Thursday 17 October 2019

Rallying the world with your wife: Irish couple living their dream racing all over the globe

Matt Shinnors (40) and his other half Catherine (37) are living their dream, taking on extreme races in exotic locations all over the globe

Life in the fast lane: Catherine and Matt Shinnors get ready to race. Photo: Alvin Kibet
Life in the fast lane: Catherine and Matt Shinnors get ready to race. Photo: Alvin Kibet

My father's passion was cars and so he's responsible for the fact that it's mine too. He was a veterinary surgeon and he's also a freelance motoring correspondent, which meant test driving cars for manufacturers. When we were growing up in Bruff, Co Limerick, we'd be driving off-road as we were lucky enough to live on a farm - although I'm not sure our neighbours enjoyed listening to us. I have three brothers and we were all into cars.

When I was 16 I built my first rally car, a Ford Escort Mark II to compete in autocross - that's the entry level for rallying. I was 17 when I started competing. I started in autocross - these are sprint-type events where you are typically in a disused quarry driving on a gravel surface. You learn to get car control racing on gravel. You're not racing against other cars at the same time, it's more like a time trial - you're trying to get a good time against the clock.

After that I started competing in forestry stage rallying. This is racing on forest roads with timed sections or stages which were up to 16 miles in length. There's typically six to eight stages in a day.

In 2003 I did the National Forestry Rally Championship, becoming the 'Best Rookie' and I was nominated for the Young Driver of the Year. In 2006 I competed in a World Rally Championship in New Zealand - that's the highest level you can go in rallying, the pinnacle of the sport. The guys who won that race had cars that cost half a million euro. I didn't have that kind of money or the backing to go all the way, but I did get to experience it.

I started working in race schools around the world teaching people to drive cars. I spent a few years doing that in New Zealand and Australia and then I came back to Ireland and worked in Rally School Ireland in Monaghan for a couple of years.

My cousin Greg had started rallying at an early age like me, but he chose to navigate drivers rather than drive. In 2009 he was competing in the British Rally Championship - a very prestigious championship. Greg was the navigator for a young driver called Keith Cronin from Cork, who became the second Irishman to win the event. My wife Catherine was part of Keith's fundraising team and after they won the British Championship, I met her out celebrating.

'Just married' on the back of Matt and Catherine's rally car for the race in Finland
'Just married' on the back of Matt and Catherine's rally car for the race in Finland

For me it was easy - my family was all into rallying - but for Catherine she had to do it all herself. She decided this was something she wanted to do after watching the Fastnet tarmac rally which passed her door in West Cork.

She started driving and racing her own car with her younger sister Laurna navigating. There are not many female crews rallying. It takes a lot of determination to race the boys, particularly if your family has no background in the sport. I'm an R&D engineer with a medical devices company called Stryker Neurovascular in Cork. Catherine teaches science in Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí secondary school in Bantry. When I met Catherine she encouraged me to go back rallying - to be honest I didn't need a whole lot of persuading. We teamed up and decided to do some events outside the country.

In 2012 we went to Barbados. We shipped our Escort Mark II rally car out on a banana boat to the Caribbean island. Catherine had won €2,000 in the Lottery and that's what we used to ship the car. They're crazy out there so we fitted right in. We raced and came third in our group.

After the event we went swimming with turtles and I asked Catherine to marry me. Our plan was to go away and get married so we headed off to Finland to the home of Santa Claus - to a town called Rovaniemi. We got married in an ice church.

There was a rally on in Finland - the Arctic Rally - the next week. It's really extreme racing on ice and snow which required special tyres to allow the car to grip the snowy and icy roads. If you slide off the roads, you could die from the cold as the temperature can drop below -30C.

It was compulsory to carry additional heavy winter overalls to wear if you had a break down or crashed. Half the rally ran at night as there's not much daylight in winter in the Arctic. I believe we were the first Irish crew to finish it.

Catherine was my navigator - she's essentially my eyes coming around every bend. You have to really understand each other well. She's a really talented navigator

We've done a lot of travelling. We ask ourselves can we go with our sport and experience what a place is like as well. In 2016 we rallied in the Gorman Ridge Rally in California, 80 miles north of Los Angeles. We finished on the podium.

Our most recent trip was to Kenya on St Patrick's weekend where we did the Safari Rally. It's one of the most famous rallies in the world and we were the first Irish crew to compete in it. It was a challenge due to the rough roads and water pools, and there were lots of animals like zebra and buffalo to avoid. We were also told not stray away from our car at service checks as there were resident lions about.

I have an adventurous mindset and Catherine is up for the challenge as well. When you're driving you have a lot of safety gear. Driving in a race car is different to an ordinary car. When you're in a race car you have a harness on you and you're wearing fire-proof gear. I think when you start having that fear of crashing, you stop.

Rallying is infectious but it's expensive and you have to save up to do events. My other big hobbies are motor biking and mountain biking.

Mountain biking gives a similar adrenaline rush as rallying, with the added bonus of getting fit. My first date with Catherine was mountain biking in the Ballyhoura on the Cork/Limerick border. We're both so passionate about rallying - I'm a lucky man.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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