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Legend Series- Michael Cullen, The Tin Top King!

In motor racing there are many different disciplines a competitor can choose to do once the budget is in place or as in most cases partially, with the hope of finding the last of it as the season progresses. While there is a difference in disciplines you can really only choose two forms of cars to race, single seaters or saloons, which are also known as “Tin Tops”. Nearly all start out in single seaters and eventually end up in “Tin Tops” of some form be it Sportscars, Touring Cars or a one make club saloon series.

One man who has tried them all, with results that many could only dream of having, is Michael Cullen. Michael is one of our most successful drivers to have come from these shores. While he never got the chance to race as a professional, or on the world stage as the likes of Derek Daly, David Kennedy or Tommy Byrne for example, it should not deter people from thinking of him as a top quality driver. His talent has shone through on many occasions, in all kinds of classes both at home and abroad.  He even beat the professionals in the very competitive Ferrari Challenge, as he was twice crowned champion of the series in 2005 and 2007.

Hailing from the city suburb of Terenure in Dublin, Michael did not have to go far to gain an interest in all things mechanical. His late father Des was very popular figure in Irish motorsport and one who achieved some great success himself on two wheels and four, on circuits or rallies, far and wide. He set the 200cc motorbike lap record in the Phoenix Park in Dublin a record he would later proudly declare was never beaten.

“I’ve been involved in motorsport all my life through my dad. I followed him when he competed in everything from Motocross, road racing, Autotests, Rallies, and Circuit Racing. He was good on a bike and won the Dunlop Cup in 1952 in the Curragh- which was a big motocross event back then.”

While we automatically think of Michael as a car man, his racing career began on two wheels. A natural path for him, seeing as his father was so accomplished on them, but a certain escapade on one would lead him to rethink his planned route into competitive Motorsport.

“ When I was 16, I fell off a trials bike. I damaged the bottom of my spine and I subsequently wasn’t allowed to take part in any form of contact sports in case of causing paralysis, which was a pity.”

A meeting with Pat Murphy led him to getting behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta in April 1983 for a 1300cc Production Saloon race at Mondello Park. This meant he competed against his father, finishing right on Des’ bumper in fourth with the pair sharing fastest lap!

For 1984, he borrowed his father’s Opel Kadett for a few outings where he gained more race experience but also won the IMRC “Young Racing Driver of the Year” award.

With a view to following in the footsteps of other Irish drivers into Formula Ford, a Van Diemen RF81 was bought in the winter of 1984 and with the help of family friend and mechanic Dessie Crowley, work on the car began. With the backing of Sprint Instant Print, hopes were high but sadly the sudden passing of Dessie put a stop to all their plans for the forthcoming season.

“We got the car and Dessie had stripped it down when unfortunately he had a heart attack and died suddenly, which was a terrible blow to us both as a friend and in business. He was great and was such a loss to us all.”

With the help of some friends, they decided to put the car back together but were plagued with engine problems from the off.

“ We got the car put back together with the help of some friends but we had engine problems all year. We blew five engines that season due to crack in an oil gallery but by that time it was too late and we had run out of money.”

1986 was only graced by renting a Crosslé Formula Ford for the Dún Laoghaire street races and a Metro for the European round of the MG Metro Series which famously visited the Phoenix Park Motor Races in Dublin that year. Also competing in that race was Irish rally legend Billy Coleman who by that time was driving the Group B 6R4 rally version. This one off drive in the Park though would eventually lead to more.

“I rented a Metro from an English team and it cost £1800 at the time. I managed to get eighteen sponsors to give me a hundred pounds each so that’s how I got to do it! I did well, finishing seventh out of twenty seven. Austin Rover then offered me a drive in Silverstone in the UK the following weekend where I was going well until I ended up having a huge accident and destroyed the car. Somehow though, they seemed to like me and offered me a drive for the following year in their development car, a Metro Turbo. Unfortunately we had lots of problems because it was a development car that year.”

Once given a proven car, Austin Rover’s faith in Michael was repaid to as he lay second in the 1988 British Championship up until the team’s sponsor pulled out after the British Grand Prix support race, where he had finished third. So the drive and the chance for the championship were gone but the experience served him well and he knew if he was to continue racing it would be in Tin Tops.

