Graham Brown reports: World champion Keith Martin stamped his mark on the National Hot Rod European championship at Tipperary, the Ulsterman claiming pole after the heats and leading every lap of the final into the bargain.
Although his performance in qualifying was not without parallel (Mike Riordan also took a win and fourth from the heats, Martin only claiming pole on the toss of a coin), Keith really did look the class of the field all weekend.
The entry…well…where to start? This meeting seems to just get better year on year, and there was certainly no shortage of cars this time around. No less than fourteen cars came from the English World Series, including Dick Hillard, Carl Boardley, Simon Bentley, Andy Holtby, Nigel Steward, Stuart Carter, Alan White, Chris Haird, Rob Hadfield, Andy Steward, Hughie Weaver, Matt Simpson and Ricky Hunn, not forgetting sole Scotsman, Alan Conroy.
Simpson, sadly, emulated his dad’s feat of a few years ago, of being at Rosegreen without ever starting a race, and for the same reason – a large hole in the side of the engine after practice. It never ceases to amaze the writer that a driver always has to go miles from home to have that kind of luck. It never happens at Wimbledon, and if it did, it would happen to somebody like Conroy or Billy Bonnar. Maybe not Sod’s Law; call it Rod’s Law.
As we said, even with Simpson relegated to the role of spectator, there were still more than enough cars cramming even the temporarily enlarged pit area. Winnie Holtmanns had made the long trek to take part, while the Ulster racers had a rather shorter journey, Stewart Doak, Ian Thompson, Gary Woolsey, Will Scott and Martin himself being the ones who made it.
And of course this all reckoned without ‘the locals’, who were unsurprisingly out in force, headed by points leader Mike Riordan. He was aided and abetted in the quest to bring the title to the Republic by Shane Murphy, Charlie Daly, Les Compelli, Malcolm Clein, Des Cooney, Pat Canavan, Neville Stanley, Tom and Pat Casey, Eddie Wall, Joey and Anto Butler and Barry English. And just to keep things totally cosmopolitan, Mike Oliver was there to fly the flag for the Welsh, even if he is regarded as an honorary Irishman these days!
A day of really quite unseasonable weather for Tipp in October greeted the assembled racers on the Saturday, with mild and pleasant sunshine throughout the day. Even when the wind got up in the evening, it was never exactly what one might have called ‘cold’.
With the traditional infield draw having suitably divided up the cars for their four heats, the first of them got underway, although it didn’t actually get all that far at the first time of asking. Charlie Daly managed to involve himself in two separate incidents before they’d even completed a lap officially, the first time with Murphy and then Compelli, which stopped the race.
The complete restart was much more orderly. Stanley took the lead from pole, but Murphy wasn’t letting him have it easy and spent quite a while trying to pass around the outside. He couldn’t make it and eventually tucked in behind as the first four began to march away, Stanley leading Murphy, Daly and Weaver.
Weaver fell back from the others, eventually into the clutches of the fast moving Clein, who’d managed to break clear of the pack first. Hadfield and Bentley were next to do so but they were soon being threatened by Martin, who was already looking the class of the field, having started stone last.
Murphy made further attempts at passing the leader down the outside, a stance which finally let Daly through. As the laps dwindled Stanley at last began to eke out some sort of lead, as Daly and Murphy duelled on, with Clein, Weaver and now Martin right behind. Murphy still seemed to think the outside was the way to go (or maybe his car just worked better out there) but all he achieved in the end was to allow both Clein and Martin through as well.
If the opening heat hadn’t exactly been a gift for track expert Stanley, heat two certainly looked as though it might be for Boardley. He was away fast from his pole start and swiftly left second man Carter well behind. However, Carter wasn’t able to hold onto the spot for long, as Mike Riordan went haring past. He was soon carving into Boardley’s lead too, as Andy Steward relieved Carter of third.
Behind them, Eddie Wall was causing something of a blockage. Nigel Steward and Hunn got by, but there was still at least another seven cars clamouring to overtake Wall, who was now being energetically blue flagged every lap. Inevitably, not all of those following were going to be blessed with huge quantities of patience and when Ian Thompson dived for the inside down the home straight, he and Wall collided. Wall went spinning across the infield before shooting back across the track and collecting Doak, White and Joey Butler, bringing out the yellows.
The restart was clearly going to be all about whether Riordan could get the jump on Boardley, but Carl left like a scalded cat and had obviously worked out that he needed to! Riordan was soon all over him and not just Riordan either, Andy Steward breathing down their necks too. Carter departed the fray after riding the infamous back straight wall, and as he came to a final halt between turns one and two, the leaders arrived just afterwards. Boardley takes up the story:
“I was just having a little adjustment on my brake bias, thought I had everything covered, and then suddenly, there was this back marker coming across me….”
