THE engineering of his rally cars was more satisfying than competing for Skibbereen’s Bernard O’Brien, who had previously won everything possible in hot rod racing.
O’Brien was a regular in Rearour, the Ballinhassig venue, where huge crowds watched wheel-to-wheel action. It was an unusual form of contact sport. He also raced at Rosegreen (Tipperary).
Sitting in the West Cork Hotel, with a window neatly framing the single-span Kennedy Bridge, which was built to allow for the extension of the railway line to Baltimore, O’Brien recalls those halcyon days and how some competitors got the edge on their rivals.
“I had five or six years in hot rod. Paddy ‘Duckhams’ Hourigan was very good to all the drivers, supplying us with oil. I won whatever could be won, really, and, in the end, they were handicapping me out of it. I decided, then, that I would do one West Cork Rally, before I would finish up in motorsport.”
Of course, it was the start, rather than the end. That first West Cork was in 1983, with fellow Skibbereen man, Michael Crowley, as his navigator.
“He was from Market Street, but he is out in America now. He also helped me out preparing the car at night,” O’Brien says.
From that one event, O’Brien went on to compete, albeit intermittently, until 2009. Along the way, he won the Marine Hotel Single Stage Rally, in Glandore, the Killarney Summer Rally, the Banna Beach Hotel Single Stage Rally, and was third in the Circuit of Kerry, before his finest win, the Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally, in 1989.
On the Circuit of Kerry, he was navigated by the late Fergus Connolly, who was born in Drinagh.
“My regular co-driver, Pat Coakley, wasn’t available, due to a family event,” O’Brien says, before adding that “Fergus (who navigated for his own brother-in-law, AJ Keating) was very professional compared to us.
“His wife, Marie, had the food and all prepared for us when we got into service, all very organised.
“After that event, and when we were coming out of Parc Ferme, Fergus turned to me and shook my hand. It was the first time he had ever finished the Kerry event.”
O’Brien recalls his most famous win, the 1989 Fastnet Rally.
“It was a major win. By right, we shouldn’t have won it at all. We lost brakes on the first few stages in the morning, but still had a fastest stage time.
“We hadn’t been getting the right time from another crew, but we discovered we were about six seconds ahead going into the stage at Maulatrahane.
“We came over a crest far too quick and then a left hander and Liam McCarthy was in front of me, no wheels on his car. His co-driver, Kieran Murphy, had the door open and I had to pull the handbrake and spin my car to avoid hitting theirs.
“We landed very near them. The steering was badly bent and we barely made it to the finish in Glandore,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien likes the West Cork Rally roads and references the stage at Tragumna.
“That’s a proper stage,” he says.
Of course he has other favourites, too.
“Glandore was great, too, especially coming down through the village.”
In terms of events he likes, it’s neck and neck.
“When I started, the West Cork was the big one, but the Fastnet is local, so that was good, as well. The biggest problem with that was getting in and out of Glandore, but Seanie O’Brien was very good to the rally; it had a great atmosphere.”
Of the Fastnet-winning car, O’Brien says, “I should never have sold that car at all. We built it ourselves and Pat Coakley (co-driver) looked after the bodywork, straightening it and all of that.
“Peter O’Brien, Donnchadha Hayes, and myself looked after the engineering aspects. Donnchadha was great, especially when a special piece had to be made.”
During that era, competitors were not supposed to know the route (pacenotes weren’t allowed).
“Everyone had notes. They were stuffed everywhere, as long as they weren’t found,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien had great faith in his co-drivers, but in particular Pat Coakley, who is still affectionately known as just P.
“Ah, yes, he was great, but the odd time he would make a mistake,” but those “mistakes” never had major consequences.
“On one Rally of the Lakes, we were third overall. There was a call, a medium right with caution. I think I lengthened Coakley by about six inches and shortened his side of the car by about a foot.
“We changed the note and put the caution first. It was a learning curve,” O’Brien says.
After selling his favourite Escort, O’Brien acquired a G3 Escort, mostly due to the fact that Welsh driver Gwyndaf Evans had begun to start beating the Mk. 2 versions, but that acquisition proved to be nowhere near as good as his previous car.
“It was a mistake; it wasn’t a G car at all, really. It was too wide, too light, but we got it right in the end, but I just didn’t like it.”
However, it was another engineering challenge. His decision to call it a day, in 2009, was rather simple, he quipped.
“When the combined age of the car and the driver exceeded a hundred, it was time to give up.”
Seriously, though, O’Brien summed up his rallying career.
“It was good fun, it was at a time when anyone could build a car and go out and win a rally in it. There isn’t a hope of doing anything like that now,” O’Brien says.
Not even in dear old Skibbereen.