It's strange. No matter how much drifting I experience and regardless of how much tyre smoke I inhale from third and fourth gear slides, I still rather the sight and sound of a MKII Escort on a tight rally stage. A couple of weeks back, I was standing on the roadside of a narrow back road, some twenty minutes from Carlow town. It was pretty early on a Sunday morning and already the sound of Millington Diamond engines could be heard echoing feintly around the hills of the surrounding countryside.
I often forget just how lucky we are here in Ireland with regards to rallying. For such a small island we have some of the most amazing stages, cars and drivers that can be found anywhere in the world. It's a credit to the men and women behind the scenes that keep this sport thriving here.
Although the downturn has had its effect on motorsport, there are still some fantastic events run each year. They may not have the turnout from when times were finanically more stable but entry lists of 100+ competitors for a single day event are still quite common.
The MKII Escort Challenge is run annually as part of the Carlow Stages Rally, a one day event set in the Irish midlands.
The stages – although tight – are pretty damn quick in places, more than enough to stretch the legs of the modified Escorts.
Without the protection of armco or trackside safety, photographing these events can be quite the andrenaline rush. The cars were passing my position pulling third gear only inches away.
The Escorts don't have all the fun at these events as the Class 8 cars (mostly made of former WRC cars) usually lead the pack during the course of the day.
Robert Barrable's Skoda Fabia S2000 was the first S2000 I can remember seeing on the stages here. Make no assumptions, these cars are very capable of keeping up with their WRC brethern.
However it's the Class 13 / 14 cars that provide the entertainment for the crowds. Pictured above is Gary McPhillips in his Class 14 modified Ford Escort. The corner above is maybe a fifth / sixth gear flat left which resulted in some incredible speeds before the cars pulled up for a first gear right where I was standing. If you look at any other pictures of this corner – above and below here – you'll see how everyone else approached the corner. When McPhillips burst into view he was already on full opposite lock in top gear. It was enough for pretty much everyone standing nearby to take a few steps back from the edge of the road. It may not have been the fastest method but it definitely left a lasting impression. It's a privilage to watch a man driving this hard.
The Darrians proved to be as quick as always.
The cars may be from the late seventies / early eighties originally but most of these Escorts are practically brand new cars with some of the latest technology aboard.
Watching the Escorts attack each stage reminds me of those videos we have all seen of the Group B cars during their heyday. I can never over emphasize just how much you need to see these cars in action, they provide an experience like no other.
Waiting on the penultimate stage. Rubber marks coming out of a square left from earlier runs during the day pretty much guaranteed an action packed finish to the day.
Tim McNulty was the overall winner of the event in his S12B Impreza WRC.
Robert Barrable was second overall on the day in his S2000 Fabia.
Third overall and first in the MKII Escort Challenge was Daniel McKenna who drove a blinder all day.
A little over a minute behind him was the crowd pleaser, Gary McPhillips, finishing second in the MKII Escort Challenge.
Looking through the results sheet, it's amazing to see the WRC and Group N cars split by a host of Escorts.
Sitting here now, typing this report, I think I've figured out what makes these cars so much more appealing to me than the drift cars I've become so acquainted with over the years.
Where drifting is almost elegant in its appearance, the Escorts are so much more violent to watch, providing a more visceral experience to the spectators. I suppose I could also put it this way – I've never felt in danger covering drift events or anything else on track for that matter. I can't however, say the same for covering rally events. In fact, the only time I feel safe at a rally is when I've sat back into my van after a stage and I'm heading home. Not that I'm complaining, it's the same reason why I love the sport so much. The experience provided at a closed roads rally is like nothing else.
I just hope that one day, you can experience these cars too.