BORN just two and half kilometres from the county Kerry border and even though he now resides in Killarney, Donie O’Sullivan remains a proud Corkonian.
A geographical trajectory from the townland of Ballydaly to the village of Cullen and onwards to the town of Millstreet traces his allegiance and while the latter naturally brings a connection to the legendary Billy Coleman, it is Ballydaly and another great rally name, the Moynihans, that ensured he was attracted to rallying.
“I lived only a mile away from John Moynihan, who built his own rally cars and was able to compete against anybody. I remember the 1985 Rally of the Lakes, Billy Coleman won the event and John finished second and I thought to myself, that will be me some day.”
That “day” took a few years to come to fruition but the desire never diminished. O’Sullivan remembers his humble introduction to the sport.
“I can recall going to the 1980 Zanussi West Cork Rally in the back of a Toyota Hiace with my brother Timmy (RIP). Our father Geff was helping a family friend, Derry Morley from Cullen, who was competing in the event. We were very young at the time and I think Timmy got the job to look after the spare wheel, my job was to make sure he did a good job, I was nine so I was put in charge.”
Fast forward and upon his return from working in New York in 1991 Donie dabbled in hot rod racing with a Mk. 2 Ford Escort and progressed to autocross in a different Mk. 2 Escort before he began rallying in 1996.
“Timmy, who had the same passion for the sport, and myself converted the car I was using in the autocross to a tarmac specification rally car. We were fairly competitive in our class and we competed in many events but we wanted more power. I bought an ex-Tossie Hayes Ford Escort in 1999 and finished fourth overall in the West Cork Rally - our first big result.”
Interestingly, a few years previous (1991) Donie competed in the West Cork Rally as navigator to Timmy.
The desire for more power was probably the catalyst for O’Sullivan and as rallying evolved he took another step up the motorsport ladder.
“In 2000, I hired an Escort Cosworth from Andy Blair of ADR Motorsport for the Rally of the Lakes. This was a whole new ball game as it was four wheel drive and left hand drive. I can remember Timmy commenting half way up Moll’s Gap (S.S.1) that we should have stayed with the Mk. 2 Escort as the car didn’t feel as quick as the Escort. However, the corners were coming quickly so I knew that we had to be going hard.”
They finished fifth in Killarney but retired from the Donegal Rally.
Tragedy befell the O’Sullivan family on January 5th in 2001 when Timmy was killed in a road accident.
“We had some amazing times together because of the sport and I will always be thankful for that.”
Following the tragedy, O’Sullivan’s next event was Circuit of Ireland in 2001 and naturally there were changes.
“I had a very baby faced Paul Nagle calling the notes and we were in a Group N Subaru. We competed in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship and at that time, including the Isle of Man.”
While they had reasonable success – class wins – his assessment was succinct, “I didn’t really enjoy it, Group N just wasn’t for me.”
A case of onwards and upwards and in 2003 O’Sullivan stepped into a McKinstry Motorsport Subaru WRC. “That was definitely the real deal.
“Even though it was five years old it was still a competitive car and we had some great results, our best, a second overall in Killarney.”
O’Sullivan/Nagle went abroad as well and were lying second in the BVD Rally in Holland until mechanical issues forced them to retire.
The following year a switch to a Ford Focus WRC brought instant success with a first overall win – the West Cork Rally – followed by victory in the Circuit of Kerry and third on the Circuit of Ireland. Hopes were high for the Rally of the Lakes but O’Sullivan/Nagle crashed heavily.
“To be honest, the car was a mess but we were both ok.”
They returned for the Wexford and Cork 20 and a career highlight, the World Rally Championship round in Spain – Rally Catalunya.
“It was a great experience to go there and compete, we had a good finish (18th) considering the entry.”
Thereafter, events were relatively limited, O’Sullivan reckons about five in total. “But I was lucky enough to pick up another win in the West Cork in 2008, in a McKinstry Subaru WRC.”
O’Sullivan lauds the Billy Coleman award. “Rallying is a very unique sport that requires a huge commitment from a lot of people to make it possible. There are some good programmes in place today to help people to develop in the sport and it is good to see some of the Irish talent now competing at world level.”
Intriguingly, he names Warrenpoint’s Peadar Hurson as one of his favourite Irish rally drivers.
“I think he had great ability but didn’t have the right opportunity. He had something special but didn’t have the resources.”
O’Sullivan is proud of Paul Nagle’s meteoric rise to competing in the World Rally Championship.
“Paul has achieved more than any co-driver has or indeed, may ever achieve at that level in the future. He is relaxed but his commitment is huge, he would have got that from his late father Maurice, the dedication to rallying in that house was second to none.”
Admitting that the thought of a return to rallying is always in the back of his own mind he concludes, “You say to yourself, maybe next year.”