For any of us who are interested in motorsport in whatever part of the world that we may find ourselves in, we think of the next event we will be soon attending or tuning into on tv, be it F1, Moto GP, WRC or the local national race at the nearest track.
We think of which competitor will win, which will loose, who will cause trouble and who will be victorious on the day- or will there be an upset? We look at the machinery about to be put through its paces yet again and of course we try and find out any paddock gossip going round. We look at how the track looks, how many people have turned up to watch the event and if there is a decent size entry for it. At the start of the season we see new liveries brought out for the year and even new classes. All these things get noticed but one job that hasn’t chnaged and is the most crucial of all other than the medical crews is that of the motor racing marshal.
The most expensive, hightech and popular forms of motorsports on either two or four wheels would not take place without these dedicated and hardy breed of people, who use their free time to let the motor racing show of any level take place. They have to withstand some atrocious weather conditions from early morning to late evening and sometimes all night if it’s a 24 hour event.
They are the unsung heros of this sport and one of these unsung heroes in Ireland is Ollie Donegan, a native of Castleknock in Dublin, but living for the majority of his life on the Navan Road. Ollie has to date put in an incredible forty seven year shift as a motor racing marshal. He has donned the orange overalls on the banks of Mondello Park, Bishopscourt and Kirkistown, the hedges of motorbike road races such as the Skerries 100, the streets of Dundalk and Dun Laoghaire and the one he loves most- the Phoenix Park, which is where it all began.
Even at the age of seventy five years young, Ollie remembers well the day he got off the bus as an eleven year old at the Phoenix Park to go and watch the famous motor racing event in the centre of Dublin- a place where he later would work for fifty years for the Office of Public Works.
So where did it all begin for Ollie as a marshal? “I went down to Mondello for the first race held there in 1968 as a spectator when it had the original layout with no extensions and I liked it. Then in 1970 I was in the RDS at a motorshow where the Motor Racing Marshals Club had a stand so I joined the club there and I have been doing it ever since!”
When you think of how long Ollie has marshalled, you cannot but be in awe of the amount of the legends of the sport, be it on two wheels or four, that he has seen compete around Mondello Park. Motorbike greats such as Joey Dunlop, Carl Fogarty, Max Biaggi to the four wheel gods of Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna, to our home grown drivers like Tommy Byrne and Joey Greenan to name but a few. A favourite of Ollie’s was “Mr. Rallycross” as he was known, Martin Schanche. Ollie recalls in the late 1980s when Schanche competed in the round of the European Rallycross championship in Mondello and in the Le Mans 24hr race on the same weekend. “To have that here was fantastic and I remember marshalling at the final corner where I saw him (Schanche) getting picked up by his helicopter to bring him to his plane to get to Le Mans and then get dropped back here the following morning and getting into his Ford RS200 and going out in that, it was fantastic. He was some driver!”
What comes across so evidently is Ollie’s love and passion for the sport and he has loved every minute of it from the early days of Ford Escorts and Capris racing around through to today and the current cars that are out on track. During our conversation, he thinks of the many friends he has made along the way and of his good pal Al Caffrey, who along with Ollie is another long serving member of the Motor Racing Marshals Club and who is also another well known character within the sport “ Al is not able to get down to that many events anymore as he sadly has fallem into poor helath in recent years but he and myself are probably the longest serving to date”.
Ollie has no preference for two or four wheels but is delighted to see the karts back in Mondello again. As for his favourite meeting of the year, that goes to the Leinster Trophy, but he enjoyed the rounds of the BTCC and BSB when they came over “It’s great to see the changes here in Mondello with the extensions over the years which brought events like the British Touring Cars and Superbikes here.” But the Leinster Trophy meeting is and has been his stand out event. “They (the Leinster Motor Club) have been very good to us over the years and have looked after us well.”
If there was one event he would like to see back what would it be? “ I’d love to see the (Phoenix) Park come back. Its tradition and histort goes back to the 1900s. I remember marshalling out there when it was on a big big track which took them down the main road round by the monument and back by the Embassy and up the main road again. I remember Tony Brise and Alan Jones racing Formula Atlantics there, it was great!”
As I mentioned earlier, racing marshals have to put up with all sorts of weather from the good to the bad but this doesn’t seem to bother Ollie much although he is glad of the huts Mondello Park have installed over the last couple of years, “We had to fight for them a but we got them and they are great, you do need them to get out of the rain for a bit when it is a very bad day.” Laughingly he says “Mondello has a climate of its own, and there have been some very very bad days down here but you climatise to it, you have to! I’m used to it though. from working in the OPW and I like being outdoors, it keeps me healthy.”
While people who compete owe a lot to marshals, do they know what really is involved and has the practice changed much over the years ? Surprisingly, I learned that standards have always been good, right back to Ollie’s early days. “Marshal training has always been quite good. You had to know your own safety on the track and you had your own crew which included a flag marshal, and twice a year you would come down to Mondello and go through your fire training, setting up different incidents around the track and learning how to take people out of cars and that.”
While the grid numbers go up and down, the marshals club numbers are quite good according to Ollie, but with race meetings now being packed into two days meetings now does this cause problems for them? “Yes when the International (circuit) is on it can be very hard to get people to come down, and also a lot of people are working on a Saturday now too so your hoping you have enough to cover all the posts”.
While talking to Ollie and seeing him hopping up and down from the bank during the day he certainly does not show his age, putting younger ones (including myself!) to shame. I hope to have his energy if I make it to his age so I wondered how much longer would he carry on manning the banks of Mondello and does he ever get tired of it. When you think of the hours, days, weeks, years he spent doing it, surely its become a chore now?? His laugh to my question immediately ended any suggestions of it being a chore! “Haha, ah as long as I can, as long as I’m able to put me feet out of the bed in the morning!”
Well I hope he is able to keep putting his feet out of the bed in the mornings for years to come, because they don’t make them like Ollie anymore!!