Stafford and Ryan blaze trail to top spot in Carlow Stages Rally
DESPITE IT being on its opt-out year from the Dunlop National championship, the Carlow Stages Rally under the guidance of Ted O'Shaughnessy attracted a near-capacity entry for their annual event.
It was a measure of the clubman support to the event that only three of the crews piloted 4wd cars. The event also incorporated the ever-popular Mk2 challenge with nearly 50 of the fans' favourites included on the entry list.
Number one seeds for the event were the ultra-rapid combination of James Stafford and Amy Ryan aboard their 2.5 Millington-engined Darrian T90 GTR. Big James won both the Raven's Rock and Dick Bailey Stages rallies in 2012 and he and Amy were favourites to add the Carlow Stages Rally title to their C.V.
They were followed off the start line by Paddy McVeigh and Steven O'Hanlon aboard their Subaru Impreza S10 WRC. Third off the start line was the familiar baby blue Escort of Frank Kelly and Liam Brennan. Kelly and Brennan were the Mk2 Challenge holders and they faced stiff opposition from 2012 runners-up Gary McPhillips and Donal Barrett, with another Escort crew of Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan rounding out the top five.
Damp conditions greeted the crews on the Sunday morning as they set off to tackle the first of nine special stages. Although tyre conditions seemed straightforward, the shiny tar that the stages were littered with made them very tricky. When the crews returned to first service McPhillips and Barrett held a ten-second lead from the Stafford/Ryan piloted Darrian. McPhillips was only on his third event in his new car but he was taking to it like a duck to water and a fastest time on stage three propelled him and Barrett to the head of the leaderboard.
Stafford was content in second at this early stage of the event. He like everyone was finding the stages extremely slippery and of course running first on the road meant he was the first to come across the tricky spots. Smyth lead the two litre charge and held and impressive third on his home event. Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan lay fourth, a second fastest time on stage three hauling them back up the field after a slow start.
The Escorts of Trevor Culbert and David Condell lay fifth and sixth respectively, with the smallest of margins separating them. Seventh was the flying Peugeot 205 RWD of John Stafford and Richie Codd. The Clonmines men are household names from their Class 9 days and were now after stepping up to the two-litre 16v class in John's new mount. They were an excellent fourth fastest on the opening stage and led Class 13 after the opening loop.
Over the next loop of stages James Stafford and Amy Ryan exerted their authority when the Power's of Ballycullane-backed Darrian posted three fastest times in a row to turn a ten-second deficit into a 23-second lead. Conditions were still extremely tricky and Stafford was showing the rest of the field a clean pair of heels in the damp and slippy conditions, and this despite the feathers of an unfortunate bird making their way into the cockpit of the Darrian through the air vent!
Gary McPhillips and Donal Barrett may have slipped to second, but they were still well in command of the Mk2 challenge after being quickest Escort on all three stages over the middle loop. There was a seven-strong line of Escorts behind them in the overall results. Sam and Alan Smyth were still third but they were now coming under strong pressure from a recovering Frank Kelly and Liam Brennan. They had got ahead of Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan whose frontal charge on a bank on stage four saw them drop more time to the leading crews.
The Escorts of Trevor Culbert/Ray Fitzpatrick, David Condell/Andrew Browne and John McQuaid/Seamus O'Connor held sixth, seventh and eighth overall. The ever-entertaining Liam Howlett and John McGrath were now up to ninth. 'Jingles' was another man who was slow out of the traps but he was back on the pace in his Paul Brooks Car Sales-backed Mk2 through the middle loop, matching the leading Escorts and nippingahead of John Stafford and Richie Codd in the RWD Peugeot 205. The Clonmines duo had slipped behind their great rivals but they still led Class 13 and rounded out the top ten.
There were changes at the head of the field on the final loop. One thing that didn't change though was the pace of James Stafford and Amy Ryan as the Darrian crew powered their way through the final stages to their first Carlow Stages rally.
It was behind that things started to kick off on the final loop. Gary McPhillips and Donal Barrett held a comfortable second overall but on stage eight, the red Escort got caught out on a tight right-hand bend, the impact damaging the steering on the front left corner too badly to continue.
This let Frank Kelly and Liam Brennan through to retain the Mk2 Challenge crown. The Kumho-shod Escort had pushed ahead of Sam and Alan Smyth as the stages dried out to climb to second at the expense of McPhillips and Barrett. It was a fine third overall for Sam and Alan Smyth and second Escort on their home event, a great result for a crew who have had not been out in competition for twelve months.
They were followed by Trevor Culbert and Ray Fitz with Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan dropping behind to fifth following another bank-bashing exercise on stage seven! David Condell and Andrew Browne were sixth with John McQuaid and Seamus O'Connor taking seventh.
Liam Howlett and John McGrath put in a charge on the final loop in the Stafford Race Engines-backed Escort, but eighth was as high as they could climb following their slow start. It was still a great recovery drive after being 17th after the opening stage.
John Stafford and Richie Codd claimed a fine ninth and the winner's spoils in Class 13 following a textbook drive. Liam Bowman and Ger Kennedy rounded out the top ten and took second in Class 13.
In the class awards, Eoin Neville took Class 3 by a mere four seconds from Peter Murphy and Darren Deery. Richard Cleary and Niamh Holland took second in Class 11, with Mark Kennedy and Ian O'Leary taking fourth on the debut of their new S1600 Suzuki Swift.
Stephen Scallan and Paul Furlong were sixth in Class 11. As already mentioned, John Stafford and Richie Codd took Class 13 honours while James Bradley and Maria Kehoe took the spoils in Class 22.
Liam Howlett and John McGrath (inset left) were second in Class 25 with Johnny Murphy and Martin Nolan taking fourth in the Class, while in Class 26, Gary Nolan navigated Adrian Hetherington to second.