Sport

So close, but West Cork Rally glory eluded Frank O’Mahony

March 18th, 2021 1:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

Frank O’Mahony/Hugh McPhillips in their Subaru Impreza 555.

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BY MARTIN WALSH

STATISTICS are like a bikini – what they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is vital. That’s according to Aaron Levenstein, a former business professor of Baruch College in the United States.

Given it’s the month of March, we continue the West Cork Rally theme – it’s fitting and, given the opening few words, fashionable.

So far, 28 different drivers have won the event, but one driver that probably netted more top-three finishes than anyone else and has never won the event but is, without doubt, one of the most popular drivers ever to have competed in Clonakilty.

Carrigaline’s Frank O’Mahony knows West Cork as good as anyone. After all, he was born in Drimoleague. The lineage is strong and he’s very proud of his roots. In sporting realms, holding a West Cork passport is now the envy of many.

‘I consider the West Cork and indeed the Fastnet as my home rallies,’ O’Mahony says.

Both of his parents were from West Cork, his father George was a Drimoleague man and his mother Mary was a native of that great rowing parish, Aughadown.

Frank has competed in 20 West Cork Rallies including the first in 1977 and his last (currently) in 2000. In terms of podiums, he finished second twice and third on three occasions. He led the event several times, but never managed, albeit for a variety of reasons rather than excuses, to attain ultimate glory in Clonakilty.

He’s also had a front row seat to watch the rally’s meteoric rise.

‘It’s not surprising, everyone involved runs a very good event. The stages are superb and what I like about them is that they are very safe,’ O’Mahony says.

‘The rally has great backing from Clonakilty. I also had great support from Keohane Readymix, who also sponsored the rally for a few years. An Súgán was part and parcel of our visits, it was like an annual pilgrimage, we had great times there.

‘We had great camaraderie with the Welsh crews that we built up when we did the Motoring News Championship and had great weekends in Clonakilty, especially on the Monday. The enthusiasm for the rally is huge. There are key people there like Vincent Kingston, Robert Walsh and Martin Kingston and others that ensure the rally is a success. Everything is good about the West Cork, to be fair.’

Frank O’Mahony competed in the West Cork Rally on 20 different occasions.

 

O’Mahony’s first appearance in 1977 (seeded at 21) was behind the wheel of a Mini. Within just two years he was driving a Mk. 2 Ford Escort bearing the registration plates SIF 200. In a previous life it bore the plates STW 200R belonging to the Ford Motor Company and driven by other luminaries such as Timo Makinen, Roger Clark, Hannu Mikkola and Billy Coleman, who took the car to third in the ’79 West Cork a few weeks after winning the Galway International.

On the 1982 event O’Mahony was third overall, finishing behind the Vauxhall Chevette’s of Demi Fitzgerald and winner Russell Brookes.

‘Being on the podium on the West Cork for the first time was a big thing for me. It was the first stepping stone to try and win the rally,’ he says.

The following year a Vauxhall Chevette replaced the Escort, but he had trouble all the way through and finished fourth overall. Midway through the opening day of the 1984 event, O’Mahony led Bob Fowden by some 20 seconds.

‘I was on Michelin tyres. At the service halt, I was persuaded to switch to Dunlop, who had a new tyre out. Around two miles into the Rossmore stage I got a front-left wheel puncture, I kept going to the stage finish but lost a lot of time. I actually didn’t hit anything. I dropped to third,’ O’Mahony says.

He switched back to the Michelin tyres for the Sunday stages. Fowden lost time with an off, as the rally winner, Malahide’s Richie Heeley, nursed his car to finish with a water pump problem. O’Mahony had to settle for third after a tie-break with Kenny McKinstry.

‘That was a good rally, but I suppose it was one that got away from me due to the puncture,’ he says.

O’Mahony was second the following year where he was stymied by transmission woes. He subsequently took time out from rallying when his son Colin became increasingly ill. Returning in 1988, once more in a Chevette, he retired when it dropped a valve. There were non-finishes as well in 1990 and 1991, the latter in a Sierra Cosworth that wasn’t to his liking.

For the 1992 event, the all-powerful Metro 6R4, a car prepared by Welshman John Price, was O’Mahony’s new mode of transport and he was back on the podium taking third place, having spun the car on near Rowry Bridge where he also bent a rear wheel.

The following year proved to be one of the most exciting encounters. O’Mahony and Price had a terrific dice. Dunmanway’s Liam McCarthy, also in a Metro 6R4, led initially only for a broken quill shaft to end his dreams of a win. Still, O’Mahony’s quest was very much alive and he shared top spot with Price at the close of business on Saturday evening. However, he had concerns about his car only and in the bright sunshine of the Sunday morning his concerns came true when the cross shaft in the back differential went on the opening stage at Ring. Price went on to claim the spoils as O’Mahony clawed his way back to second, but it could have been so different.

‘That was the one I really wanted to win as it was a strong entry,’ he says.

O’Mahony’s final podium was third in the Metro in 1994 behind the Ford Sierra Cosworth of Liam O’Callaghan (winner) and Bob Fowden’s Ford Escort Cosworth.

Sadly, and unexpectedly, Colin passed away on February 9th, 1996. Encouraged to compete in Clonakilty by his family and close friends, O’Mahony did a deal with Kenny McKinstry for a Subaru Legacy.

‘I hadn’t driven the car at all and really I was in the wrong frame of mind. There were clutch problems and I pulled out after a few stages,’ he explains.

Dominating the 1997 event, he was in a good position to finally win the rally. However, on the second run through Ardfield, the cockpit of the Subaru Legacy filled with smoke after the power steering went on fire and he dropped to third.

‘Going into the last stage near Rosscarbery, I was 19 seconds down,’ he recalls, and the opportunity of that elusive victory was just too much to ignore. In rallying terminology, it was a win-it or bin-it scenario.

‘I figured I could do it (win) and Bob probably reckoned I wouldn’t be able to take that much time out of him,’ O’Mahony says.

‘I knew I was making time coming towards the end of the stage as the spectators were still looking up the road (after Fowden) when I arrived. I made a mistake over a bump. The notes clearly read flat crest keep middle, I never heard ‘keep middle’. The two left wheels landed about six inches on the grass and that was that. It was a serious enough accident, a kind of a one-stopper job.’

Three attempts in a Subaru 555 didn’t deliver either. In 1998, the rally was won by Dunmanway’s Donal O’Donovan. In ’99 both O’Mahony and Liam McCarthy were dicing for victory only for both to crash out on the same stage. It was another missed opportunity

In 2013, his son Brian – the 2012 Dunlop National Rally champion – drove a McKinstry-hired Subaru WRC to victory in Clonakilty. The TP Houlihan Trophy finally ended up in the O’Mahony household – that gave Frank as much personal satisfaction as if he had won it himself. Little wonder, West Cork is all about lineage.

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