GORDON Noble was meant to have spent Easter weekend the same way he has so many others over the last 30-odd years by calling notes during the Circuit of Ireland Rally.
The highly respected co-driver, who boasts Alistair McRae as one of his former pilot’s, has a near life-long association with the event, which was called off, like so many other things, due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. In 2020, Noble was to be partnering Alastair Fisher during what was expected to be a battle at the front of the pack, much like their Irish Tarmac Championship win and third place overall in 2017, but that wasn’t to be on this occasion as elements outside their control brought proceedings to a very premature halt.
While disappointed not to get the chance to add to his memories of the world-renowned event, the break has given the Omagh man a chance to reflect on Circuit’s gone by through his involvement as spectator, volunteer, competitor and clerk of the course.
His first taste of the rally, which up until the mid-1990s was a gruelling five day motorsports extravaganza that saw competitors involved in an actual circuit of Ireland rather than two days of action of a selection of stages around counties Antrim or Down as has been more commonplace in recent years, was from his friend’s garden as a primary school kid.
It was the early 1970s and as Gordon explained, information wasn‘t as readily available as today, which meant it was easier to get the wrong end of the stick.
“I cycled to a friends house near Kesh in Fermanagh to watch the cars pass on what I now know was a road section, I didn’t realise it wasn’t a competitive part of it! At the time I was excited to see the cars buzz past and I remember standing for hours,” he explained.
After that initial surge of excitement, which lit a slow burning fuse, Noble moved with his family to Omagh where he started as a pupil at Omagh Academy and it was during that time that he started to become more involved in motorsport as a spectator at the famous Syonfin Hillclimb near Fintona and then helping with servicing for James Erwin and Isaac Busby in their Alfasud, followed a year later by Stanley Gordon and Gavin Campbell in a 205 and in 1988 he assisted Ken Graham by undertaking a similar role.
Noble was also a delivery boy for the Patterson Pacenotes bulletins, collecting bundles of them before distributing them to the large crowds who were all hungry for the latest information on the stages and he has erected sponsors banners on road sides in order for them to be visible during television transmissions.
Having done pretty much all he could outside the car and away from the competition side of the event, Noble is better known for his work from the passenger seat where he got to sample the Circuit in its full glory alongside some well-known names in Irish rallying.
“Competing over the years has always been a highlight,” Gordon beamed before pointing out: “I sat with drivers such as Robin Lyons , Mervyn Johnston, Jeremy Shiels, Trevor Cathers, Tony Kearns, Garry Jennings and Kevin Lynch.
“My association with the Fisher team developed from being invited to do gravel notes by Rory Kennedy, and gained a lot of satisfaction as I contributed to their wins over a series of years.”
Although the Circuit is now a much shorter event than it was in its heyday – a time when it attracted some of the sport’s biggest names like seven-time winner Jimmy McRae, Markku Alen, Henri Toivonen and Ari Vatanen – back in the 1980s, up to the mid-90s it was nothing short of an ‘adventure’.
“I remember one year with Robin Lyons, I don’t remember which year specifically, but we went out on stage five and that was still the Friday, but it took us until about Sunday to get home after we went and partied a bit,” he laughed.
“We also finished 19th after being off the road on Sally Gap for quite a while in 1989 and I was ninth overall with Jeremy Shiels in a [Peugeot] 205 in 1994, which was, I think, the last of the five day events.
“There was a great buzz and fantastic memories, but it was baffling tackling the five day event because there were no stages repeated and I remember doing a big long recce with Robin Lyons. We’d have been away for 10 days. By the time we’d gone and done the recce and done all the stages maybe twice, then the rally started on Thursday and ended on Tuesday, so you were away for the guts of 10 days.
“It was a pure adventure. People now don’t know how much of an adventure it was because we didn’t have mobile phones, sat navs, GPS, none of that sort of stuff.
“You went away with a series of maps and you organised your hotels over the phone – the landline! – there was a bit of searching done for that. There was a lot of organising involved but there was a good buzz.
“It was an interesting time and in those days, the Jimmy McRae era, you’d have had the guys regularly driving on the World Rally Championship driving here, the world stars. The status of the event was very high, it was at the pinnacle.”
After many years of competition at the event and following his success as clerk of the course of Rally Ireland in 2007 when the World Rally Championship made its debut in this country, Noble was drafted in by Bobby Willis to fill the same role at the Circuit during its years as a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (now the European Rally Championship).
FULL STORY IN THIS WEEK’S ULSTER HERALD
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