Motorsport: Between terror and exhilaration
Published 22/04/2011 | 09:26
KENNY McKinstry barely bats an eyelid as he powers on the brakes and goes from top speed to negotiating a hairpin bend in a matter of seconds. Sure, he does these things for breakfast.
Well, at least he does it before breakfast, as the middle-aged man with a passion for speed is nonchalantly recounting over the radio that the other week he made it down to Dublin Airport from his Banbridge home to drop a friend off and back before 8.0 to tuck into his sausages.
As he does, I'm hanging on to my seat as he rounds the corners.
The new M1 is one of those few things people north and south agree on -- everybody's a fan. But there can't be many drivers who have tackled it with the skill that this experienced rally driver did -- it must have been a doddle compared to what he's used to.
As is this Circuit of Ireland Rally media day where we meet, taking place at Nuttscorner Oval, a modern, windswept racetrack beside Belfast Airport.
The rally's organisers want to bring the event to the people, so they've invited members of the Fourth Estate to experience what the participants go through.
It's not quite hopping around the narrow roads of Donegal, but you get a decent feel for what the co-driver goes through as your stomach churns and you are flung forward, backwards and from side to side -- it's just as well he wasn't looking for any directions as reading a map may not have been too easy.
An experienced driver with plenty of titles under his belt, exercises like this one are second nature for McKinstry, who seems to be cruising around the track in his sleep.
His Subaru Impreza isn't a big fan of the track, he tells me, but it seems to do fine as he hurtles around at high speed in full control.
"We're hitting 115 miles per hour on this straight," he nonchalantly offers as our helmets are pinned back into the seats and then jerked right as he breaks to take a hairpin. All in a day's work.
Sending this novice -- sitting idly on a second provisional licence and whose only rally knowledge extends to the odd game on the PlayStation -- north to experience what it's like in a rally car was designed to get a scare.
But beside this calm 58-year-old man with a soft Down accent and more than 40 years' rallying experience under his helmet, the nerves dissipate quickly enough. It's an exhilarating experience.
Beforehand, though, the nerves were jangling as the lack of a car -- not to mention a licence -- meant it was the early Enterprise up to Belfast and a taxi route from Belfast city centre and plenty of time to contemplate my fate.
After arriving, the assorted media sit in a Portakabin waiting for our turn, sipping coffee as the various competition winners return from their spins, their hair out of place and a sense of fear and wonderment in their eyes.
The men are generally excited and a few hang around hoping for another go, while the women lean towards the terrified. One TV hostess loudly tells the room that she was ready to be sick.
It's all part of the mental preparation to being hurled about a racetrack, and finally the moment comes when it's time to don the overalls.
Unfortunately, being built for comfort and not for speed, your correspondent's major difficulty surrounded getting in and out of the jumpsuits, which only ran to Size L, the XLs having been surprisingly ripped.
After plenty of squirming and several failed attempts, I was able to snugly fit my 6'1", 17-stone frame into the rather tight suit and away we went.
The man from the Monaghan paper had just come back in after his spin in a Porsche ended with the tow-truck being called on to the track when the sports car broke down.
McKinstry's Subaru, however, has no such worries when we're elaborately strapped in and up and running. The stripped down interior lacks luxury, but his skill at the wheel and easy manner ease any nerves.
Helmet knocked into place and communicating by radio, he points out his handy-to-reach gear panel as he flies up through them, powering into corner one and slaloming around the bends.
It's a massive adrenalin rush as we lift off over a bump in the road and Iarnrod Eireann's finest sausage rolls threaten re-emergence, but it's quickly forgotten as the car enters the straight, McKinstry powers up and we start flying.
Everything outside the window blurs and my pilot smiles as I let out a noise that can be filed somewhere between terror and exhilaration. He's done this a thousand times, but for the newcomer it's hard to retain any sense of professional decorum.
We fly around for two more laps, impeded at one stage by another ailing Porsche being towed off the road. It might have been a moment of concern for others, but McKinstry quickly applies the brakes, overtakes him and, before we know it, we're headed down the straight again at top speed.
It's over all too quickly as the car is slowed and the chariot is guided home.
My thanks are conveyed and we part company. Another set of eyes opened to the world of rally driving.
The Enterprise just doesn't quite cut it on the way home.