Fast and furious

NEVER got the whole motor car thing. Us blokes are supposed to be uniformly fascinated by football, breasts and engines, in that order, but cars leave me cold, couldn’t tell me Lexus from me Lada.

Therefore, the world of motor sport is equally perplexing, lap after monotonous lap, tyre pressure, axles, tail-fins, suspension, aerodynamic chassis, wha?

Any time the over-hyped Formula One crosses the screen, I am left with an overwhelming desire to fish out the monopoly board and send RTÉ's Peter Collins back to his former life as a Beat on the Street DJ.

So, the request/order to cover the All-Ireland Hot Rod Championships in Emly, Co Tipperary last weekend elicited a response that was not exactly dripping with enthusiasm. However, stock excuses ("I have to hoover the lawn") were summarily swatted aside and Sunday morning saw the launch of my special trip to Tipp.

Hot Rod is an Irish sport which sprung up in Munster in the late 1960s. It involves cars of similar power racing around oval tracks of grass or tarmacadam for a set number of laps, a sort of 'Days of Thunder' meets the dodgems. However, although there is a goodly amount of bump and grind in each race, the sport advocates a 'non-contact' policy and a strict flag system is in place to put the shackles on any argy-bargy. If you're a naughty boy on the track, you are warned by track officials and if you persist, you're flagged out of the race.

The sport receives no funding from the State and enthusiasts must stage and fund the various events independently. It is primarily corralled within Munster, with Hot Rod clubs dotted around Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary.

For this year's All-Ireland Championship a farmer allowed part of his land outside Emly, a tiny Tipperary village close to the Limerick border, to be used for racing and the Hot Rodders moved in.

I attempted to join them.

The Fates, however, were in conspirational mode and seemed determined to ensure my apathy towards motor sport would continue unabated.

I couldn't find the bloody place.

It was fine up as far as Mitchelstown but then things went overwhelmingly pear-shaped. There seems to be some kind of Bermuda Triangle in operation between the towns of Ballylanders, Knocklong and Kilmallock. After an hour and a half of boreen tennis between three counties and two parallel dimensions, I was still no closer to Emly, which had by now assumed the geographical characteristics of Atlantis.

Numerous enquiries of polite, weather-beaten brown men served only to confuse. "Straight on for half a mile, over the second hump-backed bridge, then right by the one-legged donkey and fourth left, sure you can't miss it."

Salvation eventually arrived in the form of a middle-aged woman, clad in a bright orange council jacket, who appeared miraculously with an angelic smile and her arm pointed in the right direction.

A hefty crowd had descended on the sun-baked farmer's field and there was an air of the village fete about the occasion. Plenty of children running about, sweet stalls, a bouncy castle, a chip van and the MC issuing conversational directions from a brown tent. And cars, everywhere.

A special pits area had been set up where cars waited to be called to the starting line and drivers and their helpers worked furiously on upturned motors.

In the summer sunshine, the gaudily painted Unos, Ritmos and Starlets added to the colourful carnival atmosphere. These people knew their cars. As the crowd waited for racing to begin, the conversations were almost exclusively motor-based and the depth of knowledge, to the uninitiated, was bewildering and impressive.

As I gazed around at my first taste of live motor sport, it became apparent that, while this certainly wasn't Monaco, the All-Ireland Hot Rod Championship devotees were every bit as committed as their F1 counterparts and a lot more real.

Donal Buckley, PRO for the Irish Hot Rod Motor Racing Federation, is a case in point. Donal was up the walls last Sunday.

Resplendent in a bright red Ferrari cap and t-shirt, he raced about between the track and the organiser's tent, fixing flags, arranging the bales of hay that acted as corners, pushing children back behind the safety ropes and, all the while, chatting away to everyone he met.

"This is what it's all about," he enthused, offering me one of his sandwiches.

"It's down to earth stuff here, no frills. We're a tight group, all mad about motors. Most of us work in the business, running garages, car repairs and so on. Hot Rod is a Munster sport. It started in Ballinhassig, Co Cork in 1969. Fellahs went off and started their own clubs and it took off from there.

"If youngsters take it up as a hobby, there are great advantages to it. You learn about cars inside out, everything you need to know about driving and car maintenance.

"These events are great. It takes a fair bit of organising, costs a lot to stage events like this with sponsorship and insurance for the day but it's worth it," he added.

