While some drivers have a clear idea and path they want to take in racing, with the ultimate goal of making it their profession, some purely just start off with the idea of it only being for fun and for it to remain that way. The latter certainly the case with Irish motor racing legend, Gordon Kellett.
A man who has raced every form of saloon car or “Tin Top” for over forty years with tremendous success, he has managed to take race wins in every class he has competed in over the years, bar the current Ford Fiesta ST class, as he only made a comeback to racing last year, but it would be a brave man to rule him out entirely this year.
Originally from County Cavan, but having lived in Dublin for the last forty years, it’s safe to say he is regarded as a “Dub” by now. It was another well known racer from days gone by, the late Norman Williams, who introduced Gordon to the world of motorsport by bringing him to Mondello Park and the Phoenix Park in Dublin, as he competed in his 3 litre Production Saloon Ford Capri at the time.
“I used to go along with Norman to the Phoenix Park and Mondello too, then I built a midget car and got involved with the Dublin and Wicklow Motor Club, where they held events in fields all over county Wicklow. So that’s how I really got into motor racing.”
The move from the grass to tarmac inevitably followed, but not in the safe confines of a purpose built circuit. Gordon’s first race on the black stuff was in the 1983 Phoenix Park Motor Races in Dublin!! From that day on, the farmers’ fields in Wicklow were safe, as he had caught the racing bug and a long and illustrious career began. A Ford Escort XR3i was bought for the 1984 season to compete in the Irish Saloon Car Championship. It was very different from his days on the grass but as he continued into the 1985 season in the same car, he got to grips with circuit racing and started to move up the field.
“Believe it or not my first race was in the Phoenix Park of all places! You wouldn’t get away with it now, as you have to have so many races under your belt before you could race there but I had done the few midget races so they said it was grand so off I went! The midgets were great though as you learned great car control from driving on the grass where there’s not much grip.”
The Escort was rebuilt into an RS Turbo which put him into the 3 litre and 3.5 litre class along with the mighty Ford Capris. It also meant he would be out with, of all people, his old friend Norman Williams! Gordon had immediate success with the Turbo, with his competitors having no choice but to follow suit and switch to similar machines. For the 1989 season. John Burns, Reg Tuthill and even died in the wool Opel competitor Frank O’Rourke all appeared with the turbocharged Fords to provide some classic saloon car battles to delight Mondello race fans!
At the the beginning of the next decade, the iconic Ford Sierra Cosworths were brought into the Irish Saloon Car Championship. These were the racing equivalent of Group N cars used in rallying at the time, by the likes of Bob Fowden and Frank Fennell- unlike the British Touring Car series in the UK where the spec was much higher, but make no mistake these were still very quick cars and the racing was superb. Battles took place week in week out in the summer months of the early 1990s between Gordon, Peter Faulkner, Helmut Holfeld, Mick Leonard, Frank O’Rourke, Michael Cullen, Reg Tuthill and Derek Walsh- to name but a few.
“The racing was so so close then, but it was great and we had some fantastic battles. I missed out on the Sexton Trophy by one point in 1991 but it was a strange championship as they put the up to 2 litre class cars out with us in the over two litre cars, Tomás O’Rourke won it. It’s more about the fun you get out of it than anything else though. You could race hard and people around you were tough competitors like Helmet Holfeld or Michael Cullen where you weren’t worried about having to put a door on a Cosworth or maybe a bumper but that was all. There was great respect for one another.”
A break in racing came after that to concentrate on his garage business for the next couple of years, but like anyone who has competed in racing before, it’s very hard to keep the itch to go back at bay. By 1995, a two litre limit had been imposed and the car to have was an Opel Astra. With help from Castrol Oil, Gordon acquired one and resumed his saloon car racing in the front wheel drive German hot-hatch. It was more of the same over the next few years, battling with his toughest adversary Michael Cullen, who was in similar machinery. Every weekend both would be dicing for the top step of the podium but sadly for Gordon, Michael was pretty much untouchable in those days winning a string of championships in the last decade of the 20th century.
Again a sabbatical was taken until 2002, when the Fiat Punto 1400cc class came calling and then the Fiat Abarth class which took over massively as the top production class at the beginning of the new millenium. They had full grids back packed full of young hopefuls out to scalp the old warriors and of course, Gordon was the in the thick of it. There was no love lost in the class and the panel beaters and spray painters were kept busy in between races. A brief stint in the Dunlop RT2000 class, including a win at his favourite track, Kirkistown as highlight of his time in them but they weren’t a car he was that fond of.
“They were more of a single seater than a saloon car and they way you had to set them up was more like a Formula Ford. I never really had an interest in racing single seaters, I like them and respect the drivers competing in them, but they were something I never really gelled with.”
When you speak with Gordon you wouldn’t think of him as a man who would be one for driving a car fast let alone race one, as he always seems laid back and never in a rush. So I wondered was there ever an ambition to try and become professional?
“I got a drive in a Lotus Esprit to do a 24HR race in Japan around 1990/1991, and that was just amazing, it had 600bhp and I shared the drive with a Japaneese driver Tamiko San. It happened all by fluke, when I was over in Silverstone at the British Grand Prix when I bumped into a chap called Hugh Chamberlain in the paddock and he was looking for a driver to do this race. He had heard of me through David Kennedy and we got a package together with help from DHL, the courier company, and went and did the race. I couldn’t get over the reception I got over there, I was treated like a king!”
Gordon has seen a lot of changes in racing in Ireland over the years and in his beloved ‘Tin Tops” so what would be the main ones and the difference between when he started and nowadays?
“I don’t see a lot of differences- or maybe I’m lucky enough to be in that window of opportunity now that I’m racing with drivers that I had raced against in the past. The likes of Michael Cullen and Dave Maguire for example. I think we have to be grateful and that we are very lucky to have a track like Mondello Park that we can race at and support it as best we can. That’s what I do and what I have always done.”
Again like so many other people, the Phoenix Park Motor races is the one event he would love to see back. “It had to be the ultimate experience to drive and I’m sure it could be brought back again and there is no reason why it couldn’t have armco (barrier) the whole way round. Before I retired, my company had tried to do something with Red Bull, they didn’t say no but their budgets work three years in advance so it didn’t come off.”
While he admits to not having the interest in wanting to try other disciplines of the sport he still has the same love for production cars after all these years.
“ It doesn’t really matter what type of car you’re in, but when all the cars are equal you get more of a driving experience from it as you only get the performance from the car with what you put in. I find the Fiesta ST a very nice car to drive and it does what it says on the tin. When I think back on the Abarths we had, they were quite expensive and not a good racing car, even though at the time we thought they were, but the ST is a more balanced car.”
That 24hr race in Japan was his furthest trip away to compete in but there was the few visits to the UK but only when the Irish championship visited their shores. I guess you could say Gordon is probably a real home bird in racing terms and to be fair why not? A lot of people come and go briefly in this sport as they try and make a career, until all their money is spent and have to stop and ultimely end up with nothing at all, be it a career or a hobby. I think people should have a similar outlook to racing in Ireland, as Gordon has had since he started, go out and enjoy racing and do it for the fun of it and get the kick out of it by doing just that.
He made a comeback to racing yet again last year and is now retired in professional life, so with more time on his hands to go racing, how long more can he keep going?
“ I will keep going as long as I am enjoying it, and the day I don’t, I’ll stop” he laughs.
Well let’s hope he does keep enjoying it and we can see him battling for more wins and now that he has a season in an Fiesta ST behind him who knows- maybe another title?