BY CHRIS MCNULTY
TERRY Harryman and Ari Vatanen sat in the corner of a bar in Nairobi one year during a Safari Rally in the 1980s.
Both of them had tasted success in the Donegal International Rally: Harryman as a navigator with Cahal Curley and, later, Mark Lovell, with Vatanen tasting success in 1978.
In that bar in Kenya, Harryman overheard the Finnish driver explain the lure of Donegal.
“You haven’t lived until you have done Knockalla, Horn Head and Atlantic Drive,” Vatanen explained.
James Cullen is one of the few Donegal-born drivers to savour the sweet taste of success across Donegal’s legendary tarmac.
‘Magical’ is how the Letterkenny man describes the famous Knockalla loop.
Knockalla begins at Stocker Strand and what follows is a stage known the world over as one of the toughest tests anywhere.
“Fortune favours the brave – that’s exactly what happens on Knockalla,” is the view of Rory Kennedy, a three-time winner alongside the great Bertie Fisher.
Spectators will line the Knockalla route from early on Saturday morning in an attempt to grab one of the cherished view points. Knockalla isn’t short of its obstacles.
Wilhare’s left hander lists Vincent Bonner, Austin McHale and Andrew Nesbitt among its victims over the years. With Lough Swilly below to the left, the cars sweep in towards Glenvar before roaring back down the hill and one of the quickest parts of the entire three days follows, along the coast road past Whitestrand United’s home pitch.
Knockalla has been modified this year with a slight change as they make their way in towards Kerrykeel again, the crews taken towards Oughterlin Chapel and the finish at the Water Tank.
“It’s a stage I always loved,” says Cullen.
“Some of it is more narrow now – I loved the quicker version. It’s a real super test with super speed. It’s the nature of the road, the speed of it, the crests, the jumps, the lines you take. It’s a fantastic road to drive and if there’s a driver in you it’s magical.
“The main drive over the mountain…there’s nothing like it in the world. There really isn’t. I’ve been lucky enough to work at World Rallies and you can hear people talk about it, about how unique and special it is.
“It is superb. You really have to focus over Knockalla.”
Kennedy still gets the goosebumps as he thinks of the enduring lure of Knockalla.
“Every driver when he comes to the bottom of Knckalla and there’s 20km of unbelievably high-speed coastal road ahead of you, you get a wee additional tingle,” says Kennedy, who sits with Garry Jennings in the Subaru.
“I’m no different to anyone. I look forward to that every year. That’s the pace and what we live for. Going as quick as you can on a road like that is the appeal for everyone.
“If you go down there and just drive it on a Sunday afternoon, it’s such a high speed road. It’s spectacular in every sense.
“If you are prepared to put it on the line around Knockalla it’s unreal. Years ago Andrew Nesbitt could single-handedly win the rally on that stage alone. He was so fast and he got such a buffer on it that it stood to him. That high speed coastal section up towards Glenvar is unbelievable. It’s what rally driving is all about.”
In 2007, Sebastien Loeb was left scratching his head after a day in Donegal and the Citroen crew had suspension parts and other items flown in from
France on the Friday evening when they realised the stories they’d
heard weren’t in fact the stuff of urban legend.
Loeb entered the Donegal Rally that year as a practice run of sorts
for that year’s Rally Ireland, some of which was held in Donegal.
On one of the first stages around Cloghan, the Frenchman’s famous red
Citroen C4 almost bounced out of control.
In service, Loeb wondered of Nesbitt how he should take the bumpy straight in the middle of the stage.
“Flat,” was the emphatic response. A bewildered Loeb announced “You’re crazy” before learning from the six-times champion: ” we all take it flat!”
“Well then, you’re all crazy!” the world champion hit back.
Loeb was bitten by Donegal’s bug that weekend too and his words on the Sunday evening outline just how this event continues to thrive: ‘Rallying in Donegal is how it should be’.