THE Cronin surname is synonymous with rallying and is known far and wide, in many respects it’s now a dynasty, Denis spearheaded the drive and still competes.
Charting his rallying career encompasses huge changes in the approach to the sport and in so many other aspects. The Ballylickey man recalls the early times with a sense of simplicity and passion, it’s documentary material too and were a title needed, it would probably be - “The Quiet Man.”
Cronin, especially from a rallying perspective and despite that six-foot plus frame admitted, “At that time I would have been incredibly shy.”
However, that was more than compensated by his ability as a driver and a style that endeared him to the spectators that would line the rally stages to watch him pass. Over the past decade or so, his nephews Keith and Daniel have helped to continue the dynasty and with two younger nephews, Robert and Colin, who have begun karting, the inheritance line looks good.
Like so many others, Denis Cronin became interested in rallying when some fellow locals were competing, indeed his first glimpse of a rally car was in a shed at the family home in Ballylickey.
“Sean Hurley and Mick Cremin had cars, Sean stored his Ford Escort Mexico in our place and then I began to go to rallies to watch them.”
It wasn’t long before Denis was behind the wheel of a rally car himself, in fact, that was in 1981 when he competed in the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney.
Different times and costs in those days and of course it was pre Euro currency too, there’s a smile as Denis casts his mind back in time and opines, “I can remember it very well actually, the car was a home built Mk. 1 Ford Escort, it had yellow and black stripes and along with tyres the whole thing cost 350 pounds.”
There’s a momentary pause and another smile, before adding, “It was bog standard.”
To illustrate the times, “Harnesses that time were stitched together out of belts, we had scaffolding bars for a roll cage. Eighty per cent of the cars were the same. It was still competitive, it was great fun, it was just that it was more time consuming.”
Although he couldn’t recall the exact entry fee for that first event, he quipped: “I can’t think of that first entry fee but most of them at that time were 15 pounds, I can remember it going to 25 pounds and that was a right shock.”
But in terms of the Mk. 1 it was real value for money.
“I did over seventy rallies in that car, there were events everywhere really. I remember one in Dunmanway when my brother Danny (father of Keith and Daniel) sat with me, it was the only tarmac event he did with me and we were fourth.”
During most of that time, Denis was navigated by his great friend, Jimmy Coakley, who actually built the car. Jimmy’s engineering prowess was awesome, his untimely passing in 1992 saddened everyone, the motorsport community had huge respect for him, his death hit Denis hard, he summed up his great friend, “He was a genius.”
Although Denis didn’t keep a record of those early years - much to his disappointment as he tries to resurrect them - he reckons he has close to 300 rallies under his belt.
“I would love to find out if someone has a record of them.”
Originally with a 1600cc engine, after a few years the Mk. 1 Escort received a two-litre implant and results continued including a 12th overall in the Rally of the Lakes. Another home-built Mk. 2 Escort followed but as technology advanced in the engine building process, the car proved somewhat unreliable.
For Cronin, the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney was his “home” event and he explains why, “Mike Marshall, who use to navigate with Sean Hurley started a southern branch of the Killarney and District Motor Club and they had meetings in Glengarriff.”
The reason was that the club got extra support in organising their rally when they were running stages around that part of West Cork.
“I began going to those meetings and joined the Killarney club.”
To this day he is still a KDMC member.
After the self-built era, Cronin, as was the norm, began to purchase his rally cars.
From 1992 the acquisitions were varied - an Opel Ascona 400, a BMW M3, a Toyota Celica ST205 and a Subaru WRC. The iconic BMW M3 remains in the Cronin stables along with a Mk. 2 Ford Escort he drives in Historic rallies.
Interestingly, Denis had competed in the Donegal International Rally before he started his first ever West Cork Rally in 1992. His first overall win came in the 1994 Fastnet Rally in Glandore and it was special.
His victory in the Rally of the Lakes (2010) also ranks highly given his ties. Along with 1994, he won the Fastnet again in 2009 and 2016, he is a double winner of the Circuit of Munster (2006 & 2011) and a West Cork Rally winner in 2005.
Following Jimmy Coakley’s untimely death and aside from Denis’ brother Danny, his co-drivers included Bob Kelly, Ciaran Kelleher, Paul Nagle, Keith (his nephew, on two forest events) Coleman Hurley and Helen O’Sullivan. Helen, originally from Kilgarvan and who later became his partner, has been at his side for a major part of his rallying career since 1999 and Denis describes her pacenote calling as very distinct and ultra calm.
Denis Cronin is a quiet man for sure, but one that has made his mark, a gentleman and head of a great rallying dynasty.