MacHale stands among Ireland’s rallying greats

By Stephen Leonard

AUSTIN MacHALE from Rathcoole is one of Ireland’s most decorated rally drivers, dominating the Irish international scene in the mid 1980’s and again in the late 90’s.

Together with then co-driver Christy Farrell he captured the Irish Tarmac Championship crown in 1983, ’85 and ’86 before returning to the top of the podium in that very series in 1997 and ’98 alongside co-driver Brian Murphy.

Austin MacHale USE DonegalInt2000 10143 compressor

Austin MacHale from Rathcoole was one of the greatest rally drivers this country has produced, dominating the Irish International scene back in the mid 1980’s and again in the late 90’s (Photo by Seamus Counihan)

A two-time winner of the Circuit of Ireland in 1993 and ’98, he also finished runner-up in the British Rally Championship in three consecutive years between 2003 and ’05.

MacHale who, between national and international rallies, has more than 22 overall wins in total, spoke to The Echo about his time at the top and his pride at seeing his sons Aaron and Gareth carrying the torch in the sport after him.

Indeed Aaron captured the Dunlop National Championship in 2007 before Gareth topped the Irish Tarmac series three years later, marking the first time that that coveted title had been won by a father and son.

“I started in motorsport back in the mid 70’s, myself and a guy called Fergal Allen who was a friend of mine” recalled MacHale.

“We were both about 17 or 18 at the time and we bought a Ford Anglia ex-racing car out of Mondello and we put it together and built it for rallying.

“We started on that and we did some forestry rallies and some navigational night rallies. Fergal then was starting to go competing himself and I moved to a Ford Escort.

“I started off with a Ford Escort Twin Cam and I did the Galway International which was our first major rally in that and we finished eighth overall and won our class, myself and a guy called Dermot O'Neill who ended up as a brother-in-law of mine.

“That was the start of it for me and we did the National Championship in that particular car. We moved from that into the RS 2000 which was the Group One car of the time.

“We did the British Championship in '81 and we had a very good result in the Mintex Rally. We finished third overall which was really a very good result for a Group One car.

“That year we finished second in the British Championship and we were lying fifth overall in the Circuit of Ireland in the Group N car when we went off up in Donegal on the final night.

“We graduated from there into the Vauxhall Chevette HSR, which was a car that had numerous wins in the British and European Championships.

“Having won the International Championship in Group One, it was a big step forward for us and we won our first Tarmac Championship in that car in 1983. We won the Cork 20, our first international win the same year and won the championship.

“Winning the championship made a big difference because, having won that, I got a drive with Opel Ireland in 1984 in the Opel Manta 400 which was the start of five years that I spent with Opel Ireland.

“We had numerous international wins with Opel and two championship victories. In '85 we had a good few international wins in Galway, Cork and we were unlucky in Donegal having been leading the rally. But we won the Championship again in '85.

“The Opel Manta was a very competitive car at the time and you had Bertie Fisher, Vincent Bonner, Billy Coleman. All them guys were competing.

Austin MacHale front compressor

Austin MacHale after another great victory

“The competition in those years was very good and motorsport was very competitive in those years, the 80's and 90's. It makes winning the title all the better.

“We won in '86 with the Manta again. We had to win a fair few rounds to get the championship.

“We won two Circuit of Irelands in 1993 and '98. We never won a Circuit with the Manta even though we were on the podium, but overall we were very competitive.

“For the Circuit of Ireland and a lot of the Irish events you'd have a lot of the Scandinavians and British competitors over.

“The Circuit at that time came to Tallaght. You had Bertie Fisher, Andrew Nesbitt, Kenny McKinstry, Vincent Bonner. All them guys were there, plus the British, Jimmy McRae, Russell Brookes and David Llewellin.

“From the mid-80's after the Manta we had a Ford Sierra and then we went into the Toyotas in 1992 and we won the Circuit with a 165 Celica the following year.

“We didn't do a lot of rallies in the late 80s and early 90s. It was in 97/98 that we got the Celica 185 which was a very competitive car. We had something like 14 outings with 12 wins, two seconds and two championships.

“We won some of the British International rallies and we finished second in the British Championship three times over the years. Unfortunately we didn't take the Championship.

“Maybe we would just do the Circuit and after a good result in the Circuit we'd go and maybe do the Championship, never with the intention to win it. It was more just to win the rallies rather than the Championship.

“We would have done a fair few European Championship rounds, but we would have concentrated a lot between here and the British.

“At the latter end we did some World Championship rounds. The RAC would have been a World Championship round. We led the RAC a couple of times in Group One, as it was called at the time back in the 70's.

“In the mid 2000s when Gareth was competing in the World Championship we would have competed in Monte Carlo twice and Mexico once along with RAC and we were lucky enough finish in the top-ten three times.

The Rathcoole man was also proud to see his sons Aaron and Gareth take up the mantle from him and carve out their fair share of success in the sport.

“Gareth and Aaron, who's the eldest, were always going to the rallies with me earlier on when they were younger.

“Aaron won the National Championship which we're very proud of. It was great to see him getting it.

“I think the following year Gareth, in his first year out, he won the Forestry Championship in one of the old Toyota Corollas that I competed in. It was great to see him winning that.

“And then in 2010 he won the Tarmac and it has been the first time that the Irish International Tarmac Championship has been won by a father and son.

“To be competitive in the 80's and the 90's, over a spell of 20 years, is obviously something I'm proud of.

“It's a sport in which you don't have to be super fit like GAA. The experience does help a lot, but you can be competitive up to, I suppose your late thirties and early forties, but then reflexes start to fade.

“Reflexes are really important in any sport I suppose, but in motorsport it's very important and it's important to have a good team and good backers and of course a good car because if you haven't got a good team behind you and a compe-titive car, no matter how good you are, it's very hard to get those wins.”

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