The back marker in question was Anto Butler, and in a trice Carl found himself boxed out as Riordan and Steward zoomed through. The major places were probably sorted right there and then, but the race failed to go full term in any case, a pit bend altercation between Thompson, Haird, Hillard and Doak bringing about an early red flag finish.
Heat three – the first of the reversed grids – saw White on pole with Canavan alongside. Now it has to be said, that this looked like a clear recipe for a Canavan win right from the off, but not a bit of it. White got away briskly, while Canavan got railroaded backwards by Joey Butler, Thompson, Haird, Hillard et al.
Driving easily his best race since joining the Nationals, White managed to cling on at the front for quite a time and without seriously blocking in order to do so either. But if Butler and the rest couldn’t get past, the same wasn’t true of Thompson, who worked his way up to second, the National and British champ then simply driving around the outside and away into the distance.
By the time Hillard had manoeuvred his way into second, White had quite a queue forming behind him, headed by Nigel Steward. Nigel was definitely on the move and went past Hillard to claim second, despite (or maybe because of!) the presence of Riordan not far behind. Butler was providing some entertainment both for himself and everyone else at the back of the places pack by twice riding the wall, fortunately without any dire consequences.
With five to go, Thompson was in cruise mode, more than half a lap clear, but Steward certainly wasn’t and whittled the gap down to a little over a quarter of a lap by flag fall. A terrific scrap between Hillard and Riordan over third went all the way to the wire, with Dick just keeping the position by an inch or two.
With Martin on pole for the final qualifier, there didn’t seem much doubt about where the win was going in this one. But just in case he was tempted to take things easy, he had Woolsey and Doak tracking him from the word go.
There were all sorts of shenanigans going on behind them however, with first Oliver and Tom Casey clashing and going off along the back stretch. Tom’s brother Pat, in company with Hadfield and Compelli, did the same thing a lap or so later, and then Oliver got in trouble again by spinning on the pit turn.
Meanwhile, Martin, Woolsey and Doak had spread out whilst still maintaining Ulster’s dominance of the major places. Hunn now had his hands on fourth, ahead of Cooney, Bentley and Doughnut. The leader had to deal with quite a bit of traffic, but it never looked very likely he was ever going to present Woolsey with a shot at getting on terms.
So, in the latter part of the race, the focus switched to the battle for fourth, where Doak was fending off an extremely determined looking Hunn. Three times at least Ricky tried to hurl himself round the outside – once he even made it fully past, but only at the expense of getting into the pit bend too deep and handing the place back again. He lost so much time over that, that Bentley nearly got past, but Hunn shrugged it off and soon worked his way back up for yet another go at Doak. This time a massive blast round the outside going into the pit turn carried him by at the exit. No place was harder won this day.
With Ricky now breaking up the NI trio, Bentley and Murphy were next to try their hand at relegating Doak, but this all ended in tears when the three of them got together down the troublesome back straight, and the race again ended early under reds.
In truth, there hadn’t looked to be all that much between Martin and Riordan for pace throughout the heats (even if you did get a gut inkling that maybe Keith still had plenty in reserve), and so it proved when the points were totted up. They resulted in a tie for pole, one resolved by the toss of a coin in Martin’s favour.
But if either of those two thought they might be able to take it easy during the early laps at least, a glance at the rest of the first few rows would have told them otherwise. Nigel Steward and Hunn’s consistent placings had got the pair the second row (Nigel inside), while Hillard had also done well to claim the inside of row three with Thompson alongside. With Andy Steward and Boardley completing the fourth rank, this was never going to be boring.
A wet morning that left Tipperary very damp and overcast when it stopped, left the track in a half-and-half state, that was fortunately just erring on the side of dry.
With Compelli suffering last minute clutch problems which forced him to take the start rolling off the back, and Pat Casey obliged to become a last minute spectator, the rest set off en mass. Somehow Hunn was sent spinning in the pack, but had amazingly recovered very sharply to go no lower than fourteenth place. But he was going to get another chance anyway, courtesy of Andy Holtby, Andy riding the wall in a real wall-of-death act exiting turn two, before flipping right over onto his roof. Naturally that set the red flags flying for a complete restart.
The restart had Martin and Riordan locked in combat throughout the opening lap, with Mike refusing to back down from the outside line. The end of the lap saw Martin finally edge ahead as several cars headed for an early bath, Wall and Joey Butler both pulling up with fouling bodywork. Carter also stopped, and then Compelli hit the wall hard and retired with the left front wheel pushed back. Conroy hit the wall on the entrance to the pit bend, not apparently all that hard but hard enough to hurt the driver at least slightly, although this was not discovered until later.
The rest pressed on, with Hillard taking a spin on the pit bend, quite possibly with some help from Andy Steward, who picked up a black cross. The leaders had settled down into the order Martin, Nigel Steward (who’d slipped past Riordan somewhere along the way) and Riordan, with a small gap back to Hunn and Thompson, then another gap back to Boardley and Andy Steward.
