THE most intriguing headline in modern newspaper history appeared in the Sunday Times a few months back. It read: ‘I had to drive, says refugee with no eyes’. All human life may be coming to the county for next weekend’s TF Royal Hotel and Theatre Mayo Stages Rally, but it’s probably a safe assumption that there will be no blind competitors.
Jonathan Rice has become a regular on the rally circuit as a co-driver, but he is sitting out his local race in order to take charge of the event. The Castlebar man has taken over as Clerk of the Course from Bekan’s Sean McHugh, who is heading back behind the wheel. Organising an event of this scale doesn’t happen overnight.
“The whole thing kicks off in early October when we go out and start looking at routes,” Rice told The Mayo News. “Then there’s talking to residents seeing if they’d be happy enough with a rally passing through. After that, every single detail has to be planned, put on paper and passed by the Motorsport Ireland safety officers. They look go over the whole thing with a fine tooth comb to make sure you’ve every angle covered.”
Rally headquarters is the TF Royal Hotel in Castlebar, while the route itself will take in Knockmore, Moygownagh and Killala and services at Ballina Mart. The race is run over eight stages (four stages done twice). Since having a rally involves closing roads, Rice and his team have been going house to house, giving time schedules to residents and reminding them to keep pets indoors. Provision has been put in place to bring one resident to his job in Ireland West Airport should he be called in on Sunday.
There are a thousand little details to be sorted, but Rice has learned from his involvement in motorsport to expect the unexpected. Rice often acts as a co-driver or navigator, ‘making sure everything is in place for the driver’ and ‘telling the driver where to go’. Bellowing instructions from pre-prepared notes to a man going at high speed takes some getting used to.
“It was very nerve-wracking to begin with,” he recalls. “Pace notes are something it takes a while to get the hang of. It’s not just a matter of sitting into the car and just shouting at the man beside you, because first of all, he’s on another planet altogether; he’s just concentrating on driving. And for the first few events, you can be sure he’s certainly not going to be listening to you! It’s all about building trust between the two guys. I’m sitting beside him, I have no control whatsoever, but I still have to tell him to back off on this corner, or to go flat out on that section. That’s all in the pace notes. And if he’s half thinking ‘Jayzus, can we go here now?’ you’re never going to be competing. You’ll drive around all right, but you’re never going to be competing.”
Rice had always followed motorsport on TV but only happened upon it in the flesh five years after spotting a programme an event in a shop. He attended the rally with a bunch of friends and was hooked.
“I like mechanical work,” he explains. “Building the cars, preparing them and getting them ready. The event itself is one thing, but I love the build-up to it in the six months beforehand, when you’re trying to get the car built and make sure everything is okay with it.”
That attention to detail is vital in a sport associated with speed and risk. Accidents are, he says, something you just accept as ‘part of the sport’, which ‘can happen anyone, from the top man down to the guy at the back of the field’. Two years ago, he ended up in a field in Skibbereen, ‘but the cars are so well built and so well scrutinised, we just opened the doors and walked out’.
Scrutiny, where extensive safety checks are carried out on each car, will take place in the old Casey’s garage on the Turlough Road. Teams will begin arriving on Friday but the bulk will be signing in on Saturday, at which point each car will do a ‘recce’ (reconnaissance) of the stages and make their pace notes. The cars are then kept overnight at the TF on Saturday, before the first driver leaves the hotel at 9.30am on Sunday. Can we expect a crowd? You betcha.
”They’ll come from Mizen to Malin, literally,” said Rice. “There’s a huge amount of people coming for the weekend. You’ll probably find if you try to book a B&B in the town for the weekend, you won’t get one. It’s a great boost for the local economy. That kind of following … it’s hard to get it anywhere else.”