Frank Kelly is a self-confessed gravel rally junkie and will return to loose surface rallying this year for the six-round Welsh Rally Championship. It is 13 years since the Ford Escort Mk2 man rallied on Wales’ famous forest stages.
Three rallies is more than most managed last year but Kelly is raring to get back to his regular rally routine again. Ireland’s continuing rally void means that the Dungannon driver is looking to mainland UK for some rally action this year.
“I would always be doing between 12 to 15 rallies a year,” explained Kelly, “so it has been some change.
“We’re looking to change that shortly, I am fed up waiting for rallying to come to us so we are going to go to it.
“I did the BTRDA Championship back in 2008 which would have used four or five of those rallies now in the Welsh Championship.
“The Welsh Championship just popped up about six or seven weeks ago and I thought: ‘I must keep my eye on that.’”
With five of the Welsh Rally Championship’s six events also included in the BTRDA calendar, Kelly is tempted to utilise the series crossover. Of course Kelly has fond BTRDA memories after winning the Silver Star crown for two-wheel-drive competitors in 2008.
The Nicky Grist Stages is set to kick off both championships in July and has applied to the Welsh government to run as an official motorsport test event. It will be Wales’ first major rally since the Cambrian Rally over a year ago.
“I haven’t registered for the BTRDA but I might,” said Kelly. “I just don’t know. I’m thinking Sod’s Law that when we get stuck into Wales then rallying will get going again here.
“I want to do Wales’ first three rounds: Nicky Grist, the Plains, and the Woodpecker. After that I’ll evaluate if I want to do the remaining three because they are well into the winter and Wales in the winter sometimes isn’t the most appetising place in the world.
“If we are enjoying our rallying and the stages and welcome is good we’ll keep ploughing away at it.
“I would say I have done versions of these rallies in 2008 but for me it wouldn’t matter if I had done them yesterday, I have zero memory so it doesn’t really matter. Every corner is a new adventure for me.”
Gravel at heart
Excluding his visits to New Zealand, Kelly hasn’t competed on gravel since the Lakeland Stages Rally in 2018. His focus has predominantly been on sealed surface events over the past seven years.
However, Kelly still has more than a soft spot for “the woods” and is looking forward to his plans this year.
“Gravel has always been my preferred surface to be honest. I would always count myself as a gravel rally man that does a bit of tarmac.
“In recent years, it has been more and more tarmac purely because it is cheaper. The tyre bill on a Mk2 Escort in a forest is just scary. It is cheaper to do tarmac rallying purely because of the tyres.
“Rose-tinted glasses are well and good but if I remember the stages in Wales are just that little bit wider and smoother than gravel rallies at home. The stages are longer with less chicanes is what I remember.”
So cutting to the chase, what is Frank Kelly aiming for in the Welsh Championship this year?
“Since I stopped doing championships, every rally has just been about having a bit of craic,” admitted Kelly.
“Any navigator that ever sits with me will tell you that my first rule in the car is to have fun. After that, anything else is a bonus. That is how my rallying has been for five or six years now.
“I’m 55-years-old now, I’m not going to race youngsters. The older you get, the slower you get and the faster the car needs to be to make up for your inadequacies. Everybody has a good car these days so you just have to realise your limitations.
“I just go out, drive my own thing, and go out to get a bit of a buzz and a bit of fun. Sometimes it’s enough and sometimes it isn’t.
“At the same time I am competitive and I want to go as hard as I can. The problem with me is that any speed I have ever had is always on a knife-edge to being over the limit.
“It’s just the way it is, I’m not a good enough driver to stay within my limitations. I tend to go over the limit and beyond which is when it gets painful.”
Updates to Baby Blue
No conversation with Kelly is complete without a special mention for his beloved Baby Blue. The famous Ford has eased itself into the year with a few shopping trips for those everyday essentials. But behind the scenes Kelly has been busy whipping his faithful friend into gravel specification ahead of its season across the Irish Sea.
“I have it nearly finished now. The geometry and ride height changes a bit [for gravel] and I put on the Kevlar guards which are big buggers to protect the floor pans.
“I have suspension sorted, we’ll run softer springs in the forest.
“Gearing is going to be a bit different and now with this new Millington it is going to be so aggressive. I’m going to have to play about with the gearing because it is just wheelspin, wheelspin, wheelspin all the time.
“The gearing is the only thing I have to sort out now and I am in two minds with it. I’m actually even thinking of bringing it down to a four-speed box because every gear just disappears in a millisecond.
“I want to play about with that just to get power to the ground and get the car going forward rather than digging holes.”
An historic future?
With my mind on the stunning entry list for this year’s RAC Rally, I couldn’t resist posing one final question to Kelly. Would he ever contemplate competing on the five-day historic rally throughout Scotland, England, and Wales?
“It’s on the bucket list! The four and a half grand entry fee scares me but for a man who went to the other side of the world to do rallies you have to allow that you could do that.
“My thing about doing the RAC or the Silver Fern in New Zealand, which is seven days; there is no point going to those rallies in a modified car – you have to be in a BDA, BDG, or some historic spec car.
“There is no point going in a Millington because for starters in my opinion a BDG is quicker in a forest than a Millington. It has just the right amount of power for the traction, the gearing, everything.
“The Millington is mighty fun but you are not going anywhere fast. Apart from that even if you did do well you wouldn’t get any recognition because you are not in an historic spec car.
“I keep saying: ‘next year I am going to build a BDG’, but I have been saying that for eight or nine years now. So, I’ll tell you now, next year I am going to build a BDG!
“Sooner or later I am going to get out of the modifieds, build myself a BDG, and do less rallying but instead do the likes of the RAC or the Silver Fern.”
And on that bombshell…
Photos courtesy of Kevin Glendinning