Following the very positive news that rallying is set to return to Northern Ireland in mid-June, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the MJE Wheel Repair Specialists Tyrone Stages Rally – the sixth and final round of this year’s Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship.
The event, organised by Cookstown Motor Club and taking place on Saturday 6 November, is eagerly anticipated – as the Northern Ireland closed road stages always offer a great challenge and result in close competition.
The Tyrone Stages Rally might be new to the Asphalt Rally Championship, but it has a long and rich history.
And part of that history wouldn’t go amiss on It’s A Knockout (readers of a certain age will remember this television game show, whilst others may have to Google it!). And who better to explain the unusual story than the legendary Irish rallying broadcaster, journalist and author Alan ‘Plum’ Tyndall.
‘It’s a Knockout’ or ‘Jeux Sans Frontiers’, was the big TV hit at the beginning of the 1980s, much as ‘Strictly’ is today, and it must have come to the attention of the Cookstown Motor Club when they were planning their spectacular town centre competition. As some genius in their ranks came up with the idea of incorporating the principles of the TV game with the skills of our world class autotesters.
Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, had long been recognised as the home of the magical world of the dexterity driving. These motorised ballets had developed from the cross-road tests that were the backbone of rallying in the 1950s and ‘60s into autotesting, a sport in its own right by the ‘80s, with its own specialist drivers in their specialist stripped down specials.
The stopwatch was the arbitrator but as the Cookstown Motor Club thought, what if they went head to head in a knockout out competition? What is they didn’t just have to cross lines and enter garages? What if they had to go over ramps and even over a sea-saw? Now wouldn’t that be fun!
Somebody had seen a car bearing see-saw in action on the continent and Norman Ferguson, a founder member of the Club and a skilful autotester, was commissioned to build two of these devices.
Meanwhile they had been talking to the Mayor and as a result both lanes of the wide main street of the County Tyrone town, which was ideal for such an extravaganza, was closed to normal traffic on a summer’s evening and a tandem, knockout, motoring gymkhana came to pass.
I was drafted in from the big smoke to provide the commentary for this new and highly entertaining form of auto-testing and I was amazed and delighted on my arrival to find a large and enthusiastic crowd packing the pavements on both sides of the street.
This throng had gathered to cheer on their local heroes, Harold Hagan and Norman Ferguson as they went up against the Castlederg men, Ken and Charlie Irwin. It must have been one of the largest gatherings in this unique sports history.
And they were loving every minute of it. They cheered as they were docked for line faults. They cheered when someone knocked down a pylon, and they roared when someone didn’t make it over the sea-saw.
It was Ken Irwin who won that evening, but it didn’t really matter as a truly great time was had by all. And the hospitality was every bit as good as the competition, so good in fact that I didn’t leave the district until well after breakfast the next morning.
I made some new friendships on that trip that have lasted to this day, and took home with me some great memories and a massive County Tyrone hangover.
Key event organiser contacts for this year’s MJE Wheel Repair Specialists Tyrone Stages Rally are:
Bob McKeown: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07866 253696
Clerk of Course
Wayne Turkington: email@example.com / 07733 260514
Jason McGuckin: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07834 689027
The accompanying picture of the Tyrone Stages Rally podium is with the kind permission of John O’Neill of Sperrins Photography.