Kilkenny native, John Rafter can look back with satisfaction at his achievement of running the international Ravens Rock Rally over the past three years in his home city, writes Trevor McGrath.
On Sunday evening, June 24 in Kilkenny City James Stafford spayed the champagne after winning the Ravens Rock Rally, but an even happier man stood beside the Darrian driver. John Rafter has been at the helm as ‘Clerk of the Course’ of the Carrick on Suir Motor Club’s premier event for the past three years. Now his term in the hot seat was over.
Even now, around three months later you can see the relief on John’s face as he relives not just the 2012 rally but the story of running the event over the last three years. “I was very happy as the pressure was off, my tenure as Clerk of the Course was over,” he said of that last evening in June. “Primarily I was extremely proud of the whole team and the job that had being achieved in the three years.2 John hails from the Threecastles/Bonnettstown area, where most of the stages were based. His day to day work with the County Council is based around the same area, but he also has his own business selling and installing phone kits, tracking systems and parking sensors, JR Auto Solutions.
Farming background “I come from a farming background and always had an interest in machinery,” he said of his entry in rallying. “My first experience of Motorsport was the Circuit of Ireland as it passed our house in the 80s. Names like Billy Coleman, Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes. By the way I was very young then. “I first started navigating in 1996 at the Carlow Stages Rally with my good pal, Derek Brennan in a Mk1 Escort. I eventually bought a Mk11 in 2001 and after doing a few single stage events I sold it in 2005 after doing the Killarney Historics.
“I currently navigate for Shay Power in Mk11 in which we are the Triton Showers South East Stages Champions. Earlier this year I purchased a Gp N VW Polo with my son Kieran. It’s great to get back behind the wheel and to have Kieran in the navigating seat is extra special.
“The layout of stages had everything to do with being a competitor. As a competitor navigating with Shay or running my own car budget is always our top priority. As COC for the Rock I kept this always in mind, rallying has to be enjoyed, the less road miles you have on the rally route between stages cuts down on recce time and bills like fuel and tyres.
“It also makes the route more compact and easier to run on rally day.”
When did he first get the urge to go for the position of Clerk of the Course (COC)? He always been ambitious and after marshalling on some local events wanted to try his hand as an event official. The first step was as a stage commander (one of the most demanding jobs on a rally).
“I always have a huge amount of respect for the people who do this job,” he insisted. “My opportunity came in 2003 when the ‘Rock’ was being run out of Kilkenny and I took charge of the Tullaroan stage. I really enjoyed it and when you have a good group around you it is very rewarding.
“I followed by taking charge of the famous Molls Gap stage in Killarney for the Historic Rally in 2007. After being a stage commander I was eager to move up the ladder as an official. I made up my mind to push for the job as of the Rock COC within the Carrick Motor Club, with the objective of basing the event in the Marble City when the opportunity came.”
Backing of club He got the backing of the club to take over the job for three years, beginning with the 2010 event. “I had only one goal in 2010 and that was to successfully have the rally take place,” he ssaid when he looked back. “That may seem odd but as we all know that was the start of the downturn in the economy. Motorsport sport suffered in general but rallying is at the hard face and entries were falling and events were being cancelled.
“We held a no frills event, set up around the competitors. We were a non-championship round (Dunlop National) that year but my team worked extremely hard marketing the event e.g. adding the Honda Cup Award, which brought in a number of entries. We started 104 main field, 12 juniors and three historics. When the figures were counted up afterwards, we broke even. I was delighted.” With the organising team in place, the next priority was to select the HQ, Parc Ferme and Service Area. Pius Phlean in the Kilford Arms came onboard as the HQ/sponsor, and the mechanical scrutiny area, parc ferme and service area were all secured quickly.
The Chancellors Mills gain store owner John Dalton was eager to become involved and Chancellors Mills became the central pivot on rally day for the three years. The final piece in the jigsaw came by way of James Coleman. James and his company (Suirway Forklifts/Farm Machinery) have been a major sponsor of the ‘Ravens Rock’ for years. “I’m a competitor and I love fast flowing stages, so as far as the stage were concerned there was only one option,” he smiled. “Growing up in Threecastles and the neighbouring parishes I knew every twist and turn on the byroads of north Kilkenny. These roads formed the hub of the stages over the three year period.
“Each year I selected a basic route and then left it to Pat (Shiel), Pierce (Doheny) and Billy (Collins) to finalise the time schedule. I think this is one of the reasons why the rally was so successful. When a job was designated to a member of the team I was 100% sure the work would not only be carried out but it would be perfect. The last section of stage three in 2010 was where I watched my first rally, a nice memory to have.”
After a successful first event in 2010, John continued to think outside the box and held a Motorsport Expo in conjunction with the 2011 event.
“Holding the Expo was to personalise Motorsport in Kilkenny with the general public,” he explained. “Number one, show how a Motor Club works internally and for people who wanted to get involved, join the club. The second was for people who wanted to become a competitor was to show how you get started on whatever budget.”
Which year would you pick as your favourite? “That’s a hard one, it’s always hard to beat the first year. It was magic,” he beamed. “We were all so eager to put on a great show and the team gelled from the start. The memories from that rally will stay with me for ever. Taking the three years as a whole I must be satisfied at what we have accomplished.
“I’ve learned so much, made new friends, lost a few (big laugh) and I’ll be paying back favours for the next ten years.” Do you have any regrets after the three year? “Yes and no,” John offered. “I say this because after our success in the first year I would have loved to run a street stage, centring the rally around it but because of the amount of organisation involved the remainder of the rally would have suffered. Maybe next time, if there is a next time, but overall I’m delighted with the success of the event over the three years.”