Comradery shines through in Duggan’s home Killarney victory

There are few drivers in Ireland more gifted than Killarney’s Rob Duggan. His new-build Ford Escort Mk2 has been one of Irish rallying’s post-lockdown highlights.

After losing out to James Stafford’s Darrian T90 in West Cork, Duggan was on the hunt for modified glory on his home Rally of the Lakes last weekend.

Stafford was joined by Kevin Eves, Daniel McKenna, Gary Kiernan, and fellow local ace Colin O’Donoghue in an endless list of potential modified challengers in Killarney.

Duggan started fastest on Kilsarcon’s Rally of the Lakes opener but it wasn’t long before Stafford showed yet again what his Darrian could do. Stafford’s Stage 2 effort was amplified by Duggan easing off after clipping a rock and expecting a puncture through Banard.

Thankfully for Duggan and co-driver Ger Conway, there was no puncture and the 11.2-second time loss was a small consequence.

Killarney’s modified contenders started to drop like flies on Saturday afternoon. Kiernan’s Mk2 Escort was stricken on a road section, McKenna retired in service, O’Donoghue suffered a huge accident, and gearbox failure had Stafford’s modified hopes dashed.

That left the Toyota Corolla crew of Eves and Chris Melly as Duggan and Conway’s only serious challengers.

But as often is the case in rallying, the back story to Duggan and Eves’ Rally of the Lakes battle was as fascinating as the on-stage action – and believe me, they were setting a high standard on the stages.

Duggan’s dramas started on Saturday evening when smoke started to appear from his Escort’s engine bay. Added to that was a clutch problem that also haunted the Kerry crew right to the end of the rally.

Eves and Melly saved their skin on Saturday evening, at hand to help his rival get back to Parc Ferme. On Sunday, however, it was Conway who double-jobbed as pacenote caller and long-distance runner.

The clutch in question on Duggan’s Mk2 Escort had to be bled before the start of each of Sunday’s eight stages. By the time they reached the stage-end, the clutch was gone and Duggan couldn’t afford to stop the car.

Step up, Conway.

He jumped out of the navigator’s seat at each stage-end, ran to the time control, sorted the time card, and jumped back in alongside Duggan. This was all done while Duggan kept the Class 14 Escort rolling along so it didn’t need to be push-started.

Smoke continued to pour from Duggan’s Escort all day and each time I spoke with the 29-year-old, he genuinely wasn’t sure if his car would last another stage.

But it did.

All the issues clearly didn’t affect their performance as they went fastest in two-wheel-drive on seven of Sunday’s eight stages.

As usual, it was Moll’s Gap that set Duggan’s tone for the day. He went sixth-fastest overall on Sunday’s opener, setting the same time as Volkswagen Polo R5 driver Daniel Cronin.

Duggan and Conway eventually won modifieds by 48.9 seconds over Eves and Melly, good enough for seventh overall.

“It has been a tough day and a half really,” said a relieved Duggan at the end of Killarney’s final stage. “Yesterday evening we had clutch problems and Ger was running to the stop-car all day today.

“To be fair to Kevin and the boys, they were there to help us at the end of every stage. They got us to the finish here. It’s all about the racing, that’s what they are here for.”

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I wrote earlier that Duggan’s dramas started on Saturday evening. In terms of the rally, that is true but the rear-wheel-drive rocket wasn’t even certain of surviving the first stage.

A pre-event gearbox issue was cause of great concern for Duggan at Killarney’s Friday night start-ramp.

“We’ll see what happens,” was his simple summary.

Well, sometimes it is just meant to be.

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Photos by Adam Hall and David Harrigan