BY MARTIN WALSH
FOR over 22 years now, a white Mini, with a few red stripes, sits unattended in a loft in Kilcrohane on the Sheep’s Head peninsula. It didn’t always lead a sheltered life. Indeed, before a forklift elevated it to its current resting place, it rallied over West Cork terrain. It may well do so again, albeit in the distant future, but for now it remains a car ‘with potential.’
It was the car that ushered in the rallying exploits of Kilcrohane native Jer O’Donovan who went on to become the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship Group N champion in 2009. Humble beginnings in some ways as O’Donovan summed up his career to date.
‘My ambition was bigger than the purse,’ he said, before he outlined the early days.
‘I remember my father (Patrick) telling me and my brother Stephen about the Circuit of Ireland coming down the Goat’s Path in 1955 and telling us that Pat Moss was one of the fastest and most exciting drivers to watch. To our surprise, he informed us that Pat Moss was in fact a woman.’
Pat Moss, who died in 2008 and was the sister of Sterling Moss, was a very successful rally driver. Such tales shaped O’Donovan’s interest in rallying.
‘Billy Coleman was the next name that became familiar to us. We weren’t going to rallies and nobody around us seemed to be that interested,’ he said.
But things changed, as he explained: ‘Dan O’Sullivan in Durrus bought a rally car and he used to bale hay for my father and we knew him from that.’
Jer O’Donovan’s first real taste of rallying – the 1983 West Cork Rally – was, in essence, really only a glimpse.
‘Our father took us down, we didn’t go to Clonakilty or to the service area, we watched a stage and as our father had to return home to the farm, we just saw that one stage, that was our treat,’ he said, and although it was a brief encounter it made an impression.
‘When we (Jer and his brother Stephen) got home we decided we were going rallying,’ O’Donovan said.
‘My father had purchased a Mini from Christy Crowley in Skibbereen for 60 pounds; it was to teach our older sister Anne how to drive.’
However, some steering issues meant that PZK 491 wasn’t quite ready to facilitate Anne’s learning, and Jer and Stephen spotted the opportunity. He said: ‘We saw potential and decided that it was going to be our rally car.’
Stephen was tasked to acquire a number of lengths of galvanising piping from the local branch of Drinagh Co-op that facilitated the insertion of a roll cage. The car made its debut on the 1985 Marine Hotel Single Stage Rally with Stephen at the wheel and co-driven by Dan Kelleher. Stephen quipped: ‘Believe it or not, we won our class.’
Exactly a year later in Glandore, Jer made his debut as a driver.
After four events, the Mini was put into retirement and more galvanised piping was purchased, this time to rally dress a Ford Escort XR3i that Jer drove on the 1988 West Cork Rally. It was as brief as that first visit as a spectator. Jer said: ‘About a mile into the first stage, I put it off the road.’
A visit to Shanahan’s Garage in Leap allowed the Kilcrohane boys to effect repairs and compete in the Sunday run. However, that too was relatively short. They went off the road on the third stage near Rosscarbery. It brought a new meaning to consistency.
A Sunbeam purchased from Mallow’s Hugh Twomey allowed Jer compete in the 1989 Fastnet Rally and another visit to Glandore. Although he had quick times there and in the hills of Donegal and Carlow, both in 1990, the car was unreliable.
A Vauxhall Nova was next on the list as the O’Donovans continued to look after the car themselves. Accidents on the West Cork and the Raven’s Rock Rally led to a discussion with Welsh preparation ace Harry Hockly and the acquisition of a rebuilt ex-Mark Higgins car for the 1992 Cork ‘20’ International Rally. Jer also drove the car in the Rally of the Lakes.
Another car from Harry Hockly, an Opel Belgium car that was previously driven by Bernard Munster, was next on the scene before it was replaced in 1995 by a Group N Opel Astra, a car that had won the Junior British Rally Championship in 1994. Four years later it made way for an ex-Chris Berbeck Group A Astra that, despite its credentials, never seemed to work for O’Donovan Motorsport.
In 2002, a Ford Escort Cosworth from Dominic McNeill Motorsport landed in Kilcrohane. The car lasted some seven years with class victories in the Fastnet and the Rally of the Lakes. By then also, and after a succession of other co-drivers, Stephen was back calling the pace-notes.
The acquisition of Alan Ring’s Group N Subaru brought consistency for the 2007 season and onwards. It yielded Group N championship success in 2009 with Enniskeane’s Sean Hayde as co-driver. Asked if that was the highlight, Jer chuckled before responding: ‘Agh, well it was, but we’re not finished yet.’ He added: ‘I was runner-up in the Irish Tarmac Junior Championship in 1993.’
One of the final outings for the ex-Ring car was on the 2013 Fastnet Rally – eighth overall and a Group N victory was a temporary goodbye to rallying as family business took full focus. There was agreement from the O’Donovan brothers that the acquisition of an ex-Eamonn Boland Subaru was a mistake.
Downbeat but not downtrodden, Jer explained the next acquisition and their current car.
‘Stephen had been looking at a Skoda Fabia S2000, an ex-Jan Kopecky car, and it was on his radar for a while. We bought it with no suspension on it,’ he said.
Change of co-driver also followed with Union Hall’s Derek Tobin joining the team. So far, the car has only competed on four rallies.
‘I think it’s ready now, it’s fully rebuilt. It’s a great car to drive and reminds me of the Corsa days,’ he said.
It must be said, too, that the O’Donovans have a unique identity.
‘People that don’t know us in rallying, if you mention the green car, then they know us. They know us by our car rather than by ourselves. It’s not a colour copied from anywhere else, it’s our trademark,’ he said.
Jer O’Donovan is very definite that his rallying is far from over. It’s still about ambition and potential – and not forgetting the purse – and then, of course, that Mini is still in the loft, waiting to rediscover its potential.