A simple location that put me in peak Donegal form

The Irish Tarmac Rally Championship has been a dream to follow in 2022. Spectating in the ditches on the world’s best asphalt rallies; we have witnessed top-tier drivers in top-line cars, fighting for tenths of seconds.

Last weekend’s Donegal International Rally was no different. If anything, it took things to a new level.

Given the quality of just about everything in Donegal on Friday morning, I was somewhat confused as to why I was struggling to get my mind in rally mode. Perhaps the busy build-up was taking its toll, or maybe I had become accustomed to such high standards already this year.

I watched on as drivers threw a mix of grip-craving Rally2s and chest-pumping modifieds through a square-left early on Donegal’s opening stage.

The location was packed with people, all on their tip-toes to get a glimpse of pre-event favourites, local heroes, or any chance of a stage one slip-up.

Sam Moffett was some people’s favourite, many fans’ hero, and his only slip-up was a dodgy tyre choice aboard his Ford Fiesta WRC. In typically spectacular fashion, Moffett powered through the junction with an adventurous four-wheel-drive drift before pounding his way up the road.

Somehow, I wasn’t feeling it. In that moment, it just felt like another junction on another rally as I tried to digest the stage-end information flooding through my phone.

It was going to be a long three days.

But as I was to find out, Dooish Hill still had a trick up its sleeve.

After a timely coffee stop, I readied myself for a different location on Donegal’s second loop of stages.

I hoped it would provide a good spectacle but I never imagined just how good it would be.

In contrast to stage one’s straightforward junction, a fraction of spectator cars had ventured to this section of Dooish.

The stage snaked between two farmhouses and their associated sheds. It was picturesque but how would its narrow layout suit today’s modern rally cars.

Before I could find out, I was treated to the company of the farming family that hosted, entertained, and questioned the media folk in attendance. Despite his disappointment that we couldn’t get him on television, the farmer was happy to open his doors.

Quite literally too.

With some keen hospitality, Mr Farmer opened a top-deck barn door for the first time in 20 years. His bid to give us the best view in the county faced a reality check when half the door fell off its hinges.

Weathered was an understatement.

Thankfully this friendly farmer wasn’t aware that residents had a right to be grumpy and miserable since the rally had locked them in and confined them to the best show to ever run past their house.

I joke, but our new friend was seriously quite keen to watch the spectacle.

“In all my 72 years, the Donegal Rally has never passed my front door.”

He paused and corrected his statement.

“There was one night though, around Easter time, these cars started flying past.

“I got out of bed and looked out the window as they flew past in the dark. But I went back to sleep after I watched the first few.”

Now, if a heyday Circuit of Ireland wasn’t enough to keep our farmer friend awake; Moffett, Devine, Fisher, and co. had their work cut out to grab his attention on Friday afternoon.

A worried dog and a worryingly large population of cats were an unwelcome distraction but they were quickly gathered up before the action got underway.

Car one. Sam Moffett. Ford Fiesta WRC. Wow.

The World Rally Car rumbled closer and closer before slamming on the brakes into a tight three-bale chicane just within our view from the hayshed.

A short burst on the throttle pedal brought man and machine through the narrow gap between farm buildings and the bale-protected gable wall of the farmhouse.

The noise reverberated off the stone walls and before you knew it the Fiesta had flicked left as it disappeared in haste past the farmer’s front door.

Meanwhile, the farmer’s wife had taken camp at the same bedroom window her husband stared out of half a century earlier when he was rudely awakened by what was likely to be rally legends of the highest level.

Anyway, back to the cars.

Has raw power, noise, and rally atmosphere ever gripped me in such a way? I really don’t think so.

Your mind goes back to special moments. Knockalla for the first time, being mesmerised by Rally Ireland, the 2012 Circuit of Ireland’s Friday night stages…

For the next 20 minutes, I was 100% in rally mode. Stage one was a distant memory.

Callum Devine and Matt Edwards had stolen a march over the rest of Donegal’s lead pack on Friday’s first three stages.

I was keen to see how their approach differed from their rivals.

Kevin O’Driscoll had told me about how tight some crews were cutting the porch that protruded from the farmhouse’s front door on the first pass earlier in the day.

Alastair Fisher, who was third after stage three, seemed to have this no-room-for-error line perfected. Any closer and he and Gordon Noble would have been in for tea.

They were on a mission, I thought. I quickly checked the times, to see if Fisher had flipped his Friday fortune. Fourth-fastest, 3.9 seconds down on Matt Edwards and David Moynihan’s stage-winning time.

It made you realise just how hot the pace was in Donegal.

Then came the modifieds.

Big cuts, big slides, and you could feel the Darrians take a breath as they squeezed through the farmyard.

A pretty summer garden was my backdrop as the Escorts slid beautifully around the dusty left-hander.

An overhanging bush was at risk of a battering as the cars charged past.

Its green leaves were likely red, blue, and yellow as each rear-wheel-drive rally car used it as a marker to skirt along as they oversteered out of sight.

My heart was in my mouth when each car arrived with a driver eking every inch of road out of the single-lane passage.

The top 20 blasted through in a flash and then came the familiar silence that indicted an incident preceding us on the stage.

The word came in – stage cancelled.

Our day was done but boy did it turn out to be a good one.

Speed, skill, noise, atmosphere, and emotion. Dooish Hill, you had it all.

I owe the energy I needed to climb Knockalla on Saturday morning to that small junction sitting between two farmhouses somewhere in Donegal.

By the way, Knockalla was peak Donegal as well.

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Photos by Roger Dawson and Kevin O’Driscoll