James Coleman presents Richie Dalton with the South East Stages Trophy Picture: Ted O’Connell
There was one very proud Kilkennyman in the Vienna Woods Hotel, Cork on Saturday night as Richie Dalton was crowned 2017 South East Stages Rally Drivers Champion.
“Twelve months ago I decided to give rallying 100% commitment,” said Richie, accepting the trophy from championship sponsor Suirway Group Managing Director James Coleman. “With a huge amount of effort I clinched the title on the last day of the season. I’m absolutely delighted to now get my hands on the cup.”
The South East Stages Rally Championship is a six round class-based competition where cars of equal capacity are separated into groups and classified points accordingly. Competitors drop their lowest score as five rounds count towards the final standings.
After a number of years behind the wheel of a Honda Civic Richie decided for 2017 it was time for an upgrade.
“I wanted to move up in class and I also wanted to dedicate myself to a full championship assault,” he said. “On the advice of John Rafter I sold the Civic and bought a 1996 Subaru Impreza and an ex Shane Maguire N11 Impreza.”
Why two cars?
“The South East Stages has two rounds on gravel and the remainder on tarmac,” he explained.
“I wanted a good quality car for the tarmac but the gravel rounds are tough mechanically so it’s better to have the second for the forest events.”
Richie’s championship attack began in February on the Carrick Forestry Rally. Twelve points were scored but he wasn’t happy with his performance.
“500 metres into the first stage I realised there was going to be big learning curve,” he admitted. “I dabbled with forest rallying a few years ago but as I said the gravel is tough on the car. Now I was in a purpose built gravel spec machine but I lacked confidence.
“The Subaru is a different beast to the Civic. Being four wheel drive a different driving style has to be adopted. I wasn’t carrying enough speed through the corners. I was braking too early and then had no speed on the exit.”
After the event Richie discussed the problems with John Rafter. “He advised me to get some tuition to iron out the issues. I called Andrew Purcell, he setup a test day and offered advice.”
The second round was the Cork-based Moonraker Forest Rally. The event saw Richie nominate the rally as his double score - 24 points were scored and the result saw him move into second in the championship.
“I was really delighted with my drive. My trip down to Andrew paid dividends.”
The championship moved to tarmac for round three in Carlow. By September this was to be his dropped score but in hindsight the fighting spirit shown here contributed a huge amount to him winning the title.
“I was having a good cut over the opening three stages,” he recalled. “Then on stage three I broke a front drive.
“I’m not mechanically minded but it was here that Ger (Ger Brett, co-driver) came into his own. He was able to make temporary repairs which got us back to service.
“More importantly than his quick fix was Ger’s attitude,” Richie added, praising his colleague. “He never let me drop my head.”
Next up was the Ravens Rock Rally in late June. Apart from a couple of punctures the day went without a hitch.
“I had my eye on the big prize and it was my first time to feel one with the car. We had summer sun and a few showers. The stages were fast and flowing and the car performed perfectly.“
With 12 points picked up, Richie was now third in the standings with 57 points.
The penultimate event, the Stonethrowers Rally, was cancelled so it was on to Wexford for the final event. For Richie, the message was simple: give it all to win.
“The only way I could clinch the title was to leave no stone unturned,” he said.
Going into the final round the championship standings saw Adrian Hetherington hold a commanding lead with 66 points. Alan Commins was second with 58, with Richie third a point away.
As it turned out neither of the top two entered the event but this did not make it any easier. Dalton’s weakest score to date was nine points in Carlow, so even after dropping it he still required a total of 18 to draw level with Hetherington. That would give him the title as he had completed the required four events and Hetherington had only entered three (four events would count because of the amended regulations with the Stonethrowers being cancelled).
“All the way through the season John Rafter was on hand to offer support and advice,” Richie recalled. “He was in France that weekend but this did not deter him from being in contact. My mobile was red hot with constant calls looking for updates and encouragement.”
Saturday’s stages were slippy with showers making tyre choice hard but Dalton had a good run. By Sunday morning he was in position to score 15 points, but needed to win the powerstage (SS8) to secure the 18 points required.
“I was feeling the pressure but I kept my concentration and we pulled it off,” he said. “All I needing to do now was bring it home.”
There was one final sting in the tail, however. On the last stage, Dalton suffered a puncture.
“Just when I was starting to feel I was there we picked up a puncture,” he said. “Luck was on our side as it was close enough to the end of the stage and we made it to the end.”
Winning the championship brought a wave of different emotions for Dalton.
“It was unreal!” he beamed. “With all those emotions flowing, the feeling of relief was immense!”
He had the title, but Dalton was quick to acknowledge that rallying is not an individual sport - this was a team effort?
“Winning the title was a group effort and it started with the man that was beside all the way,” he said of co-driver Ger.
“Ger has been a friend for a long time. He is a great co driver, he knows me very well and I wouldn’t have my name on the trophy today without him.”
The thanks continued to more people outside the car.
“I’d have to thank the Suirway Group championship sponsor. The South East Stages is unique as it gives an equal chance to all competitors and I give a special mention to James Coleman and Karen O’Dowd.
“Rallying is expensive, sponsors are very important and I owe a huge amount to Chancellors Mills, Rich Sign, Walsh Manufacturing and Philip Ireland Tyres ltd.
“As I’m self-employed I want to thank my father and brothers for their help. Thanks also to my good friend Enda O’Brien as we share a service van and to John Butler and John Moynihan for their work on the cars.
“Finally I want to tell John Rafter he was right,” Richie said with a smile. “My name was on the trophy! No-one can take it off. Thanks John!”