Rory Cummins: Zip It! Anoraks Corner
June 28, 2012 by Rory Cummins
Every nation has its Great Race, America has Indianapolis or Daytona depending on your creed, France has Le Mans, the British have their annual pilgrimage to Silverstone and every October the Aussies climb a mountain. In Ireland, we have the ‘Park’ or to give it its correct title the Phoenix Park Motor Races.
If you are reading this article there is a fair chance that you have been to The Park or have at least heard of it and in some ways I am preaching to the choir, but please indulge me. 1903 was the first year that people travelled at speed in the park, sprinting from Gough to Mountjoy. There was a brief hiatus until 1929 when the new government decided that a Grand Prix might be just to thing to put them on the world stage (imagine that now!). A fearsomely fast circuit was decided upon, 4.25 miles long with only three real corners. Perhaps you would like to take a moment to consider that! The greats of motor racing at the time assembled. Boris Ivanowksi in his Alfa 6c was the man on the pace in the first year taking both the Saorstat and Eireann cups. Rudolph Carracciola was the man in the frame the following year .
An auspicious start for a new event which promised great things for the future but has it delivered on this early promise? The Park races could be described with that old adage,’a bit like a curates egg, good in parts’. Its history has been a series of peaks and troughs, sparkling international meetings when the money was there followed a few years later by nothing more than a glorified clubbie when the budget was tight. We have had days of such motor racing perfection that you would be of the belief that heaven is indeed a place on earth. We have also had days of small grids and a certain amount of indifference from the motor racing community. It has, as you can tell , been quite the rollercoaster.
Everybody has their own era of the park that they hold on to with the fondest memories. For some it was the sixties when they were still on the proper circuit and international drivers queued up to race there. Others hark back to the Marlboro sponsored events of the 70’s when glamour attached itself to motor racing. A lot of my friends remember the eighties with Stirling Moss and Dickie Attwood going punch for punch on the Hawthorn circuit, massive grids of Formula Fords and ending the decade with Rusty French in his nuclear Porsche.
For me, my love affair with the Park began in the 90’s, I was there in the late 80’s but the flame wasn’t ignited until 1990. My memories are of whistling Cosworths and George McAlpin winning in Formula Ford, the Park was always full of suprises! My first park as a marshal was in 1993, the first year back on the Oldtown circuit. There was a Formula Ford race that year which still burns bright in my minds eye, Colin Lees was the eventual winner but that bare statistic does not do justice to the bravery that was shown between the trees. This was motor racing at its purest.
Rothmans money rolled in over the next few years and this coincided with a bumper period in Irish racing. Large grids in nearly every class, even Formula Opel had 18 cars! Visiting Historic classes added weight to the events, live tv coverage brought Irish racing to a larger audience. Jean Christophe Bouillon gave himself blurred vision in front of a record crowd. Fiat became involved and Christian Danner and Stefano Modena proved that a two car demonstration can be as exciting as a full grid when they trashed their Alfas with verve and commitment. That period was, I believe one of the Parks highest peaks. Rothmans were committed for the longterm but then their parent company decided to use Williams to promote their Winfield brand. A cigarette not sold in Ireland so it was bye bye tobacco money. From that simple marketing decision, the Park has never recovered. The ball was kept rolling through the late 90’s with decent meetings which sated our thirst for pure road racing but the cracks were beginning to appear. No budget for 2002 led to a lacklustre event the following year. This was the 100th anniversary of speed in the Park, we should have been shouting it from the rooftops but it passed by with barely a murmur. The rest of the decade was a bit hit and miss, some reasonable events but nothing to make the world sit up and take notice. The Park was beginning to die on its feet.
So where do we stand now? The event last ran in 2009 and tremendous work by Ann Stevens and her team have put together a budget for this year. The roundabout at Mountjoy is a problem, I believe a solution has been found but will it be safe enough? Im not sure how many drivers have committed to entering. It’s a tough one to call. Is this situation a bit like your favourite dog who is slowly dying, its best to put him out of his misery. I hope not, in a world of sanitised Tilkedromes motor racing needs its road circuits to remind us why we love this sport in the first place. We are in Mondello every couple of weeks and we become numb to the sounds and sights of this fantastic sport. Bring it to the Park and it becomes alive again. There is something about the sound of racing engines bouncing off trees, trees which for the last 100 years have borne witness to the most glorious moments that Irish motor racing can deliver.
Long may it continue.