Those Who Brave the Greatest Tarmac Rally on Earth

a group of people on a hill
Those Who Brave the Greatest Tarmac Rally on EarthPeter Rowen
a group of people on a hill
Peter Rowen

It turns out there is an Irish word for walking a mile up a hilly road before standing in marshy ground for an hour in the rain. According to a fellow spectator, we’re enjoying the craic—­pronounced “crack”—a catchall term for shared fun, camaraderie, or an unlikely adventure. It can be applied to everything from an evening in the pub to trading jokes over a gate or, as today, hiking through drizzle to the most scenic vantage point in European motorsport, overlooking a hairpin with a commanding view of the Atlantic far below.

This story originally appeared in Volume 19 of Road & Track.

This is the Donegal International Rally’s Knockalla stage, the most famous part of the Emerald Isle’s premier tarmac rally. Ireland is short on the forest dirt roads commonly used for rallying across the world, so most competition is on temporarily closed asphalt public roads. This provides an obvious parallel to the hugely popular motorcycle road racing in Northern Ireland. But the passion for tarmac rallying is widespread throughout the island, with events on tight, twisty lanes often barely wider than the cars themselves. Other European countries have asphalt rallies, but none love them more than Ireland. Rally Donegal is the only round of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship held over three days, with a packed entry list of 163 cars this year. It brings thousands of spectators.

Several hundred hardy fans have braved the rain to watch the Knockalla above the beautiful Ballymastocker Bay. Far below, three sets of numbers and initials have been carved into the sand: MK#1, CB#42, and KB#43, in tribute to three former competitors. Three-time winner Manus Kelly was killed in a crash at the event four years ago. Craig Breen was a keen Irish amateur whose talent took him to a Hyundai works WRC drive before he died in a testing accident earlier this year. And KB is the late Ken Block, who once entered Donegal in his Ford Escort Cosworth, crashing out on the first day.

road racing
Peter Rowen

For the most part, the crowd at Knockalla waits patiently in the rain. “When are they going to throw some feckin’ cars up this feckin’ mountain?” asks a cynic, his appreciation of the craic slipping. Most shelter under raincoats and umbrellas, or, in the case of one hungover-looking group of lads, garbage bags with crude holes punched out for head and arms. Yet when the front-runners arrive, the crowd’s reaction is muted. The top order are in all-wheel-drive R5-spec modern rally cars, just one rung down from WRC challengers. They are hugely fast, reaching the hairpin with squealing brakes and rumbling anti-lag, accelerating out with barely a hint of oversteer. But drama is lacking.

Not, however, for long. An angrier, higher-­pitched exhaust tone rouses the crowd as a boxy car appears in the distance. It takes longer to climb the hill to the corner, with its engine note rising and falling as a single axle fights for traction against the greasy surface. But by the time the car reaches the hairpin, spectators are leaning forward, and a phalanx of phones reaches out to record the moment. The first Mk2 Escort on the stage goes sideways well before the apex and well after it, fishtailing up the road to widespread exaltation. Great craic, indeed.

The second-generation Ford Escort is an unlikely star. Introduced to Europe in January 1975, the Mk2 quickly became part of the continent’s automotive wallpaper. The rallying version of this drab commuter debuted just five months later, when the Escort RS1800, fitted with a Cosworth-­developed BDA engine, won its first event, the Granite City Rally in Aberdeen, Scotland.

irish tarmac rally
So what exactly is the craic? You’ll find it somewhere in the joyful crowds of an Irish tarmac rally.Peter Rowen

Many victories followed. The Mk2 won no fewer than 20 WRC rounds over six years, carrying both Björn Waldegård and Ari Vatanen to their drivers’ championships. Alas, when rallying moved to its much more spectacular Group B era, the rear-driven, naturally aspirated Escort was eclipsed. But not forgotten—the basic car’s cheapness and commonality meant it remained hugely popular with amateur drivers.

Even as the parts supply and surviving chassis dwindled, the Escort wasn’t replaced. Permissive regulations allow Mk2s to compete against modern homologated machinery in series like the Irish Tarmac Championship using anachronistic modifications like sequential gearboxes and bespoke engines. Some drivers rally updated versions of other old cars; there were several impressively fast rear-drive Toyota Starlets in Donegal. But the Escort is king. Nearly a third of the rally’s starters were in Mk2 Escorts.

No modern Mk2 is better known than the bright-blue example belonging to Frank Kelly. If you’ve watched automotive videos online, the algorithm may well have already introduced you to Baby Blue. If not, take a few minutes on YouTube to acquaint yourself with Frank Kelly: Fast, Sideways and Mental, which more than delivers on the title’s promise. Kelly is competing in Donegal—he lives just across the border that separates this corner of the Irish Republic from the U.K. province of Northern Ireland—so he seems the perfect man to talk to about tarmac rallying and Ireland’s love for the Ford Escort.

frank kelly
Frank Kelly says there’s no point to speed if it isn’t spectacular. See his sideways Ford Escort for definitive proof.Peter Rowen

“I’ve often had people ask me, ‘Did they stop building rally cars in 1980? What’s the story?’” Kelly says, standing next to his car. “I always say, ‘They stopped making good ones, yes.’”

Kelly’s attachment is partly emotional. Born in 1965, he grew up with rallying Escorts. But there’s a practical side to his affection.

