Well, what a weekend. I know I sometimes drone on about the old days, but I was practically brought up in the Mondello paddock. I remember the screaming Formula Atlantics, the crowd around the famous Hallspeed Imp when it arrived for the first time, hordes of FF1600 cars and of course the panel bashing Production Saloons.
Like many others, those memories came flooding back last weekend at the incredibly successful Mondello Historic Festival. I remembered the fact that the Atlantics used to hurt my ears, but not the sensation. Until Friday afternoon that was. The F5000 cars and Atlantics were racing cars as many remember them. From a different era, they were fast, loud and wonderful to watch. Not only that, but there were just so many names and faces from the past wandering round the paddock. At one stage, as I was chatting to someone in the paddock, I could swear I got a sniff of Castrol R. I’m sure one of the older cars was using it, but then again, the ambience could have played tricks with my senses, who knows?
Mondello, as most know, opened in 1968. Stuart Cosgrave was an entrepeneur and a businessman. Having successfully campained a Mini Marcos in many races, he harboured the ambition to build Ireland’s first permanant motor racing circuit. Eddie Regan was a publican and the proprietor of Clontarf Castle and was also a successful racer. When their first suggested site, near Rathcoole came to naught, a legacy of the discovery of an old graveyard on the site(!), they met up with Jim Morrin, who had some land in Donore outside Naas. The deal was done, plans were put in place and the rest, as they say, is history. 50 years of history in fact, something which was wonderfully celebrated at Mondello Park last weekend.
The Mondello Historic Festival was orignally organised and planned to celebrate the venue reaching the half century mark, but with the recent, and sudden, passing of the circuit owner Martin Birrane, it also celebrated the life of the man who saved the venue from probable redevelopment, when he bought it in the mid 1980s. Persuaded by David Kennedy and Michael O’Carroll to consider the purchase, he relented and eventually purchased the circuit along with a consortium of some 14 clubs. When this partnership became hard to manage, Martin used a clause which allowed him to buy the clubs out and take over the venue completely. Thankfully for us, the circuit soon re-opened and was subsequently redeveloped, with the garages, hospitality suites, new tower and International extension all being added before the turn of the millennium. Race fans definitely owe the man from Mayo a huge debt of gratitude- and he was remembered superbly at the weekend.
Paddins Dowling brought over his fast and spectacular ERA machine to join the Pre 55 grids- and managed to qualify over 30 seconds clear of his nearest challenger, probably one of the biggest gaps in the history of the circuit! Having loaned the car to David Morris for the opening race, he predictably decimated the opposition in race two.
In the run up to the event, newspaper columns and sports websites were packed with stories about Ireland’s incredible women’s hockey squad and their exciting run all the way to the World Cup Final. As you will have read on these virtual pages in previous weeks, one of these was Nicci Daly- daughter of perennial Mondello pacesetter Vivion Daly. Vivion was the man to beat in FF1600 for many years and subsequently moved to Formula Opel with great success. Unfortunately he sucumbed to Cancer in 2002, when Nicci was just 14 years old. Last weekend, she came back to Mondello to race in his memory and raise funds for The Irish Cancer Society at the same time. Having done some driver training with her recently, I already knew that she had her father’s talent behind the wheel. Despite her lack of experience, her Formula Female Abrakebabra Rover 25 GTI was as quick as any, and she had been closing down the leaders, until a high speed spin dropped her back. If it’s in the ram, it’s in the lamb, as they saying goes! Her team mate Emma Dempsey also comes from a famous racing family as her father is Cliff Dempsey, a former FF1600 lap record holder at Mondello and now a successful race team owner in the UK. Emma was equally impressive as she battled with far more experienced drivers- and both have now got the bug, which can only be good for Irish Motorsport. With such a buzz in the paddock, it was almost fitting that Nicci’s Green Army Hockey team mates should arrive to support them and all brought their medals, making so many young fans happy as they posed for pictures and chatted about their experience!
The big news, of course was the return of Tommy Byrne to Mondello Park after a lengthy absence. Tommy began his incredible career over 40 years ago in Mondello Park in a FF1600 and a few short years later was an F1 driver, before his career spectauclarly nose dived- despite being arguably the fastest driver around at the time. His subsequent book and film, both of which won numerous awards, brought the US domiciled Dundalk man back into the spotlight and a recent demo run in James Hagan’s ex-James Hunt Hesketh was so enjoyable, it have him the taste for more.
This gave me an idea and after numerous calls and messages, we had a deal- Tommy was coming home to drive an F1 car. Better again, it wasn’t a demo- he was going to be racing against the Derek Bell Trophy competitors! Having made a few changes after a brief test, Tommy seemed to be close to the pace and the crowd- (yes, on a Saturday) cheered their approval when he snatched an incredible pole in the dying seconds of qualifying. Having led the opener, he took second in both races and if anything, earned himself even more fans over the weekend.
One of the best stories- and it is almost like an extra chaptor of the book- is one that happened in the bar on Sunday evening. There was a proper simulator set up and fastest time of the day was to win a bottle of Moet Champagne. The fastest lap was bettered on a number of occasions during the day until MI Young Driver of the Year Jordan Dempsey set a time that it seemed would stay at the top. That of course, was without budgeting for the Crashed and Byrned star, who wandered into the bar late on- had a look at the setup, climbed aboard. Having shattered the best time, Tommy grabbed the champagne from the ice bucket, and continued on his way…
It was that kind of weekend and I am hugely proud to have been a part of it.
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Images from Michael Chester