MOTORSPORT has many disciplines and while rallying and single-seater racing are the most popular and indeed best publicised, there was a time when autotesting featured regularly on RTÉ television during the Saturday afternoon sports programme when the action was beamed from locations at Mondello Park in Kildare and the RDS in Dublin.
The televising was the catalyst for Kilbrin native Liam Cashman to take an avid interest. That, along with the fact that the late and great Paddy O’Callaghan, who lived only a few kilometres away in Kanturk and was also a competitor, sped up the process. Now some four decades later Liam still gets great enjoyment from this section of motorsport.
Autotesting consists of a series of relatively short pre-prepared tests, usually around cones and involving both forward and reverse motions. Tests, all timed and all about precision conclude with the cars straddling the finish line. Most events consist of about 12 tests.
This spectrum of motorsport has changed significantly since Liam began, both in terms of the cars and also the locations of where events are held.
“I watched it on television and I liked it and I started in 1983 when some of the events were held at crossroads. The late Paddy O’Callaghan in Kanturk brought me to my first autotest. I had a rear wheel drive Toyota Starlet.
"At that time, there were a lot of people around Kanturk into motorsport and in particular rallying, people like John Keating, AJ Keating and Paddy O’ of course.”
Liam never progressed to rallying, his explanation is quite simple.
“Autotesting was my particular forte and it wasn’t very expensive.
“Originally when I started it was the crossroad events and all the cars used then were more road worthy as they were used on the public roads. When the insurance crisis hit and took autotesting off the road the cars got much more specialised and were no longer road worthy. The Mini Specials came out with the roofs cut off and the bodywork lightened.”
With that type of progression, the tests also evolved and became very technical although Liam reckons there is a change once more. “There is a big drive on at the moment to have the tests simplified. That is being done to encourage people to come into the sport where they don’t need a “specialist” car.”
The sport has one main series throughout the country - the Hewison Autotest series with County Cork rounds run by the Munster Car Club and the Cork Motor Club.
At provincial level, the Munster Autotest series that also has events promoted by the aforementioned clubs along with the Skibbereen and District Car Club, the Carrick on Suir Motor Club and the Killarney and District Motor Club, and according to Liam is being viewed as a blueprint for a better national series.
“The Munster Championship events are more open and it is attracting more interest."
Cashman recalls using a 1000cc Mini in an Autotest in Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry in his first year of competition.
"That was my first real effort at making an autotest car, I had the roof cut off it, it was a Mini Special really.”
Many of the events at that time were held in conjunction with local festivals.
“Yes, we used to head away to various places, I also did a few autotests in Newmarket.”
Cashman has represented Ireland at the Ken Wharton Memorial Autotest in Warwickshire.
“Yes, I travelled over (to England) but I was more in the reserve team but it was still nice to go there and be part of it all. The whole trip was good fun and it was great to meet the other competitors.”
Liam recalls the icons of those early days.
“There was Dermot Carnegie (who later went on to become an Irish and British Rallycross champion), Frank Linehan, Sam Bowden and Norman Ferguson.”
Liam had a great affection for the Hewison rounds in Cork when they were run in Vernon Mount. “It was a great location and there was a great atmosphere.”
Of more recent times, the Norman Giles Autotest weekend in Bandon curries favour.
“The rounds of the Munster Autotest series are much more sociable, they stop for tea as opposed to the Hewison rounds that are very competitive and more business like.
“But the Hewison is not as popular as it once was as there are not enough competitors or new ones (competitors) coming into the sport really. It’s probably that the cars have become too specialised. It is hard to say if the situation will improve, it has a long way to go but if it follows the Munster model it could succeed.”
One of his contemporaries, Eamonn Byrne, who won eight Hewison titles, is no longer a regular competitor while another regular Steven Ferguson, a straight seven-time Hewison winner until 2017, has also stopped travelling around the country and that has implications for the sport.
“People like Guy Foster, who is a young competitor, need the likes of Byrne and Ferguson to raise his game. Ian White is another top competitor to stop competing on a regular basis.”
Admitting that autotesting is only for people interested in cars and is really a participant sport, Liam has concerns about competing in the Hewison series in the long term, however, he has no intention of stopping and will definitely continue long into the future with the Munster Championship events. In a few months time he will begin his fifth decade in the sport.
“I enjoy it, I do all my own work on the car."
A former production manager, Liam, now semi-retired, is a part-time school caretaker but autotesting is still his forte.