Track test -- Dunboyne

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A decade after Dundrod was closed to cars on safety grounds, this Irish circuit was flourishing and claiming lives. Damien Smith reports

Nine o’clock in the morning and, just like anywhere in the western world, the roads are jammed. This was once a typical Irish village serving a local farming community and little else. But given that it’s only 15 miles outside Dublin, just beyond the city’s M25-style ring road, that has all changed. New houses are sprouting up, pushing the boundaries of the village further into the countryside. The growing population is made up of commuters who get into their cars each morning and drive bumper-to-bumper towards an ever-expanding, modern city. Dunboyne does retain some of its whimsical charm — the traditional pubs, the old Guinness ads on stone house walls — but slowly it’s being smothered. Like the rest of Ireland, Dunboyne is catching up with the 21st century.

As their cars crawl over the high street’s predictable speed bumps, few of the commuters will be aware that this road formed an essential part of Ireland’s rich road-racing heritage. For nine seasons — 1958 to ’66 — Dunboyne and its surrounding roads hosted the prestigious Leinster Trophy meeting, which attracted not only the cream of the local driving talent but also intrepid British invaders. This was an era of Formula Libre handicaps; a case of anything goes, from Formula Ones to Healey Sprites, one-off specials to Jaguar D-types.

Dunboyne’s lanes may have been narrow, but this four-mile triangle was fast. Deceptively so. And as with all road courses, its dangers were obvious. The daredevils rode their luck for the first six years, but the inevitable could not be avoided forever. The deaths of an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman over the course of three years spelt the end of this adventure in County Meath.

It began when Leinster MC went on the search for a new circuit to host its big event. The 8.4-mile Wicklow road circuit, which held the Trophy meeting, was considered obsolete by the late 1950s, plus the local farmers who leased their fields for spectator enclosures and the paddock were raising their prices.

“Leinster MC needed a triangular circuit based around a town or village a bit nearer to Dublin,” explains Stuart Cosgrave, who was Dunboyne’s chief marshal before becoming club president. “They looked at so many, but there was always two sides that were good and a third that was rubbish. Then they found Dunboyne.”

The circuit’s first Leinster Trophy, in 1958, stands apart from the other eight because the lap ran clockwise; the direction was reversed the following year. “The main problem was that there was no escape road in the village running clockwise,” explains Cosgrave. “Not that there was much running the other way!”

From 1959 the cars headed east from the start, which was sited between Kelly’s and McCabe’s pubs, towards the first of two humpback bridges over a railway line (there was a smaller one over the River Tolka, too!). Both were tricky, but the first was lethal. Dunboyne was one of the circuits where future GP star John Watson cut his teeth and he remembers Boylan’s Bridge testing his mettle every time: “The bridge going out of the village was the quicker of the two. You could attack it, and it was a case of seeing how far you could fly. It was dangerous, no question.”

Not half. Although the line is now disused, the bridge is as it was during the 1960s, the road swooping right just beyond its parapets. Drivers had to yump it at an angle in order to minimise the direction change on landing. Easy to lose time here; even easier to get it very, very wrong.

From Boylan’s it was a straight blast, via another yump, this time over water, to the first corner of the triangle, Loughsallagh (aka Clonee), a tight left that led the cars onto the main Dublin-Navan road, the N3. The old road today feeds into a wide modern highway that in turn leads to Sheaf-o-Wheat, the triangle’s second tight left. The other railway bridge — similarly shaped and just as narrow as Boylan’s — looms fast from here, although its approach is slower. Upon landing (for the faster cars) it was foot to the floor for the daunting run back into the village, then time to set up for a kink and a fast left around Kelly’s.

Watson’s love of Dunboyne precedes his conquests at the track. As a 15-year-old in the village square’s grandstand, he enjoyed a prime view of Formula Junior’s finest making their approach to the final corner: “It was the first time I had seen cars driven that hard, with well-known drivers behind the wheel: John Rhodes, John Love, Tony Maggs, Richard Attwood. They were coming into the village from a very fast run: a little kink left, change down a gear, then shoot into the village. The speed was just massive.”

Rhodes won that first Formula Junior race at the track, the 1961 Dunboyne Trophy. He had already won at Phoenix Park and would claim the Irish championship aboard his Midland Racing Partnership-run Cooper. He remembers that approach to the village with a chuckle: “Paddy Hopkirk was the famous hero in Ireland at that time and he was driving a Lotus 18. We were side by side on the run back to the village and neither of us was going to give way. But I got him under braking for the final left-hander.”

The size of entries grew as Dunboyne’s annual meeting caught on and extra races were added to the bill. In 1960 the Holmpatrick Trophy was created: another handicap event, for cars “which in the opinion of the committee have not a speed potential to lap the Dunboyne circuit, in the dry, at over 75mph”. Typically, that limit was not a strict red line — there was room for a bit of Irish flexibility. Thus Bill Lacy won in his TR3, at an average of 79.39mph and with a fastest lap of 81.60mph. So, who’s counting?

But it was the Leinster Trophy that always topped the bill. Given its handicap format, a well-driven sports or GT car could prevail over the single-seaters, as South African Bob Olthoff proved in 1962 in a Healey 3000. Again Watson was in the grandstand: “The bloke drove the wheels off that thing. He was fantastic.”

