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Tarmac rallying is the main form of motor sports around Athenry for at least 20 years now as it always has been. The Galway Motor Club holds two rallies each year. The International rally takes place over two days in February, and the Summer Rally is held in September.

Both events are rounds of various championships, so many top drivers compete. I remember, when in 1986, I saw probably the most famous Irish rally driver ever – Billy Coleman. He had a brand new car. It was a Porsche 911 which had close to 400 brake horse power. It was sponsored by Rothmans Cigarette Company and had been painted in their colours, navy blue, white and gold. It was the most beautiful car I have ever seen and had a real roaring sound from the engine and exhaust. The car had more power than the top cars have nowadays. At the moment, for safety reasons, they are only allowed around 300 brake horse power, which is sufficient for anyone.

Anyway, it was February 1987 – the Galway International rally – a cold dry day. The stage started at the top of Lady’s Well Road. At the T-junction, the cars turned right towards the cross-roads at Kings, then they turned left and crossed Mooney’s bridge to head towards Tallyho Cross. Billy Coleman was the first car on the road and I was standing inside a stone wall at Rahard, at the top of the hill, just above Lady’s Well. The car was the first four wheel drive, V8 engine, car to be seen rallying in this county and was the full width of the road at Lady’s Well. I could see it all the way from the wall to the top of the hill. It is impossible for me to describe the speed with which the car went up that road; the sound was something I will never forget. As Billy passed me the ground actually shook and the stone wall vibrated. Many people watching the rally will not forget the show that Billy put on.

Sadly, this car and a few others similar to it like the Ford RS 200 (4WD), were barred from rallying shortly after that, mostly, because they simply had too much power. I suppose it could be compared to putting an engine from a Formula One car into an ordinary saloon. Billy was partnered by Said Al Hajari in a Porsche that was identical to his. Needless to say, Billy won the rally that weekend. Sadly, he retired from rallying a year or two later.

Despite this change of rules, rallying has become very popular over the last few years. Most rallies now have their entry list full two or three weeks before the event. They are allowed to field 130 cars.

Over the last few years, Athenry and the roads around it have become a popular location. On any road from the town you take, there has been a stage held recently. This is because the roads are suitable and are not too far away from the Headquarters in Galway city. It must not be forgotten that the organisers and the competitors are grateful to the people living in or near the stages, as they understand the difficulties involved when some roads have to be closed temporarily and there is lot of extra traffic. But, I think that the rally is always welcomed in Athenry as it is something different. It has that bit of excitement and atmosphere about it and it also brings a lot of extra business to the area.

To describe the basics a one-day rally usually has nine special stages. A stage is where the rally car is given a time at the start. They drive on a course, which is a road closed to the public and the average distance is seven or eight miles long. At the finish the drivers are given a finish time and they then calculate the time it took to complete this distance. The cars are not supposed to go fast between stages that is on a road open to the cars of the public. The co-driver’s job is to calculate times and record them on a time sheet. But more importantly he reads out the pace rates to the driver. These rates are made before the rally and describe every detail about the road ahead.

Organising the rally is a huge job. It starts months before and about 15 or 20 people are involved. They must seek road closing orders, visit residents on stages, sometimes organise road repairs, organise marshals and time keepers, make different signs. A large amount of printing is also involved and it costs a lot of money. That is why the entry fees for competitors are so high. For example, the entry fee for the ’97 Galway Rally was £350 per car.

Each car usually has a large team involved: someone to prepare the rally car; a service crew during the rally; and sometimes another car at the end of every stage with lots of spares etc. Each car usually has a lot of different sponsors, without them it would not be possible to raise a budget to compete in a championship. The cost of building or purchasing a rally car varies greatly. The lowest would be around £2500 and the highest around £120,000. They have to be maintained after that so it is a very expensive sport.

The ’97 Galway International Rally was held around Loughrea on Saturday and Athenry on Sunday, which most people will remember as a very wintry day. That day, our hurling team won the club semi-final in Thurles. On that day service area was in Athenry Mart and there were a lot of retirements and crashes. The winner was Austin McHale in his new Toyota Cecilia. The local teams, which were very successful, were Sean Lyons and Eileen Lyons (nee McNamara) in a Ford RS 2000 FWD; Gerry and Tommy Martyn in a Corolla twin cam; Martin Finnerty and son David, Derrydonnell, in an Escort 2000; John Coughlan and Colin Flannery in their beautiful Mark One Escort. Congratulations also to Michael Dolan who is after successfully completing his first year in rallying in his Fiat Ritmo.

I would like to thank all my sponsors from the town, my fiancee, Dymphna and my family for all their support during three years of rallying. I am looking forward to your friendship, support and enthusiasm when I compete again this summer.

Featured Photo: 22.08.2021Ballinasloe & district Vintage club – One of the greatest supporters of our Track day events. Never happier than behind the wheel of  his Hrs Chevette – John Laffey, Dean Laffey.

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Written by Dean Laffey

Published here 15 Feb 2023 and originally published May 1997

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