IT isn’t over, it’s close to being over, declared Carrigaline’s Frank O’Mahony as he reflected on his rallying exploits. Just like golfers, rally drivers don’t really retire.
“I want to do a few events in the Metro 6R4, but it will be for pure fun really and on rallies that I like — the West Cork, the Fastnet and the Cork ‘20’ and maybe Killarney.”
Born in Drimoleague in west Cork, Frank began rallying in a Mini in 1970 but at six foot three inches, it didn’t seem an appropriate choice, however, he explains.
“With the seat re-positioned in the Mini, there was actually plenty of room inside, there would be way more room in the Mini than say a Metro 6R4. So I never had problems with room.”
In that era and especially from a local context and aside from the likes of Demi Fitzgerald, Tom Burke and Mick O’Connell, one driver stood out for a long time.
“Billy Coleman, Billy was the king and we all looked up to him.”
The Mini remained until about 1979.
“The car was so light and nimble, but you had to drive it flat out. You would be in the top 10 straight away and even in top five.”
An iconic car replaced the Mini when he acquired an ex-works car from Colemans of Millstreet.
“It was the one Billy drove, STW 200R, Ford of Cork brought it in and it was re-registered SIF 200, it was only 18 months old.”
In terms of results: “We won the Fastnet, Raven’s Rock and the Commodore Hotel Rally in Cobh, we had a number of seconds and were rarely out of the top three until the Vauxhall Chevettes came along.”
After a break he returned at the wheel of a Metro 6R4. “The minute I got into it I knew I liked it, really, it was my favourite car.”
Rallying is a close knit community, a big family. A long friendship with Banbridge driver Kenny McKinstry led to Frank hiring a McKinstry Motorsport run Subaru Legacy and later a Subaru Impreza. That brought a lifetime ambition of competing in the Network Q Rally (formerly the RAC Rally and now Wales Rally GB) to fruition.
“For various reasons it never happened but eventually, in 2000 and following a forestry rally in the UK to acclimatise to the car as I had never driven a four-wheel drive car on gravel, we did the Network Q in the Impreza and finished best Privateer.
“I said before the rally that if I finished, then that was it. I sold the car a few days later.”
But is it ever really over?
In relation to championships O’Mahony was unlucky with regard to the Motoring News Championship and the National Rally Championship, both slipped through his fingers, ironically, both on the final round.
Naturally and with his west Cork roots, the West Cork Rally and the Fastnet Rally have particular resonance with O’Mahony, but he endured contrasting fortunes.
On the West Cork: “No matter how I tried, I never won it, I probably led the rally more often than anyone. It was my own fault (not winning) at times. On one occasion I had a 38-second lead going into the second last stage, we had put on new tyres and I got a puncture two miles in and that was that.
“The Fastnet (where he won three times) was much kinder even though both are my favourite rallies. There was a great atmosphere on the Fastnet, especially when it was in Glandore, yes, great memories.”
The Cork ‘20’ also proved elusive and even though he should have won that as well, it took 13 attempts before he even recorded his first finish.
As for co-drivers — Bryan Curtin and Hugh McPhillips were the principals at various times. On other occasions there was Leo Whyte, Horace Curtis and Vincy Coughlan, both of whom have gone to their eternal reward, the O’Mahony siblings — Emily, Katherine and Brian and one Michael Lyster. From a family perspective Frank’s wife Margaret was involved in the MI Benevolent Fund.
Outside of being a competitor, Frank O’Mahony has given much to the sport. He clerked the Cork ‘20’ International and played a pivotal role in attracting WRC stars like Loeb, Sordo and Hirvonen. As an administrator, particularly in relation to safety, his role within Motorsport Ireland can never be overstated. Just a few years ago his involvement ensured rallying continued when it faced an insurance crisis.
The sport has changed since he began and he sums up that change succinctly: “Speed, would cover the whole lot in one word. The cars are achieving colossal speeds now, especially cornering speed, the development and technology in tyres, suspension and aerodynamics. Even though you want technology to develop, it may be gone too far.
“While it was always competitive, the fun is definitely gone out of it. The social element has changed dramatically as well.”
He has concerns: “It’s time for governing body to start acting immediately and try and get the speeds down. I know it’s difficult having been there myself but you reach a point where something needs to be done and I think that is now.
“Motorsport can be dangerous — that is a correct message — but should the governing body allow the sport to become too dangerous then that is the end, there would be negligence involved.”
A strong believer that there’s always been great talent in Irish rallying, he is of the belief that the number of classes needs to be drastically reduced. Currently, he is chairperson of the Tarmac Rally Championship Organisers (TROA) and while those outstanding fun events in the Metro are on the horizon, the sport needs Frank O’Mahony, now more than ever — and in that context, it can never really be over.