The triumphant team of this year’s successful Donegal International Rally have described their victory as the sweetest in their respective careers to date.
After a high octane weekend that saw driver Garry Jennings from Kesh in Fermanagh and navigator, Letterkenny’s Rory Kennedy, fight off some tough competition, the pair look back and reflect on a victory that means so much to them on so many levels.
This was Jennings’ second time on the winners’ ramp. He also claimed top spot in 2012 partnered by Neil Doherty.
During that campaign he was being mentored by the most successful co-pilot in Irish rally history, Rory Kennedy. The pair have teamed up in the car on many occasions since, but the driver says getting across the line in top spot last weekend was something he will remember with pride.
Garry explained: “It was a fantastic week, or two weeks when we had everything organised. It is only starting to sink in now as I make my way home, what we have done and what we achieved. It was great to achieve that with such a small team. We have no professionals, or engineers. We’re just an ordinary bunch of fellas with a car.”
He is quick to praise his co-driver whom he says is the “most outstanding navigator” in the history of the sport in Ireland.
“Rory was very good at giving me confidence and assured me I could do it. Even on Sunday morning when we were going out on to stages with a good lead I probably would have been doubting myself and thinking where are we going to lose. But it is great to have a man like Rory who never doubted us, or my ability. He pushed me on and it is great to have that man beside me. It is an honour to have him in the car,” he added.
Garry says the Donegal event is highly respected around the world and that great praise is due to the warm Donegal welcome people afford the teams and dedicated rally fans each year.
“I must say ‘thank you’ to the people of Donegal for their support. I think this one stands out from any other event in Europe. The people are so friendly and they wish you all the best and there is no begrudgery. Even today (Tuesday) in Letterkenny it is very hard to leave and you’d want to stay on. I’m looking forward to going home, too, though, to see my girls and feed some cows and sheep,” he laughed.
When it comes to the winners’ podium, there was no one better equipped to guide the Fermanagh man over the line than Letterkenny’s rally icon, Rory Kennedy.
Steeped in Donegal rally traditions after being introduced to the sport by his late father, Jim Kennedy, Rory says despite all his success on the national and international stage, to step out of the car this year a winner, 20 years on from his last victory, was the most special win in his career.
MISSED VERY FEW
He has been competing in the Donegal rally since 1979, starting with driver James Cullen, and has missed very few since in his extensive career.
His maiden victory added another rung in the ladder of local sporting celebration when he and the late Bertie Fisher claimed top spot in 1992.
“There was a huge celebration for us winning our thing and then Donegal won the All-Ireland. It was a great year for everybody,” he stated.
He was also part of the winning rally team in 1993 and 1995.
He recalls Fermanagh’s Fisher with great fondness and says it was his time with his team where he honed his skills to a high level.
“He taught me the trade and that is where I learned my skill set. It was from years of experience with him because he was the top driver in the country. I owe so much gratitude to him for what I learned within the team. At a time like this, when you win the rally again, your mind goes back to the times when I won with Bertie. It was very poignant personally. Also, my father was associated with the rally from before my time. Even though he competed a few times I have vivid memories of that and that probably was where the seed was set for me. I’m sure he would be very proud of what we have achieved”.
He even got the opportunity, while still a student in St Eunan’s College, for time off to take part as his father’s navigator in the rally and now many years later he lifted the Jim Kennedy Cup, named in his honour.
Rory went on to team up with some of the best rally drivers in the world and has enjoyed success on the world stage and at 54 and a father of two, still has a great passion for the sport and a desire to compete.
He says despite his role, it is still the driver who has to take the car across the line and adds Gerry Jennings did a remarkable job and thoroughly deserved his second victory in the event.
He first got to know Garry when he was sponsored by the Fisher team and they linked the two up.
They enjoyed much success in their early days in the competitive class N category.
“I have been blessed with good safe drivers because this sport, even though it is exhilarating and exciting for people to watch, the danger element is only a fraction away at any given time. I’ve been very lucky and blessed and have made it this far unscathed. I’ve had a few trips to hospital but lucky I’ve never been badly injured.”
“Garry and me have forged a relationship and I know Garry is very capable. I think he is better than he thinks he is himself. I have great faith in him. I know he can do it. During this Donegal rally when the pressure was on and things got a bit jittery, like it does in other sports, that was where my experience comes in. The Fishers had this mental toughness and steel in them, and I got that from them. In this rally there were a few times when the pressure was on but I’d say ‘I believe you can do it’ and ‘you need to believe you can do it’. I got it into him and when he got the bit between his teeth, away we went again. The more he went on, the more confident he got on each stage. When he believed, away he went,” Rory stated.
Despite their performance, he says they only began to think of the winners’ ramp as they came to the closing stages in a good position but had to remain focused until the end but that soon turned to joy when they crossed the line.
“Once we’re up there and you look around, 20 years after last being there, it was great so see so many family, friends and people you know. I’ve won events in Ireland, China, Europe, Scotland and Britain but there was no feeling like this. It means so much and the crowd was unbelievable.”