“I came home and worked in the family business but rented a Fiat Ritmo for the Dundalk Street Races in 1989 and raced Mick Leonard’s old Ritmo in Mondello in 1990 and enjoyed that and won a lot of races in it.”

A year’s sabbatical was taken in 1991 to concentrate on work, bar one outing in a Peugeot 205 run by Joe Murray. It’s funny to think that one outing that year would lead to a twenty-eight year (to date) working relationship between the two men. For 1992, a Peugeot 205 was bought to contest the Group N series in the Touring Car class. All was going well and while leading the series a freak accident would put paid to his chances of winning the title and very nearly ended his time behind the wheel full stop!

“I was in the garage one evening in July and was rushing to catch a friend who was leaving and with the dusk light I ran through a glass door which was pulled across a pedestrian door and simply didn’t see it and a pane of glass went through my shoe.  I lost four and half pints of blood but I was very, very lucky. I had won all the 205 and Group N races up to then but missed all of August and came back in September for the Leinster Trophy meeting. Joe had adapted the car to help my left foot as it was still very weak and I ended up finishing second to Mervyn Miller to win the Group N series but not the 205 series.”

Now fully healed and determined to pick up where he left off the previous year, the Peugeot 205 was brought back out to contest the Group N and Peugeot 205 series. Also a Fiat Uno was added to the stable to compete in the new manufacturer backed one make championship. Both cars again were prepared and run by Joe Murray of Murray Motorsport. Straight away Michael was competitive and a perfect year followed, taking all three championships along with the coveted Sexton Trophy!

“I enjoyed single seaters, but whatever I was going to do, I wanted to do it properly. I couldn’t afford to do single seaters properly but I could do saloons. I always found it easier to get sponsors for saloons. It was good for the car business we had at the time too. At that time I was doing three championships and they were shown on RTE and UTV because of the RPM Motorsport programme so I was on TV all the time. I was on RTE on a Thursday night and UTV on a Friday night and I remember sitting beside the late Bertie Fisher at the RTE Sports awards that year and he turned to me and said; “Jesus, everytime I turn on RPM you are on it, your budget must be huge!” In reality my budget would probably cover his bill for the Circuit of Ireland that year!!”

By 1994, the Peugeot had served him well but it was moved on to a more powerful Opel Astra GSi. Still retaining the Fiat Uno, Michael set out to defend both his Touring Car and Uno series titles. A big challenge and it nearly came off as he won the Touring Cars but missed out on the Uno title to Steve Griffin after some great battles.

For 1995, he again won the Touring Car title but was once again second in the Uno series- to Michael Barrable this time.

In 1996, the Touring Car class had become his sole focus and the little Uno was retired. The Touring Car series had grown more competitive and once again he successfully defended his crown in the trusty Astra.

By 1997, it looked like more of the same until Ed O’Connor brought out his Renault Clio Williams to end Michael’s unbeaten Touring Car Championship winning streak.

The decade of the 1990s of Michael’s racing career would be his standout period for back to back success in different classes and to claim eight championships has surely to be a record which will remain forever.

A new challenge beckoned for 1998 and 1999 as he entered the UK Ford Fiesta Championship. It would be a huge commitment to undertake as it consisted of fourteen race weekends and also fourteen mid-week test days.

“ I went to England to do the Fiesta series which was a huge commitment but between trying to do it and mix it with work I couldn’t give it my full attention. I won a lot of races but never put it together to feature in the championships.”

By now, Ireland was on the up economically and close friend Paddy Shovlin suggested a much different championship to contest for the new millenium. The jump from a Ford Fiesta to a Ferrari 430 for the European Challenge series was a bit daunting, but for the following eight years it proved no problem for Michael, as he won the Pro category in 2005 and 2007.

“It was a great opportunity to do something like that but we worked very hard on it and on getting the sponsorship to do it. We were with Ferrari UK for the first three years but moved to an Italian team called Rosso Corsa who we got on very well with and it was there the good results started to come in. I was racing against ex-F1 drivers and good Formula 2 drivers at the time. I worked hard on my fitness as I cycled a lot and played competitive squash too. You had to work hard, as the budget was very high. Even though Ferrari were paying half of it we still had to bring the other half, so it wasn’t a jolly boys outing series that it may have looked like.”

