The picturesque lakeside arboretum of Lurgan Park, normally a sanctuary of tranquilly and respite from modern metropolitan living under went its yearly later-summer transformation into a high speed rally stage. The entry list was perhaps not as star-studded as previous years and suffered from late withdrawals of Derek McGarrity’s Ford Focus WRC and Eugene Donnelly in a Subaru Impreza S14 WRC. Nevertheless, 11 times winner, Kenny McKinstry was there to cement his reputation as the Park expert, whilst current Irish Tarmac Rally Championship leader, Garry Jennings a full-blown Impreza S12B WRC car at his disposal for the first time on the Park paths.
Other entries included a pair of JCW MINI WRC cars for Derek McGeehan and Alan Carmichael, a S9 Impreza WRC for Kevin Kelleher and Ray Brammer brought his S8 Impreza all the way from England to experience some park life. The father and son pairing of Denis and Stuart Biggerstaff had an Impreza WRC and MG Metro 6R4 in the line-up, whilst pick of the ever popular Ford Escorts belonged to Wesley Patterson and Frank Kelly.
The rally followed the usual format – a first stage dash through the trees and round the lake, repeated three times; a second, new stage, starting on gravel, run twice; and a final three sprints starting at the lake, weaving its way through the Park and finishing on the wide (by Lurgan Park standards) tarmac avenue. The key to success in Lurgan Park is a strong start. The short, sharp nature of the event means that every tenth of a second counts. Losing a second on a rival can be impossible to claw back. Garry Jennings knows this all too well and when he hit the lead on the first test of the day, there was very little chance of anyone reeling him back in. He dominated the event from start to finish and won at a canter.
Down the field, class battles raged. Frank Kelly, in particular, set some blistering early times in his Escort, eclipsing his rivals and embarrassing some of the other, more advanced WRC machinery. Any hopes of a fine finish faded, when he lost ten seconds sliding into a bush on stage 3. Wesley Patterson seized the opportunity to take the class lead and it never left his grasp for the rest of the event.
Mark Massey took Group N honours from Andrew Mullen, both in Mitsubishi Lancers. The entertainer of the day proved to be Fermanagh man, Raymond Johnston. His Escort spent most to the day swinging its tail through the trees, like the happiest monkey in the rainforest. His spectacular sideways style was by no means the quickest, but every time he started a stage, the crowd were captivated.
As well as the rally action, the event was supported by a radio controlled car racing demonstrations, show car displays and some truly beautiful classic 70s and 80s rally cars from the Slowly Sideways stable.
Lurgan Park remains a highlight in the Irish rally calendar and opens the world of stage rallying to the wider public. However, the proliferation of barriers can prove to be an exceptional frustration for experienced fans seeking a decent vantage point.
Words by Christopher Andrews
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