BY MARTIN WALSH
THE skill factor required in rallying, be it as a driver or co-driver, isn’t always viewed in the same manner as that in field sports such as football, hurling, rugby or soccer. Recognition isn’t always as definitive and perceptions can often create a false impression.
Rally co-driver Ruth McSweeney (nee Guest), who first competed with her brother David, enjoyed her participation over an 11-year term that began in 2003 at the West Cork Rally. Sport was always a strong theme in the Guest household in Clonakilty where her sister Laura went on to become hugely successful in rugby circles and is a former overall winner of the Celtic Ross West Cork Sports Star Award.
For Ruth, who now lives in Dunmanway with her husband Jason McSweeney and their three children – James (5), Ronan (4) and Aoife (1) – there was never going to be any other sport; rallying was almost inherent.
‘I think I was only about four or five years old when Gus Kearney (rally driver and family friend from Clonmel) used to stay with us for the West Cork Rally. He would take us for a spin in his rally car,’ Ruth explained.
‘Dad (Raymond) used to navigate for John Power, who was from Mayo. I remember standing on fences, watching rallying at a very young age.’
Ironically, Ruth never saw Laura play for Ireland due to clashes with rallying, yet both have a mutual respect for their sporting endeavours.
In that first season of rallying (2003) with her brother, non-finishes were a constant but nothing was going to derail her determination to continue as a rally co-driver. Prior to that she had competed in karting at the same time as David competed.
‘I did it for a year. I was in Pro-Karts and raced in Watergrasshill, Kilcornan, Mondello and Santry,’ she said, and added: ‘I never won anything, I used to finish in the top eight but most of the time, I was the only female competing.’
Charleville’s Maria Daly also karted around the same time. While motorsport is a very male-dominated sport, female participation is on the increase and now the governing body is showing more interest. But at the turn of the century, there was little interest. Ruth recalls those early days.
‘There were very few of us (female competitors) really. Helen O’Sullivan (Denis Cronin’s co-driver), Westmeath’s Lisa Roe and Clare’s Grainne McEnery were there. When I did the national rally championship I got to know Lisa quite well. We (women in rallying) were not taken as serious as we are now, but in saying that we were still well respected. There are a lot more females involved now including those marshalling,’ she said.
From the beginning in 2003 until her final rally in 2014 – ironically, the West Cork Rally where she was co-driver to David once more – Ruth was co-driver to Steve Roberts (Barryroe), Willie Singleton (Armagh), Tommy Doyle (Longford), Kieran Daly (Charleville), Danny McGinley (Donegal), Wesley Patterson (Lisburn), Kieran O’Neill (Belfast), David Percy (Nenagh) and Dunmanway’s Jason McSweeney (her husband) and Liam McCarthy. Each brought different memories.
‘The only rally that I competed with Willie Singleton was the Garda Motor Club’s event in Baltinglass. His car was an ex-Patrick Snijers Escort Cosworth, it was nice to have a spin in such a car, it was a big step-up from the previous cars really,’ Ruth said.
Although competing with Wesley Patterson in a Mk. 2 Ford Escort dominated her career, calling pacenotes for Dunmanway’s Liam McCarthy, in the Cavan Rally and in the Banna Rally, was a great experience.
‘Liam was such an experienced driver, it was just an amazing spin and of course it was a left-hand drive car, a completely different experience and one that I will never forget really. I wrote notes with him too.’
Class wins with Patterson and some of the others were a regular occurrence but nothing is ever guaranteed in rallying. The 2006 Circuit of Ireland is a case in point.
‘I was co-driving with Tommy Doyle and we were leading the class by a good margin but the driveshaft broke on Easter Monday up in Malin Head,’ Ruth recalled.
Experience and experiences are very much part of the rally fabric and that 2007 season included winning a class award in the Dunlop National Rally Championship with Charleville’s Kieran Daly (Ford Focus).
‘It was great to travel to different events all around the country, it was a big challenge. A 4Right in Donegal is a bit different to a 4Right in West Cork.’
But that was all part of the journey.
‘I was co-driving with Wesley (Patterson) for three seasons. It was better to be with one driver rather that changing all the time, you get accustomed to each other’s ways and you build up trust,’ Ruth explained.
The pair won the two-wheel drive award at Lurgan Park, a popular one-day event within the confines of the park. Ruth was also the first to win the Bridie Roberts Memorial Award (highest placed female competitor) at the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney in 2008. Another award that merited special mention is the Johnny Whyte Memorial Award at the Banna Rally – awarded to the highest finishing West Cork crew.
‘Liam (McCarthy) and I won it in 2011 and a few years later (2015) Jason (her husband) won it with Andy Mahon co-driving. To have it in the house twice was nice,’ she said.
Towards the end and whether it was co-driving with her brother or husband, Ruth’s views were changing.
‘In the beginning I really didn’t think about it as much but as time moved on I thought a lot more about safety. You know, you are out of the one household and if something did go wrong,’ she said. However, she acknowledged progress.
‘Safety has improved so much. When I started off there was no Hans device (a head and neck support that is attached to the helmet to reduce the risk of head or neck injuries) and now, since last year, there is the tracking system.’
As for her favourite event, it’s the Donegal International, while Ruth returned to home ground when she named her best-ever stage.
‘Cod’s Head – it’s so fast and abrasive and is such a flowing stage.’
Dunworley – a stage of the West Cork Rally – wasn’t always kind to Ruth, though. On her last rally with David they went off the road. But that almost paled into insignificance compared to 2010 when competing with her then fiancée Jason and a few weeks before their wedding.
‘That was a big accident, we were battling with Damien McCarthy at the time. It was flat in sixth gear, we rolled three or four times and ended up on the roof. We got away lightly and, thankfully, uninjured,’ she recalled.
Even though Ruth admits she is now a nervous spectator, she will still watch Jason and David, who are most likely to be competing against each other whenever rally resumes.
‘My life has changed and there are more important priorities. I am delighted to have done what I did. I loved it. Thankfully, I never got hurt and we had some great results. People don’t realise how good drivers need to be, the control and concentration that is required. Some people think it’s a case of just sitting in and driving.’
It’s much more as Ruth knows, and she was much more than a guest.