the next year the rally expanded to three days with a Friday afternoon start in Eyre Square and tricky Friday night stages.

Dessie McCartney was the winner and remains the only person to win the event both as a driver and co-driver.

The rally was also given European Championship status in 1975 with a co-efficient 1 rating. This was the formula for the next number of years with over 100 starters each year dealing with everything the weather clerk could throw at them.

As expected the attrition rate was high with many crews retiring as over 30 stages took its toll along with the weather. 1977 brought floods, followed by heavy snow in ‘78, and a mixture of both in ‘79.

The rally was the opening round of the first-ever Tarmac Championship in 1978 and despite blizzard-like conditions only a couple of stages were cancelled as John Taylor took victory in his Ford Escort Mk2.

John Taylor and Phil Short mastered snowy conditions to win the 1978 Galway International Rally (Photo: Rally Retro)

A trip to Connemara in 1979 encouraged Galway Motor Club to hire a helicopter in the event of any problems. They couldn’t have foreseen the need to put it to use as soon as they did.

Derek Boyd and Fred Gallagher had a heavy crash near Clifden early in the event and Gallagher had to be airlifted to Galway using the hired chopper.

The same year Billy Coleman won an appeal after being excluded for “deviating from the official route” when he arrived to service a stage too early. He had forgotten about a roadbook amendment.

Once the mistake was pointed out, he took off back to the stage in question but ran under threat of exclusion for the rest of the weekend. The RIAC ruled in his favour a few weeks later.

The eighties

Jimmy McRae took two wins in the early 1980s but economic realities were beginning to bite. It ran as a three-day event for the last time in 1982. That year, Brigid Brophy became the first female Clerk of the Course for an international rally in Ireland.

There was a touch of the exotic in 1986 as Coleman and his Rothmans team-mate Saeed al Hari brought their Porsche 911s home to claim a 1-2.

Safety in rallying was brought into sharp focus this year with Bertie Fisher having a huge moment when his brakes failed at over 100 mph. Only his remarkable skill behind the wheel prevented spectators from being hit.

The resultant insurance crisis later that year forced Galway to cancel its 1987 event. Indeed all other events before June were cancelled that year.

Only 52 starters returned to the rally in 1988 as costs had increased and the economy was weak. English driver Mark Lovell won a very flooded event and repeated the trick the following year.

The nineties

In 1990, Fisher and Austin MacHale battled through the floods in identical BMWs. MacHale won again. This rivalry along with that of Kenny McKinstry added to the excitement in Galway over the next years.

Fisher had to wait until 1996 to finally end his Galway bogey while McKinstry was the first to bring a Group A Subaru Legacy supercar to Ireland in 1992, winning Galway twice.

Galway was the place to see the Group A machines in all their glory throughout the 90s with the top end getting stronger each passing year.

Fisher and MacHale dominated the latter half, although Frank Meagher took a win in 1995.

There was always great excitement with Ireland’s own version of the “silly season” each December and January as speculation mounted over who would appear in Galway and in what car.

MacHale took his sixth and final Galway win in 1998, a record that still stands today.

Austin MacHale won his first Galway Rally in 1985 (Photo: Rally Retro)

The popularity of the event was also causing a problem in the late 1990s, with anti-social behaviour around Salthill on rally weekend causing an extra headache for the organisers.

The hooligan minority element that arrived in Galway on the weekend was dragging the rally down. It caused a backlash from businesses and residents who weren’t willing to tolerate the disruption and damage.

Tough start to the new millennium

The rally didn’t run in 2000 and with the foot-and-mouth disease putting a halt to rallying for much of the following year. It was 2002 before we had an international rally in the west again.

The organisers had decided to move to November as a single-day rally with four of the twelve stages to run in the dark. The rally was rebranded as the West International Rally.

Typically difficult November weather conditions forced the cancellation of all but one of the night stages. The new era was ushered in as Eugene Donnelly took victory in his first-ever World Rally Car appearance.

There was no event in 2003 due to the proximity of the previous year’s event. But for 2004 it was back to February and a win for flying Finn Tapio Laukkanen who was the latest overseas driver to try his luck in Galway.

Donnelly was within a whisker of edging him, just 0.7 seconds behind. He won the next two years by way of consolation.

But Donnelly’s time to shine came in 2007 when a star-studded entry landed in Galway. An entry that included the Ford works team who were testing Irish asphalt ahead of November’s Rally Ireland.

Marcus Gronholm was the man of the moment and bidding for his third World Rally Championship title.

There was a strong line-up of Irish and British privateers in World Rally Cars behind Gronholm but once again it was Donnelly who led the charge up to the penultimate stage of the rally.

In freezing but very fine conditions, Gronholm took the win after Donnelly ran out of road on Stage 16. It had been a strong performance from the Irish driver who was a threat to the Finn right up to his unfortunate accident.

Unfortunately the bubble burst and rally entries dropped off again after another recession hit Ireland hard.

There was a January date for the rally in 2009 prior to Rally Ireland’s second slot on the WRC calendar. This time Rally Ireland was the championship’s opening round.

Zimbabwe’s Conrad Rautenbach travelled to Galway to sample the Irish stages in his Citroen Xsara. He finished third in horrendous weather conditions with Donnelly taking his fifth and final Galway win to-date.

Keeping with the times

After a tough 2011 when just over 40 cars took to the start, the decision was made to move back to a one-day rally for only the second time in 2012.

It proved successful with entries up and some top Irish drivers taking part. The format was retained the following year as Keith Cronin took victory in a Subaru Impreza WRC.  

Keith Cronin was flying in 2013 (Photo: Kevin Glendinning)

The rally reverted back to a two-day event in 2014 but weather conditions made life very difficult for organisers and crews alike. Heavy rain caused flooding and subsequent shortening of some stages.

R5s were the talk of the country in 2016 as Galway premiered the ITRC’s decision to change its point-scoring category to the more affordable and modern machines.

As a result, new cars landed in Galway at a bigger rate than previous years.

However, it was still the older Subaru of Garry Jennings that took the honours, a trick he repeated the following year.

The rally didn’t run in 2018 and when it resumed in ‘19 it was back to a one-day event again. Quality of action replaced the quantity of stages as Craig Breen started his ITRC campaign in perfect style, becoming the first R5 driver to win the Galway International Rally.

Another first was achieved in 2020 as Alastair Fisher clinched his long-overdue maiden international win. It was fully deserved after his terrific drive in typically difficult February conditions.

For now, the pandemic has curtailed the Galway International Rally but the iconic rally will be back once society returns to normal.

And it will be back ready to add to its rich history.

Alastair Fisher claimed his maiden Irish Tarmac Rally win in 2020 (Photo: Rally Retro)

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