Perhaps the most potent single-seater was Jack Pearce’s 4.7-litre Kincraft-Ford, one of the few cars to ‘top the ton’ at Dunboyne. Sadly, it was involved in the second of the track’s four fatal accidents. The first, in 1964, had claimed the life of veteran Englishman Bill Rigg, who crashed his Lotus Elite on the second lap of the Dunboyne Trophy handicapper. The car hit a bank between Boylan’s Bridge and the Loughsallagh turn. It disintegrated and Rigg was thrown from the wreck — a moment that marked the beginning of the end for Dunboyne’s car-racing chapter.

A year later Pearce’s Kincraft collided with Scotsman Adam Wylie’s F2 Brabham on the run from the village to Boylan’s during practice on a Friday evening. The Brabham struck a pole and flew into a field. Wylie died instantly.

Cosgrave: “We came upon the scene and there was a car sideways in the middle of the road. The driver [Pearce] was semi-conscious and asked, ‘Where’s the other driver?’ We didn’t know what he was talking about. At that stage we didn’t know another car was involved. Wylie had gone over a ditch into a field. Going looking for him is some memory.”

In the race the following day Welshman Tony David perished when his Lotus 22 broke a telegraph pole in two near the Loughsallagh Corner. Chris Summers dominated proceedings in his Chevy-powered Lotus 24, while Tommy Reid claimed a new lap record in his Lotus 22. His incredible mark of 101.24mph would stand as Dunboyne’s fastest for ever.

Cosgrave had become club president by the time of the 1966 meeting: “I put in a chicane after the first bridge and came in for a lot of criticism. It was a case of trying to stop the tide coming in, doing anything to try to make it safer. But you could never make the whole thing safe.”

Sure enough, the track claimed another victim when Dublin car salesman Kenny McArdle rolled his E-type on the fast back straight and was thrown from the car. Enough was enough.

“We came under great pressure from everyone,” explains Cosgrave. “Four fatalities in three years was too much.”

For 1967 the Leinster Trophy switched to the wide Bishopscourt airfield circuit in Northern Ireland, while Cosgrave worked on an exciting new venue in the south: Mondello Park, situated on 72 acres of farmland near Naas, was unveiled on May 12, ’68.

With hindsight it seems patently obvious that Dunboyne was living on borrowed time. Bike meetings, which also included some saloon car races, continued at the track beyond the final Leinster meet, but by July 1966 full-blown road circuits for cars were becoming scarce, even in Ireland: the last TT at Dundrod north of Belfast was already 11 years gone, while Jackie Stewart was still coming to terms with his recent Spa accident that had left him trapped unconscious in a bent-in-half BRM P261, doused in fuel in the middle of a hay barn. Thankfully, the only thing this crash triggered was his campaign to improve safety standards. It was not just JYS — attitudes to racing were changing. And Dunboyne’s car races had survived longer than they probably had a right to — although not everyone agrees.

Alec Poole, who would go on to become head of Nissan Motorsport Europe, says: “At that time we didn’t think about the danger. The drivers were disappointed when the racing stopped at Dunboyne because we knew it was one of the last great circuits. There was no pressure to stop because of safety, it was because Mondello was being built.”

Cynical? Cosgrave, unsurprisingly, is adamant: “If we’d stopped racing just because of Mondello we could still have stayed at Dunboyne for 1967. The fact is the RIAC would not have allowed it to go on. To begin with, Dunboyne was fantastic. I drove there on four or five occasions myself and it was a wonderful circuit. But the tragedies over the last few seasons cloud my memories of the place. They take the gloss off it.”

Not so for Watson. The man who would relish street-circuit challenges in F1 got a buzz from racing through country lanes bordered by kerbs, telegraph poles, hedges and stone houses: “To be able to race on public roads legally… that was something to really look forward to. Places like Dunboyne made you a better race driver because there wasn’t the run-off you had at airfield tracks. Mistakes were punished, sadly sometimes fatally. But the challenge of a track like that was, I felt, what being a racer driver was all about.”

No question, pounding around Dunboyne would forcefully remind you that you were alive, but death — and the track’s demise — was just around the next bend. Or over the next bridge.

***

Why Watson and Poole were partners in grime

For Alec Poole. the Dunboyne circuit will always have a special place in his heart. “Some of the land halfway up the back straight was owned by the father of the woman who would become my wife: he says. And my brother-in-law works at the business park that is built there now: He even has fond memories of an accident from which he was lucky to escape, because it led directly to the forging of his life-long friendship with John Watson. “In 1964 I rolled an Austin-Healey Sprite, fell out of the car and was pretty shaken up. Wattie was driving a Sprite, too, and gave me a lift back to the pits. It was the first time we met so you could say it was a day of double disaster!”

Watson is proud to be listed among the winners at the track thanks to his victory in a Crosslé in the 1966 Dunboyne Trophy: “To win at Dunboyne was a definite rung up the ladder compared to winning on an airfield circuit. You knew you’d won a proper motor race when you brought the car back covered in streaks of mud. The trophy was not the silverware for me, it was the grime on the car.”