As another Irish Rallycross Championship comes to a close, we have seen a resurgence in numbers in recent meetings. Grids have become filled in some classes and others not far off. With this we have seen the return of former champions who have dusted off their chariots of choice and some have even purchased new ones for their return to the grid. One such driver who has made yet another comeback is the Irish “Mr Rallycross”, Tommy Graham from Prosperous, Co. Kildare. His driving style may not be as wild as his Norwegian counterpart Martin Schanche but his off track antics would certainly be on a par with the man universally known as Mr. Rallycross.
Approaching his 58th birthday, Tommy still holds the same passion for motorsport and Rallycross in particular as he did when he took up the sport in the early 1980s. Whilst he often ventured to the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney in County Kerry and the Donegal International Rally as a spectator he didn’t have a serious interest in motorsport at that time. His family were more interested in going to GAA matches so he grew up attending them until by a chance visit to his local circuit Mondello Park he watched a rallycross event and fancied taking it up. A Fiat 128 Coupé was purchased in 1982 to compete in that years championship which earned him some success but the following year a Fiat 128 3P was bought so even from early on he went out with the machinery to have at the time to give himself the best chance of victory.
Then in the following years he decided to venture into the world of Hotrod racing- a completely different discipline to Rallycross where he would need to get used to driving a different type of car and to race in an even more tactical way around the short ovals. This is where his affection for Ford cars began as he purchased a G3 Escort and headed for Tipperary Raceway just outside the village of Rosegreen in premier county. This is also where his the infamous number 727 came from which he has stuck with ever since. The switch to oval racing proved to be the correct choice as he won driver of the year 1986 and again in 1991! “At the end of 1986 Rosegreen closed down so I converted my hotrod into a Rallycross car and went back to Rallycross competing against the likes of Kenny McKinstry and Derek Jobb in their MkII Escorts.” This shift to and fro from Rallycross to Hotrod racing would continue for years with success in both disciplines. “There were times where I would have been competing in parallel, doing both Hotrods and Rallycross and then rallying and Rallycross, but I have always come back to Rallycross.”
This would have been in the early to mid 1990s and where I myself first met Tommy and got to know him. I watched him wring the neck of his famous green rear wheel drive Ford Fiesta by throwing it sideways around Mondello Park to get every last ounce of performance out of the car. It was a sight to behold. “My love has always been for Rallycross and I have been lucky enough to represent Ireland in the Internations team three times at the Nurburgring, Germany and twice at Alanson in France as well as competing at Nutts Corner and Kirkistown in Northern Ireland. I also competed in England and Wales many times, doing the Brands Hatch Rallycross GP for a number of years.”
When listening to him speak of those days with fondness it made me think back to those days and how lucky I, and anyone who followed the sport, were to be around at that time to witness this golden era of the sport as the European and British Championships graced our shores with each having rounds in Ireland over a ten year period between the late 1980s to the late 1990s. “I met great people back then and still keep in touch with them and one of the reasons I came back again to Rallycross was seeing the likes of Derek Jobb and Mike Manning buy Supercars. They were guys I competed against thirty years ago.” Laughingly he admits to wishing to have the car he has now back when he was twenty!
It is a shame he didn’t have a Supercar of that era as he has now, as I feel Tommy would have shocked a few of the sports elite of the time as he definitely had the talent (although it may have needed to have the rough edges rounded off first!) As it is the way of motorsport, money rules and he had to concentrate on his sand and gravel haulage business which has been very successful for him. So if it is not behind the wheel of a Rallycross car you will find him behind the wheel of a truck somewhere.
His current car only recently bought in England again is another Ford Fiesta although this one being a supercar, continues his loves for the blue oval brand. This mainly comes from his long time friend and engineer Dominic McNeill being a Ford and Cosworth specialist who has always had spares for the cars he competed in so it was easier to compete in Fords than other makes- bar his Subaru rally days.
Another long time friend of Tommy’s is Jack Keane who is never far from his side and where you you see one the other is not too far away. Laughingly he says “Jack came everywhere with me, he has had a few different titles over the years. He would have been my minder, my contraceptive on a lot of occasions, my chauffeur as he would have had to drive me home a lot of times too. Back in the mad days here at Mondello, after the prizegivings instead of driving the car up on to the trailer we just drove the car home- much to my neighbours disgust!”
Tommy then took to rallying in the late 1990s and early 2000s competing again in a Ford, with an ex-Malcom Wilson Escort Cosworth and then on to a Subaru Impreza WRC. But the costs of rallying got too high and were just not viable for Tommy and a bad accident on the Midland Rally, which was his one and only one where he phyically got hurt, from ended his time on the stages.
He took a break from competing for few years but the itch was too much and he returned to Rallycross and duly won the 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 championships! He restored an old MkII Escort until its sad demise in Lydden Hill where he barrel rolled it into small pieces. It did get fixed but again Hotrod racing came calling- again where he competed until early this year. The chance of buying a four wheel drive Supercar was too much to turn down, so once again Rallycross won and it is where he will stay.
I had to ask him with all the years of experience he has in the sport, why did Rallycross take a hit in popularity? “It’s hard to know really, maybe a few personality clashes didn’t help and the cost of travelling has gone up too which puts people off. We were very lucky back in the late 1980s to the late 1990s with the European and British rounds coming over here as they were like our All-Ireland Final! I think now Rallycross needs to be rebooted back up again in Northern Ireland and guys there want to get back out as some still have their cars in their sheds.”
This is true as the only track used for Rallycross in the whole island of Ireland other than Mondello is Pallas Karting in Tynagh, County Galway.
It would be great to see the likes of Davey Francis, Davey Patton, Sam Crawford, Robin Perry to name a few back out again.
What does he think of Rallycross in Ireland now? “I think the Buggies are great and are great to watch and a welcome addition and each bring an entry fee through the gate. I don’t think it is far off from being what it was, and it has a lot of passionate people involved in it. The Fiesta class which allows circuit racers come out and do Rallycross when that season is finished is great too. The junior classes have had great racing this year and it is a great way for youngsters to mingle with people their own age from all over the country and not just from their locality.”
Hopefully these youngsters will continue to bring the sport up to the level it once was and maybe they will be the next characters like Tommy in the future although it will hard for them to get away with driving their cars home after a Rallycross meeting these days!
He has been generous too over the years sponsoring young drivers when he can and also if a friend needs some top soil for his garden! This I personally know when in a brief chat some time before my dad asked him to get him some over to the house. He duly did but without confirming a time or date until one morning one of his drivers turned up outside our house in a truck and proceeded to empty three tonne of the stuff at our front gate!!
As my time speaking to Tommy comes to an end in his luxurious campervan, which is more like a hotel on wheels, I could see the inner child in him getting excited as he gets the call that his first heat is on in a few minutes- just as if it was 1982 again!
I do hope he does stay in Rallycross as the sport is the better for it to have him there. It needs people like him and lets hope he gets his new car sorted and number 727 claims another title next year!