The shortest race in Ireland
Held over a town centre course that’s just ‘750-ish metres’ long, the Lightning Sprint is all about keeping racing alive
was only about half way through my pint when I heard the sound of a bike revving in the street outside. The Saturday evening action in the Dunmanway Lightning Sprint had stopped about 20 minutes before and, with the street lights coming on, it seemed that we were done for the night. I had nipped into the nearest pub. Hearing the bike I set my glass down on the bar and poked my head back out through the front door to see a race bike flashing by in the near dark.
The stoppage had only been temporary and the West Cork club were determined to see the second run of their Lightning sprint through in spite of the fact that the light had now fallen to the point of darkness. It was a minor inconvenience, the show had to go on. Another 20 competitors completed their second run under the dim glow of the street lights, tinted visors pushed open as they squinted for the racing line.
This can-do attitude permeates everything in West Cork motorcycle sport. With little more than a dozen volunteers and huge hearts full of enthusiasm, the club managed to organise a brilliant road race through the streets of Dunmanway in 2010 and several bike shows in Cork city over recent years. But the economic downturn that has ravaged Ireland starved the club of the necessary funds to run another road race. Unwilling to just throw in the towel the club, led by the irrepressible Jerh Cronin, are trying to keep motorcycle sport alive in the far South West of the country by running various events of which the Lightning Sprint in August 2012 was the latest.
The idea for the new Dunmanway event was simple. One by one riders would leave the start line on West Green, race up Bridge Street for a lap around Market Square then retrace their wheeltracks down Bridge Street and across the finish line in West Green. No-one was sure how long the course was - the best answer I could get was “750-ish metres” from Jerh - but the whole run took little more than 30 seconds.
Over 70 competitors turned up on a huge variety of machinery, from the 200bhp Honda Fireblades of road racers like Derek Sheils and Brian McCormack to bog-standard road bikes.
“Lads down in this part of Ireland have trackday bikes that they never get the chance to ride on closed roads, so this is a great opportunity,” Sheils explained as he viewed the line-up of 10-year-old CBR600s, supermotos and BMW S1000RRs parked alongside his immaculate full-superbike spec Fireblade.
The ability level was as varied as the machinery. Local bike dealer Declan Swanton has raced at every level, from British Superstock to the Daytona 200. Sheils and McCormack line-up at Irish road races every weekend alongside the Dunlops and Ryan Farquhar.
At the other end of the scale 47-year-old Sean O’Connor from Killarney in Co. Kerry was enjoying his first race since he ended up in a chest brace after falling off a road bike outside his own front door. Even greener to the race scene was Cork man Dave O’Flynn who was having his first ever competitive outing on an S1000RR.
“I just wanted to take the plunge. I’ve been doing a bit of practice on a kart track because it is tight on the corners like here,” he said nervously before the start of the first run.
Keelin Ryan from Offaly was one of the supermoto contingent and he thought his bike would be well suited to the tight Dunmanway circuit. “I had my entry in before I bought the KTM Duke. It is good craic on the shitty, bumpy roads around where I live so it should be good for here, too,” he explained with graphic candour. Ryan was far from a novice though - he had just returned to the Emerald Isle from New Zealand where he raced at Wanganui and Paeroa for TT winner Shaun Harris.
Racing got underway just as Saturday shopping finished in the sleepy little market town 35 miles west of Cork city. Slowly the pub doors opened and curious onlookers spilled onto the streets to see what all the noise was about. Within a few minutes the square was lined with spectators. A couple of ZZ Top lookalikes rolled their own fags and supped pints outside the ‘Hitching Post’ pub as a Chinese mother dandled her son on her knee, everyone of them engrossed in the action.
Some were less than impressed. The barwoman asked me why the riders seemed to be going so slowly? “I remember when the road race was here and those Dunlop boys were flying past our house so fast I couldn’t even see them,” she says.
The road race was run over a much longer and faster course and it is interesting that even such brief exposure to the speed of the fastest protagonists has had such a lasting effect on people who had no previous experience of the sport.
Given that the bikes are never out of first gear on the tight, nadgery little sprint course, it’s little wonder that it doesn’t offer a similar spectator spectacle.
“You’re on cold tyres, the street is slippery and you can’t ever really use more than half throttle,” Derek Sheils explains as he promptly sets the fastest time of the weekend.
After two runs on Saturday everyone, including the riders and officials, returns to the pubs to share the infamous Cork hospitality. I have arranged to meet friends for a Chinese but I never make it - at every pub I am handed a drink and engulfed in the craic.
Understandably then the start time on Sunday morning is at a civilised, late hour, leaving plenty of time for the penitents to attend Mass. Nevertheless, there are a few competitors who are still feeling the effects of over-indulgence.
“I had one too many so I will be taking it easy today,” one bleary-eyed R6 man tells me as he rests his hangover on a windowsill.
The three Sunday runs are interrupted by an unmerciful downpour that leaves the streets as wet and shiny as a horse’s back. Those who have wets are given 15 minutes to change - those who don’t spend the quarter hour helping to brush the puddles off the bends. There are a lot more people brushing than switching wheels.
Nothing stops the action, which is launched by a small, bespectacled figure who looks like a manic Latin teacher, waving three, then two, then one finger in front of the riders’ faces as if declining the past participles of a series of long-forgotten verbs.
Another incongruous figure amongst Sunday’s gathering was ex-World Superbike racer Simon Crafar. The Kiwi is good friends with one of the Cork club lads and often makes the pilgrimage to West Cork to enjoy the carry-on, but never the competition.
“This reminds me so much of Wanganui. I raced there when I was 15 and it is great experience,” he says as he finishes a stint with the brush, sweeping gravel off the racing line before saddling up for a couple of parade laps. The action returned to the final run, with the Sheils-Swanton battle lines clearly drawn.
Eventually Sheils runs out the winner over the local hero.
“A few lads help me out from this part of the country,” Derek explains, “so I wanted to come down and put on a show.”
And the spoils of victory, are they substantial, worth the long journey to the furthest outpost of bike racing on the island?
“You mean the prize money?” he asks. “What money?”
For Derek and everyone else involved in the Dunmanway Lightning Sprint there was a higher cause, one that Jerh Cronin describes in almost mystical terms: “We have no circuit and no money but we want to keep road racing going, keep the dream alive in West Cork,”’ he says. It would be a mean-spirited man who didn’t wish them Godspeed with their noble venture.
Words Stephen Davison Photos Pacemaker