Maybe it was the hard work or maybe it was driving skills or even the good old Irish charm but during this time a chance to drive the ultimate race car appeared. A current Ferrari Formula 1 car of the period.

A big change from a saloon even if it was a Ferrari but an even bigger one from the last single seater he drove nearly twenty years before, his Van Diemen Formula Ford!

“ Ferrari would release or sell one Formula One car to people who they were close to. As myself and Paddy were racing in the Ferrari challenge for a number of years by this time, they offered one to us! We bought it as we knew it would only go up in value. As a result, we bought it, ran it and sold it without it costing us money in the end. We actually had two cars one was a 1999 ex-Irvine car and 2003 ex- Barrechello and Schmacher car. Ferrari ran the cars for us for free in return for doing demonstrations in them. The quickest I got out of it was about five seconds off Schmaucher’s time and that was also using GP2 tyres and slighly less revs. It was very very special to drive a car like that, and to drive especially around Mugello and Monza.”

Hard as it is to believe, Michael even drove the F1 Ferrari around the Monaco Grand Prix circuit for this famous Shell Oils ad:

Another one of these demonstration events brought him home to Dublin in 2003, where the crowds that turned up for the Phoenix Park Motor Races that year got to witness a genuine Ferrari Formula One car in action in the capital’s parkland. It was regarded by many to be a dangerous track in a single seater such as a Formula Ford or Formula Vee, but in a proper F1 car must have been very daunting.

“That was probably one of the most stupidest things I ever did, driving the Formula One car around the Phoenix Park and I certainly wouldn’t do it again!”, he reflects.

While talking about the Phoenix Park, Michael differs from others to wanting it to come back to the racing calendar, even though he had many successful days racing there.

“I loved the Phoenix Park, looked forward to it for nine months of the year and everything that it stood for. The history of it and I had great fun racing there and won there nine times but I think really it was unacceptably dangerous. The cars were going too quick for there and with it being so competitive, be it accidentally or not, if two cars touched and went off someone could get badly hurt. When I raced the Metro Turbo there in the 1987 I was doing 144mph going down into Ratra! So as much as I loved it I wouldn’t bring it back.”

After finishing out the 2008 season in the Ferrari- this time as a GT3 spec car, the economy in Ireland was in poor health. Nobody was willing to part with their cash or even be seen to do so in large amounts and certainly not for motor racing. Work had to come first and after building the Beacon Hospital in 2006 it had to be his priority as he is responsible for eleven hundred people working there. Apart from doing the SPA 24Hr race in Belgium in 2009, it would be the last time Michael would drive competitively for three years. In 2013 and 2014 an old contact from the Ferrari challenge days persuauded him to try his hand in a Maserati.

“I did a handful of races in 2013 and 2014 in the Maserati series in China, America, Italy and the UK but it wasn’t that serious and more of a jolly,but it was good fun all the same.”

The bug was back though, and as the economy was back on the mend the lure of the SEAT Supercopa Ireland series caught his eye. He enjoyed success in those but after doing a couple of Ford Fiesta ST championship races in 2016 in a borrowed car from Mark Turley, he was back on to Joe Murray to build him a car of his own.

“I got Joe to build me a car for 2017 and went well in it and would have won the championship only for Mark Turley crashing into me in the first race. I lost points that day which cost me the championship in the end.”

So after currently thirty-six years on and off of racing what changes are there now from when he started ?

“There aren’t any really, the competition is as strong now as it was in the nineties. I don’t really have a favourite track here, but I do love Mondello especially the opposite way round. It’s all about the competition, when your in a close competitive class that’s what I get my kicks from. The faces are different but it is as every bit as hard to win now as it was back in the Uno or Group N days.”

Time will tell if we see Michael claim another title in the ‘Tin Tops’ but I would bet my money he will certainly be in the mix for it as the season comes to an end. It would be nice to see as he has been a great supporter of Irish motorsport throughout the years, both on and off the track. Maybe in the future he can pass on his knowledge to the young drivers coming up. I doubt it will be anytime soon though if the eagerness I saw from him to get out for the first race of the year is anything to go by.

Barry Cregg

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