“You can work on them in your shed, and it’s cheap to make them handle,” he explains. “In the early Noughties, it got hard to get parts for them, but then a new industry sprang up around them. You can get reproduction shells, panels, lights. You can literally buy everything you need for a new car and build it to your spec. These days, [Escorts] make much more sense than most other stuff.”

baby blue
Baby Blue where it shines brightest, flying by its fans.Peter Rowen

Sitting on high-lift stands, Kelly’s Baby Blue is a smorgasbord of high-end parts. The car is beautiful, its underside as clean as its bodywork. Renowned U.K. specialist Millington built the engine, which is, in essence, bespoke for rally racing, making far more power than any original works engines ever did. Kelly says his Millington mill produces 360 hp from 2.5 liters and is designed to last 1000 stage miles between rebuilds—a long interval given that Donegal’s three days consist of just 174 competition miles. It also has a Samsonas six-speed sequential transmission and a rear axle suspended by bespoke trailing arms and a Watts linkage; the original road-spec Mk2 Escort had just a pair of elliptical springs.

Baby Blue is a work of love but also a serious investment. Kelly reckons building it from scratch would cost around £150,000—over $180,000 at current exchange rates—more than enough to buy a front-running R5 car. But that’s not the appeal.

“I’ve won things in the past, but I’m too old now. I’m here for the craic and to mix it with the other two-wheel-drive cars,” he says. As well as cash, Kelly has spent thousands of hours working on Baby Blue beyond his job running a security-alarm company in County Tyrone. “I do all my own work bar the paintwork,” he says. “I’ve a small workshop at the back of the house, and I literally spend two to three hours a night in that garage. If I’m not fixing something, I’m trying to make something better.”

ford escort
The Ford Escort is a favorite rally car in Ireland. At this year’s Donegal event, almost a third of the entries were Escorts.Peter Rowen

Kelly’s team is his family, and his family is his team. His daughter, Lauren, is his co-driver and runs the YouTube channel. His wife, Rosemarie, sells merchandise at service areas, an increasingly profitable sideline as Kelly’s fame grows. “She started after I got a mortgage to put a new kitchen into our house and then went and bought an engine with it,” Kelly says. “She decided to try and raise some money before I did something else daft.” Son Jack isn’t into rallying at all. He prefers jujitsu but gets hauled along to help out at races all the same.

With income from sponsors and a small amount from YouTube, plus some carefully negotiated deals with suppliers, Kelly reckons he is now covering most of the costs of competing, especially as tarmac events are cheaper than gravel. But expenses are still high; Donegal’s entry fee is €1600, and the car will use up to 12 fresh tires per day at €175 each. Fuel is pretty much the lowest running cost, despite single-digit mpg on stages.

Kelly’s in-car footage and the huge speed the Escort carries make it clear that Lauren’s job—delivering pace notes while they’re flying down the road at crazy speed—is as tough as her father’s. She loved rallying as a child and was promoted to the co-­driver’s seat when a previous navigator dropped out. She was 19 at the time; she’s 27 now.

“Lauren being beside me has been a massive help,” Kelly says. “I think that’s why we’re still competitive at this stage. We’ve got a telepathy thing going. We both know what’s going on. We’re cut from the same sheet of paper, basically. The issue is always that I’ve got the attention span of a gnat. But she knows when I’m getting carried away and pushing too hard, and then she’ll tell me to tidy up.”

How does she get that sense?

“Normally, when I’m looking out the side window with a fast corner coming toward us,” says Lauren, deadpan. “Because of his attention span, I’ve got to repeat things sometimes, make sure it’s gone in. I’ve sat with another driver, and I just say things once.”

“I can’t do speed without being spectacular,” admits Kelly. “I started as a gravel driver, and I’m always more comfortable when the car’s moving underneath me. And when you see people bouncing on the hedges because you’re trying so hard, you just sort of play with that and go with that. I got told to tidy up a couple of times today because I was going too sideways too fast. I was probably heading to the scene of the crime if I didn’t rein it in.”

While Kelly plans to retire from championship rallies, he hopes Lauren’s career will grow. “She’s more than good enough to be a professional co-driver,” he says. “I’m really hard to co-drive for. A young, fast guy in an R5 would be simple compared to me.”

Online fame has also produced paid-for invitations for Baby Blue to travel to rally shows around the world. The Kellys have taken their Escort to Barbados, Trinidad, New Zealand, Australia, and numerous events across Europe. “But not America, yet,” says Kelly. “I’d love to go there.”

mk2 escort
The Mk2 Escort, like a pint of ale, is a fixture of endless good times in Ireland.Peter Rowen

After three days of rallying, many cars sport spectacular damage at the finish line. But the takeaway from our visit is that the event is only one part of a much larger party that seems to draw every modified car from every part of Ireland to the rally’s headquarters in Letterkenny. It is certainly hard to imagine that the island has any more lowered Lexus IS200s, many of which are still revving their engines and doing burnouts when night becomes morning. Ireland loves cars, and it also loves a shindig.

Yet there are clouds on the horizon. Motor­cycle road racing is already battling for survival in Northern Ireland as the cost of insuring events skyrockets. Road rallying is at risk of a similar fate. Nearly half of Donegal’s entry fee was for insurance costs. The risks are very real. Shortly after our visit to Donegal, two competitors were killed in a crash in their Mk2 Escort at the Sligo Stages event 70 miles away. Motorsport without barriers, run-off areas, and gravel traps is intrinsically dangerous.

The Kellys and Baby Blue get through the rally unscathed, finishing in 27th place, the sixth of 31 Escorts that make it to final classification. For Frank, the craic of competing is a victory in itself.

“I’m never going to come home from an event with money in my pocket, but if I get free rallying­—for a gobshite from Northern Ireland who fits alarms, that’s winning, isn’t it?”

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