What about the cost of participation?

"It's cheap enough to get a car at the lower grades. You pick up a second-hand Uno or Starlet for 500 upwards but the upkeep is expensive right enough. Doing up the car and maintaining it hits the pocket, it's not cheap."

RACING is organised on the basis of the strength of engine. I was in alien territory here but the more powerful the engine, the higher the class. As the MC put it, "We have a great day's racing for you today in Emly, the Juniors (14-17 year-olds), Classes one to six and, of course, the lovely ladies."

Class One comprises cars with one litre engines, and it works it way up to Class Six cars which are unlimited engines, the glamour boys of the sport.

And now it was race time. We all stood for the National Anthem, charmingly played by little Katie O'Sullivan on the squeeze box, and then the Class Ones were off and motoring.

The races were 20 laps in duration and always with steering wheels turning to the right. "To be honest, I don't know why," said Buckley. "Why does the sun rise in the morning? It's always been to the right."

The Class One race was a hotly-contested affair, with enthusiastic commentary over the PA system.

"It's Kevin Healy, the man from East Cork, out in front. But remember lads, only four laps gone, 16 to go, and we all know anything can happen in Hot Rod!"

Kevin powered along impressively and began to lap some of the other drivers.

"The back-markers are being very courteous and allowing Kevin through, fair play lads," noted the MC.

Kevin flew home past the chequered flag and then carried out the Hot Rod tradition of being driven, clutching his trophy, on the roof of his winning steed to receive the approbation of the crowd.

Afterwards young Healy was ebullient. "This is my third All-Ireland Championships but my first win, I'm absolutely delighted. But I want to set one thing straight, I'm from Dungarvan in Waterford, not East Cork, my parents are from East Cork you see, they know the announcer."

How did he get into Hot Rod? "Ah, it's my life. My grandfather set up the Hot Rod club in East Cork and it's been all around me since I was a youngfellah. All my family are involved and my fiancee is going in the Ladies race later on."

The subsequent races were all as competitive and as exciting as the first. As the engines increased in power the crowd became more involved, 'oohing' and 'aahing' as the cars roared over the bumpy grass, often soaring high into the air. Petrol fumes and passion perfumed the Emly air.

And the entertainment from the MC's tent was on a par with the racing.

"Could someone tell me who number 35 is? Number 35, who are you?"

"Parents will ye for God's sake keep the kids back behind the rope. Ye know yourselves, those barriers beyond will only slow them down, they won't stop them."

"The list of Junior qualifiers is posted on the window of the Honda Civic in front of the chip van, That's where ye'll find it lads."

"Does anyone have any anti-inflammatory tablets? The ambulance doesn't have any and we need them now, so if you've got some, please leave them into the tent."

IN the Class Four race, we had our first flip over. Pat O'Sullivan's car tore around the corner, lost control and careered onto its side. The ambulance raced to his aid.

"I hope he doesn't need anti-inflammatory tablets," remarked one wag in the crowd.

Thankfully, Pat's injuries were of a minor nature and Peter Crowley went on to win the race. Safety is a big feature of Hot Rod.

"It's very important," agrees Buckley.

"The cars all have roll cages to lessen the impact in the event of a tumble. They have the special racing bucket seats, the drivers all wear helmets and fireproof suits will soon be compulsory. And it works, because it's rare enough you'd have a bad injury."

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself becoming more and more involved in the racing, drawing on the enthusiasm of the crowd around me.

The original plan had been to bluff the boss, bail out early and find a pub to watch the Laois-Armagh game but the lure of this sunny field in Emly proved too great.

Enid Blyton's characters used always maintain that food "tasted so much nicer out of doors" and I doubt if I have ever had nicer sausage and chips than those consumed in Emly that afternoon.

The event was drawing to a close and the crowd began to eagerly contemplate the evening's festivities.

"There is a huge social aspect to Hot Rod," says Buckley.

"People travel here with their tents and caravans and make a weekend of it, there'll be a great night tonight."

Having now tasted the atmosphere of live motor sport, my attitudes have altered somewhat. Not to the point where I'll be tuning into Peter Collins and his cohorts, but perhaps to the point of venturing along to another Hot Rod gathering.

Down to earth people, genuinely devoted to a down to earth sport.

Buckley puts it simply.

"This is the working man's motor sport. And we love it."

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