BY MARTIN WALSH
THE surname Cronin is synonymous with motorsport. It has already spanned five decades – to be more precise, 40 years – and shows no signs of abating.
Denis Cronin’s first rally outing was in the 1981 Rally of the Lakes in Killarney, while the Ballylickey man’s most recent was the Killarney Historic Rally at the end of November. In between he has become a household name, not just here in West Cork, but well beyond and his driving skills have thrilled spectators from Mizen to Malin.
He still retains what seems an eternal zest for the sport where his nephew Keith has won the Irish Tarmac Championship and is a record equalling four-time British Rally champion; another nephew, Daniel, has a number of rally wins under his belt and two other nephews, Robert and Colin, are making waves in karting. The future remains bright.
The Cronin name is a generation game and Denis has no thoughts of hanging up his racing boots or gloves for that matter.
Recalling the early days, he seems totally at ease. Everything, just akin to his driving capabilities, is calculated. It needs to be in a sport where mistakes have severe consequences, not to mention those of a financial nature. It’s a fickle game, too. It’s never over until it’s over.
As a child, like most of his generation and older, he recalls the Circuit of Ireland Rally passing by his home in Ballylickey, even crews stopping to fill petrol. But the spark was lit a few years previous.
‘When I was about the age of four or five, I remember my late uncle Ted taking me to an event at the Tim Healy Pass. I remember being in the back of the car, I was too small to be left out (outside the car). He was into fast cars and I can remember coming home, all I could smell was burning rubber. The engine was out on the ground the next day, I don’t think it ever went back into that car again. I think he had rally fever that day,’ he said.
A momentary pause about the past, Denis enthused, ‘The big day was always the Circuit of Ireland passing by here. Noel Smith crashed up the road and his Porsche was parked in our place here in Ballylickey for two days; that was the first time I was alongside a rally car.’
With the fumes well gone, it wasn’t that long until there was another buzz about Ballylickey.
‘Sean Hurley (from Glengarriff) started working in his own business in part of our yard and he began rallying so that was when I started going to events to watch him.’
Soon after, Denis was sampling the action first hand.
‘My first event was in 1981, the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney. We went off the road in Scartaglen on the Saturday evening but came back to finish third on the Sunday run.’
Denis’s great friend, the late Jimmy Coakley, was more than just his navigator at the time.
‘He built the car really. It was a very different time. We had scaffolding bars as the roll cage and just ordinary seats. No suits but we had helmets; well, anything at all that would fit on your head.’
Another Jimmy Coakley-built Mk. 2 Escort followed in 1986.
‘We crashed it in Banna in 1991, we had nothing but trouble with it even though it was a lovely car. We then got another Escort from Hugh Twomey, a car that was previously campaigned by James Cullen and Vincent Bonner.’
While away in Wicklow looking at a Mk. 2 Escort belonging to Derek Smith as a possible next purchase, Dunmanway’s Liam McCarthy and Sean Hurley were discussing business matters that subsequently revolved to rallying and led to Denis acquiring McCarthy’s Opel Ascona 400, a car that was also once in the hands of Bonner and Twomey.
‘We had a lot of work to do to get that car working right for us. We even changed the roll cage, as the one that was in it was corroded. The suspension was wrong as well. It took us nearly eight months to get it ready before I went out in it first.’
It was worth the wait as the first time out, he won in Banna. He also drove the car to victory in the Fastnet Rally in 1994.
One of the most iconic cars in rallying, a BMW M3, was the next to land in Ballylickey. It was driven by Billy Coleman, Bernard Béguin, Patrick Snijers, Bertie Fisher, Andrew Nesbitt, Bill Connolly and Gene Meegan.
‘We ended up ringing Kenny McKinstry, who put us in touch with Gene (Meegan) and we bought it. That took a bit of work as well. Jerry Sullivan in Glengarriff really sorted that car.’
It won in Banna in 1996.
By then, the four-wheel drive era was very much the dominant force so it was difficult to be competitive.
‘Our cars were a step behind the top boys as we couldn’t afford them really. It was only when their value fell that we were able to buy them. They were also expensive to maintain.’
Although he held on to the BMW M3 and still has it, a Toyota Celica and Subaru WRCs were wheeled out. One of the Subarus was an ex-Ray Breen car, the other an S11, the former provided him with wins in the West Cork, Circuit of Munster, the Fastnet and the Rally of the Lakes, his first International win.
By that time, another Cronin was hitting the headlines with his nephew Keith capturing the British Rally Championship in 2009, bridging a 35-year gap since Billy Coleman was the first and only Irish driver (up to that time) to win the series. The S11 was moved on to help Keith progress his career.
‘It wasn’t until I drove that (S11) that I really found out that I was only wasting time in the older car. There was a huge difference between them, but the car was expensive to run.’
For Denis, it was back to the ’99 specification Subaru while the pristine BMW M3 was garaged up. Eventually, the Subaru was sold and it was a case of back to the future when Denis purchased a Mk. 2 Escort with the specific intention of competing in the Historic category.
Sitting alongside Denis Cronin is many a co-driver’s dream. For the likes of Jimmy Coakley, Danny Cronin (his brother) John O’Brien, Ciaran Kelleher Bob Kelly, Paul Nagle, Coleman Hurley and Denis’s partner Helen O’Sullivan; it became a reality. Denis added, ‘Keith sat with me on a forest rally.’
Denis holds the late Jimmy Coakley in very high esteem, but it was his brother Danny (the father of Keith, Daniel, Robert and Colin, the current drivers baton holders of the Cronin era) that was instrumental in everything. Denis values that first-hand.
‘He is the unsung hero really, he lives and dies for it.’
A laugh precedes the next comment, ‘We tried to get him to drive years ago, but no good.’
Another laugh punctuates the discussion.
‘Keith and myself always wondered why he is involved because we reckon it’s just hardship he gets. We can never figure out why he likes it so much! In the early years he would spend all night working on the car, no bed at all. He is the driving force behind it all. I reckon it’s an obsession with him, he is totally addicted to motorsport, but sure that’s fine.’
It's understandable that victory in the 2010 Rally of the Lakes is a career highlight. For every joyous occasion, rallying can also yield disappointing outcomes as he explains.
‘I left the Fastnet after me in 2001. Going into the last two stages we led by 27 seconds. I got this idea and started to pace myself and I remember Helen giving out to me several times through the last stage that I was going to lose the rally, she could see I was backing off and she was right, I lost by three seconds. I misjudged it, totally my fault.’ As well as being his co-driver, Helen is Denis’ partner and, together, they have some 80 rallies under their belts. They put the Cronin name on the map and now the next generation is carrying the torch.