On any given weekend, I could speak to and interview a number of talented drivers that I respect and look up to. I’ve spoken to Keith Cronin when he won the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship in Cork last year and I quizzed Daniel McKenna on taking on the world as we sat in his shed; but despite how significant they were they don’t come close to leaning in through the roll cage of a Historic Vauxhall Firenza in Ebrington Square, Derry to get a few words with Jimmy McRae.
It was earlier that morning that I had first saw him and I’ve always done my best to hide any symptoms of being star struck while working, and mostly kept myself professional, but I could not resist the chance of getting a photograph with him. This immediately brought me back to 2007 when I sat at the end of a stage while the Rally Ireland recce was going on, and I would lean in against the Subarus and Volvos of Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg to get a quick snap an autograph with my idols.
If you are into conspiracies you could deduce that this had an impact that would lead me to stopping drivers at a stage end and hounding them in service, but there was a moment in my life a few months prior to camping in the rain just outside Fivemiletown that had a much more lasting effect on my life in rallying.
Some people will remember where they were when the news that Elvis had dies was announced; others will know what they were doing in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. The closest I can come to a similar feeling is sitting in front of the television and refreshing teletext on September 15th 2007 and hope that what I was reading about my hero was not true.
To me Colin McRae was invincible. I had watched him drive on the edge of what was humanly possible for most of my formative years, and in my heart I was expecting to read that what was being reported was incorrect and that he would appear with a few minor scratches and laugh off a close call. After all, he escaped death before in Corsica 2000 and didn’t let it hold him back.
Looking back at my childhood, I can trace so much of it back to rallying, and in particular one flying Scotsman. And it is deeper than the fact that I was no more than a week old when he crowned world champion.
One such memory is playing the first Colin McRae Rally game on my sister’s Playstation One. I was never much good, but I remember my excitement of hearing Colin’s voice in game, and talking to me as if I alone was the next potential star. I followed this up with a religious following of Codemasters later instalments of the series, and have always used them a way to get a petrol head rush without leaving the house.
Despite my profession, reading was never high up on my agenda when I was younger, but there was one book that captured my interest, one book that I could read cover to cover again and again. The Real McRae was a bible to me and cemented Colin as a certified legend and hero. I was engrossed in the story of growing up and showcasing his talent. It was also a very open look into his life, and how he thought and worked. I’ve read many more books since, but regardless of content or quality I have compared each of them to the feeling I got reading his.
My parents were very much tuned in to my obsession, and I remember being given the tape of Penny Mallory visiting Colin McRae and him talking through his career and the skills he has behind the wheel. There is a part of the video where they are in his Focus WRC on a forest stage and the camera locks on to his feet which danced across the pedals in a hypnotising fashion that was inhuman, and it was around that point that I knew there would never be a driver I hold in such high regard.
As I got older, and began trying my hand at reporting at rallying, I promised myself that if I ever got the chance I would speak to as many drivers as possible because I never got the opportunity to meet Colin, I regretted missing what I saw as a key part of my interest in the sport.
Which is why a few hours, when the cars returned to cross the finish ramp in Derry on Saturday afternoon, I made a point of going back to Jimmy McRae and including him in one of my round-up videos. I asked him about managing the big V8 in the mucky lanes and joked about whether doing the Ulster Rally gets easier or harder after so many years.
After the camera stopped rolling, I put my hand in through the window and shook his hand. I told him that my interest in rallying was down to him and his family – he laughed and apologised for it – and I admitted to him that my dream had finally come through; that I was able to see a McRae on the stages and interview them. It was a short and simple exchange, I thanked him for coming over to do the rally and he thanked me for talking to him.
Over his career Jimmy would have done countless interviews on any given weekend and I would not blame him if he never thought any more of the two minutes we were talking, but to a fan of his and his family, it was much more than just a chat.