LOYALTY to the Ford marque is the hallmark of Ray Benskin’s rallying career that in cricket terms is close to the half-century.
It’s a remarkable achievement and as each year beckons and the quintessential notion “I will give it up this year” evaporates yet one more time, the Ballycotton driver continues to compete in rallying, it’s just part of the Benskin DNA. Ray lived his early years in Clonmult in Midleton but was actually born in Helston, near Cornwall in England.
His first rally was the Christmas Stages Rally (1971) an event organised by the then Munster Motor Cycle and Car Club that began around Inchigeelagh/Ballyvourney and finished in Bantry. The car was a Ford Cortina GT, purchased from the late Sam Hawkins of Innishannon with Ray’s then neighbour, Colman Hegarty as his navigator.
From an entry of some 50 crews they finished 12th overall and fourth in class.
“It was a hard day’s rallying.”
Prior to that event Ray had gone along to Mullaghanish to watch a single stage rally and it was there that he met Mick O’Connell, who invited him to join the Munster Motor Cycle and Car Club. “So I went along to the meetings in Vernon Mount and it went from there.” Apart from the fact that the currency was pounds, shillings and pence, Ray cannot recall how much the car cost.
In the mid-60s he moved to Ballycotton where he still works in his garage in the middle of the scenic village even though it's interspersed with callers that reminisce about those early years.
Keeping the Cortina for about two years Ray built a Mk. 1 Ford Escort with Ballycotton native Kevin Higgins, a Dublin based aeronautical engineer, as his navigator.
Motorsport was popular, “Around that time I did 32 events in one season, that included autocross and navigation events as well as rallies.
For most of his rallying, Oliver Walsh was his principal navigator/co-driver and that brought the familiar sponsorship of Glenside Homes.
“Willie Sloane, who also navigated with me and Oliver (Walsh) were directors of Glenside Homes and that support was fantastic, it was a huge help in competing at that level.”
Others such as Keith McCarthy and Mossie Griffin also sat beside Ray.
From the Mk1 he progressed to a Mk. 2 Ford Escort and went on to campaign a 1600cc BDA engined Escort before switching to a two-litre version. He won the Willie Loughman Forest Rally in Carrick on Suir, the Limerick Forest Rally and the Courtmacsherry Rally all in the early 1980s. Ray had good results in other rallies too and finished second to Bertie Law in the Galway Summer Rally in 1982.
“We were always in the top two or three, the early ’80s were the best years really.”
He took a sabbatical but it really didn’t last long as he returned in a two-litre Pinto engined Mk. 3 Ford Escort. That journey lasted around six seasons before it was back to the future with a Mk 2 Escort as he concentrated on forest events.
With such a long career, Ray has witnessed many changes. “Yes, I get enjoyment out of it (rallying) but it’s not the same.”
The reason is pretty straightforward.
“Pacenotes, I never really managed to get on top of them, I preferred the time when there were no pacenotes and you had to drive the road as you saw it, picking up telltale signs such as tree lines and poles changing from one side of the road to the other.”
Nowadays, he concentrates on forest rallies.
“I think there was better fun that time (before pacenotes) drivers had more of a laugh together, it is very serious now.”
Not one to dwell on his achievements, he acknowledges that winning the Willie Loughman Forest Rally and finishing sixth in a Cork “20” International gave him great satisfaction. Although times change and Glenside Homes is no longer on the front of Ray’s Ford Escort that is now without any signage, there is no let-up even as the clock ticks towards his 73rd birthday in December.
Retaining a competitive edge, he is also realistic and knows he can’t match the much younger drivers in his class but quips, “I stay going to be as quick as I can.” Ray preferred the Irish Forest Championship in its previous guise and is not a fan of forest events in the six counties. “I did one event there and it was disastrous. The stages are very short, I found them very rough.”
Even though he won it once and outside of that never really had any luck in it, Ray singles out the Willie Loughman Forest Rally as his favourite event. For a different reason, he also recalls the Lismore Rally.
“I went off the road and hit a tree absolutely head-on, the impact drove the gearbox back about six inches. That was my biggest accident.”
Luckily and apart from some bruising there were no injuries.
Overall though Ray hasn’t experienced any real disappointments in rallying and that is probably the chemistry that keeps the yearning to drive competitively.
There is no doubt that while the baton of motorsport is making its way through the Benskin generations with his son Ray (Bobby) and grandson Christopher competing (his brother Sean also rallies) the most senior Benskin has no intention of giving up just yet.
“I keep saying I will give it up but I have been saying that for the past 10 years.”