Just as Martin started wading through back marking traffic, White rotated leaving the far turn and unfortunately for both him and those following, came to rest nose into the wall right on the exit. This was, as the saying goes, a very bad spot for it. Riordan hit the stationary Fiesta still virtually flat out, Clein went in just about as hard, and by the time they’d all finished piling in, Haird, Cooney, Doak, Holtmanns and English had all managed to get involved too.
Following what was naturally a fairly lengthy clear up session, those still able lined up for the restart over the remaining 40 laps. With half the field accounted for by attrition, there was now the prospect of the rest of the race running without any further stoppages.
Thompson took a real flyer at the off and was clearly past Hunn and into third before the green flag was raised, never mind dropped. He got an immediate black cross for that, but nevertheless set about trying to relieve Nigel Steward of his second place. While they were busy arguing about that, Martin took the opportunity to put some space between himself and the rest.
The race began to enter the stage now where all the podium places were going to be decided. After pestering Hunn for a way past for a time, Boardley went by to claim fourth as they rounded the pit bend, with Doughnut following through suspiciously easily. Ricky was clearly in trouble when Woolsey was allowed past as well, the 639 car coasting to a halt soon afterwards.
Up ahead, Nigel Steward was turning up the wick, the car demonstrating his increased pace by flapping its bonnet at one side. But he was beginning to leave Thompson behind, which has taken a bit of doing for anybody this season! Then too, Nigel may just have been helped in his cause by Thompson going slightly slower, because for whatever reason, he was soon under the cosh from Boardley.
By this stage the order was Martin, Steward (Nigel), Thompson, Boardley, Steward (Andy), Woolsey and Stanley, with the next bunch comprising Daly, Bentley, Oliver, Weaver, Canavan and Hillard. It was this mob that Martin was going to be forced to lap soon, and if anything was going to interrupt his stately progress and allow Steward a shot at getting near him, this was it.
But the world champion was soon dealing with the traffic in masterly fashion, while Boardley’s pressure had spurred Thompson to close up on Steward again. Boardley was clearly getting impatient to be on his way and probably didn’t relish the prospect of having Steward – to say nothing of the looming back markers – underfoot while he was trying to pass Thompson. Carl made several pointed thrusts down the inside until finally Ian tried just a tad too hard to shut the door going down the back straight. Carl immediately lifted but after a big swoon going into the pit bend, Thompson ploughed on into the wall and his race was run.
With the five lap board out, Martin was as safe as houses, but second was far from decided, as Boardley was still in maximum attack mode. He reeled Steward in and then piled on the pressure for a while until suddenly, with just over a lap to go, Nigel was pulling away again as the Tigra’s apparently fragile brakes cried enough.
Martin still had a quarter of a lap cushion in hand as the chequers swept down, leaving Steward, Boardley and Doughnut to collect the rest of the trophies.
Following the traditional champagne spraying presentations, and thankfully before the threatening skies finally dumped their contents on Rosegreen and surrounding area, came the annual Davy Evans Memorial Trophy race.
Those still fit lined up in the reverse of their Euro grid positions, thus giving one of the ‘lesser lights’ a shot at a decent pot. English and Pat Casey were the men who set the pace at the front for this one, but it was soon clear where their main challenge was going to come from, as Mike Oliver moved up to third. As the finest of drizzles dampened the oval, he found a way past Casey, although by now English looked to have made good his escape.
That was, until Daly had a spin at the far turn and got clobbered by Canavan, bringing out the caution flags. This closed them all up of course and naturally put English’s lead in some peril from Oliver. Just how much, became clear when the starter caught Barry on the hop by dropping the green when he not only wasn’t expecting it, but apparently couldn’t even see it as he was under the gantry at the time!
Oliver needed no second invitation however, and blasted off right on cue, leading before they got into turn one. English stayed right with him for most of the rest of the way, but dropped back a shade in the last couple of laps when threatened by Boardley and Andy Steward. In fact, this trio had a very hairy last lap when Boardley made a stab at passing English which Steward turned to his advantage to nab third instead as they headed for the flag.
With all the NHR racing done, the weather finally closed in, as it had been longing to do almost all day, and the heavens opened, too late to spoil anybody’s fun. Graham Brown
Heat 1: 967 121 985 994 970 210 59 939 141 940 57 921 61 177 467 84
Heat 2: 142 198 41 639 75 31 961 115 901 99 996 420 179
Heat 3: 901 75 31 142 151 61 985 115 210 939 85 967 121 980 84
Heat 4: 994 940 639 996 970 59 41 198 921 467 57 420 179
European Championship Final: 994 75 41 198 940 967 57 31 121 141 984 939 467 980
Davy Evans Memorial: 57 984 198 41 99 31 85 467 967 141 982 639 75