BY MARTIN WALSH
WHETHER he is on two wheels or four and once it moves quickly, Damien McCarthy is quite comfortable, indeed, he seems very much in control of the situation. For a decade that began in 2007, the Barryroe native made a great impression in rallying despite his honest assessment ‘I rallied for a hobby, that is all it was. It was enjoyable.’
But life goes on regardless and he is more than content as he looks to other phases in his life that includes time for his latest hobby - mountain biking. Yes, he was always keen on cycling and joined a group in Bandon, more so to keep fit for his rallying outings. For now, the bike is a back to the future scenario, but a rally return hasn’t been dismissed.
With a stage of the West Cork Rally passing outside his door, it was only natural that the event provided the backdrop to his first competitive outing. Ownahincha’s Eamonn Hayes was his co-driver, it proved to be a formidable partnership with a huge amount of trust on both sides. ‘We were so well in tune at the time, Eamonn could write pace notes for me and I wouldn’t have to do reconnaissance, they would be spot on.’
The team was formed after a cold call. ‘I actually didn’t really know Eamonn at all, I just rang him up to do a night navigation rally (2006) and that was it.’
The first outing (2007 West Cork Rally) resulted in a non-finish. McCarthy had better luck in the next one, a mini stage rally run out of the Celtic Ross Hotel while a second in class and 26th.overall in the Fastnet Rally brought the curtain down on that first season.
The next season he contested several events both on tarmac and in the forests as he competed in the Junior Rally Championship. Eighth overall and a class win on the Midland Rally was an illustration of the rapid progress he was making, talent was undoubted.
There were raised eyebrows when he wasn’t successful in the Billy Coleman Young Driver of the Year award that went to Galwegian Ross Forde. It didn’t cause McCarthy’s forehead to become furrowed, he was nonchalant about the whole issue, after all he viewed his rallying as a hobby. There was another top 10 finish in the Midland Rally in 2008 - seventh this time and of course another Class 11 victory.
The fact that he was achieving strong results outside his county, it came as no surprise when he finished seventh in the West Cork Rally in 2010 and, by then, the customary Class 11 spoils. The home fans were happy as McCarthy continued his upward spiral. ‘The car was developing all the time, we had it fully re-built, it was lightened and we did a lot of set-up changes.’
There’s nothing better than succeeding on home ground and, while outings were few in 2011, fifth and eighth overall finishes on the respective West Cork and Fastnet kept his name very much in profile. ‘Overall though, and aside from my family, it would not have been possible were it not for the likes of Jim O’Neill, Ken Stanley and Sean Santry; without them we couldn’t have done it.’
It got even better in 2012. A magnificent third overall on the West Cork – the first time a 1600cc powered car made the podium. ‘It was a nice achievement for sure. It’s my home rally. We got a lot of recognition for it, especially locally, which is always nice.’
It was followed by a fourth place finish in the Raven’s Rock Rally, 15th on the Donegal Harvest and a third overall in the Fastnet. But is wasn’t a case of more of the same as Sorcha Kelly called the notes on the ‘Rock’ and Monaghan’s Emmet Sherry stepped in for Donegal, the transitions were seamless, a tribute to his prowess behind the wheel.
That was the final season on board the white Honda Civic (94-LH-694). Through the winter and the early weeks of 2013, Damien and his father Willie (who was also adept behind the wheel) built another Honda – progress of the build was charted regularly in The Southern Star.
The reason for change - ‘I thought the shell was getting tired and there was only a bolt-in cage in it and from a safety perspective, I wanted to change.’
Its debut outing - yes, on the West Cork, ended with an overheated engine. It made it to the finish of the ALMC Rally in Trim, but baulked on the Cork ‘20’ that proved to be a farewell outing.
‘I had no regrets selling the white Honda, I just never got the new car to do what I wanted to do. It was set-up a bit too stiff, it didn’t move around the way I wanted.’
A Ford Puma S1600 was next. ‘The main reason for getting it (the Puma) was that the engine blew in the Honda due to gearbox issues. At the time, there wasn’t a gearbox available for it (that would be up to it) so I just changed over.’
‘The car (Puma) was a massive handful to drive, but I really enjoyed it. It was a challenge.’
For the seasons until 2017 success was sparse - his outing on the West Cork (2017) proved that home ground can often be too familiar and he crashed at his uncle’s house, a stone’s throw from his own homestead where the car was prepared.
‘That was knowing the junction too well and running on a different line to everyone else. The first pillar that you see (at my uncle’s house) isn’t the pillar that you want to be cutting for. I stayed out left and turned in late, I got on top of the gravel, the diff (differential) was too tight in the car and I went straight on.
‘It would have driven out only that rose joint pulled out. It was a bit of an embarrassing moment alright, but you have to take the good with the bad.’ At least the walk home was short.
Life moves on and so did Damien’s priorities as he attended college by night that yielded a qualification in insurance assessment. A house was also on that list and that too is being mastered.
Like others, big-time rallying may have been out of Damien McCarthy’s league – but he wouldn’t have been a stranger if he was in it, indeed, he would have been quite comfortable. Reflecting on his decade, he remarked, ‘I don’t think we could have achieved much more for what we had.’ Of that there is no doubt.
Although 2012 was trophy-laden, Damien commented, ‘The 2008 season was most enjoyable with the Junior Championship as we were battling with people with similar cars, Jason Ryan (Youghal), Peter Wilson (Meath) and Patrick Cunningham (Galway).’
For the immediate future, or more to the point, post Covid-19, Damien McCarthy will hone his skills at mountain biking. While he admits that reading the road situations transfer over fairly quickly from rallying, mountain biking is more precise than road (cycling) racing as there is less room. He adds, ‘It’s more exciting.’ As to comparisons with rallying, ‘It will never match it but it will do for now.’
The Ford Puma S1600 is ready, Eamonn is still only a phone call away and the comeback is probably only on hold. ‘I would like to be competitive, I was never the type to go around on a Sunday drive.’