Mizen to Malin Rally, Part I

It seemed like old times.  Maybe that was because it was like old times.  Back more than a decade ago when I was Editor of Motor Trend magazine, I used to go on drive after drive after drive, chronicling each with a feature story.  I drove across the continent of Australia in a Corvette to witness the America's Cup yacht races.  I drove through the Baltic States in a Saab as the Soviet Union was crumbling.  I drove across the United States at the introduction of a now vanished brand of automobile for a story called "From Sea to Sterling Sea."  I even drove a circle through Yugoslavia in a Yugo as that country was collapsing into chaos for a story we titled "Wherever Yugo There You Are." 

But times do change.  I left Motor Trend in 1991 to work for a car company, and I subsequently worked for J.D. Power and Associates before assuming the co-host duties on "America on the Road," a nationally syndicated radio show, and, of course, the Managing Editor post here at Driving Today.  Because of the changes, and because my responsibilities limited my ability to travel, it had been a long time since I had done the last "adventure drive."  So when I got the call from Jeremy Louwerse, my producer at ESPN's "Cold Pizza" morning show, to go to Ireland to drive in the Mizen to Malin Rally in a new MINI Cooper S, I was more than ready to get back in the saddle.  The difference this time was that I would be doing the story for TV rather than for a magazine.

Louwerse teamed me with West Coast-based producer Rich Bornstein, who has worked with some pretty talented movie stars (and some pretty untalented ones for that matter), so I had a bit of trepidation about how the partnership would work.  Oh, I've done enough television now that I don't bump into the furniture too much, and the sight of a lens in my face doesn't turn me into a blubbering mass of jelly, but at the same time this Bornstein guy has worked with pros, people who actually do this stuff for a living.  How would he react to the likes of me?

Well, from the second we talked on the phone, I knew I shouldn't have worried.  Rich is a lifelong baseball fan with young kids, just like yours truly, so we hit it off right away.  By the time we'd flown the Atlantic together, negotiated the security at London's Heathrow airport and landed amidst the greenery of County Cork, we were buddies ready to take on the challenge of getting seven or eight minutes of good TV out of our 12,000 mile journey.

Our tireless Irish production team - Eamon Taggart and Phil O'Reilly - met us at the airport, and as we made our way through the picturesque southern Irish lanes to the Oceanside resort of Kenmare we became certain we had struck gold in these two buckos.  Eamon and Phil knew the territory in a way we could never hope to, and they were gifted with enough blarney to charm even the most reluctant rally participant into an interview.

Not that too many of these friendly Irish folk proved tough to talk to.  They are blessed with an easy friendliness epitomized by our first interview subject, Gerard O'Leary, who runs a shop specializing in second-hand MINIs and is the leading light of the rally.  Operated to benefit a children's hospital, the annual event is obviously a labor of love.

"I fell in love with MINIs at an early age," O'Leary told us as we filmed participant's coming up a corkscrew grade to join the tour.  "There's just something about the car that puts a smile on your face."

After testing our new MINI Cooper S, and more particularly our ability to pilot a right-hand-drive model on the left hand side of the road, we rendezvoused at the Kenmare Bay Hotel in County Kerry, the kickoff point for the event.  We immediately discovered that, like an army, the Irish MINI Owners Club travels on its stomach.  The gathered throng of about 80 MINI owners and their driving mates set down to a substantial dinner, accompanied by quantities of Guinness and harder spirits that were a bit out of keeping with our planned 4:30 am wakeup call.  Hey, who needs sleep after a 14-hour plane flight and six additional hours of driving and interviews?

Next morning - Disaster!  Our 4:30 am wakeup call came at 5:30.  By the time I had splashed in the shower, thrown stuff in my overnight bag and headed into the car park filled with MINIs, most of the drivers were preparing to hit the road.  No time for the interviews we'd planned, but as Rich and I scurried to catch up, there were Eamon and Phil videotapinging away.  God bless 'em.

It turns out that the hotel lacks an automated wakeup call system, and the hotel operator had to make every wakeup call individually.  Since about 80 wakeup calls were scheduled for 4:30, the last of them - ours included - weren't completed until an hour later.  Hmmmm.

The mix-up put us a little behind the curve, but we dashed into our waiting Cooper S and roared off in time to pass a long line of MINIs, old and new, that were waiting to be staged for the beginning of the comfortably loose "rally."  This allowed us to take our position in the gray winds of Moll's Gap as the line of MINIs came roaring through.

Dropping down the other side of the incline we followed the parade of MINIs northward through Killarney and then Tralee.  The day had dawned leaden, and we drove on under threatening skies toward a ferry crossing of the River Shannon a few miles west of Limerick wondering what was in store for us.

What would the rest of the trip hold?  Would we survive the narrow Irish roads filled with wrong-way traffic?  Would we be able to follow the rally route while simultaneously shooting footage for TV?  And who were those ladies in the red Cooper S?  They sure didn't look like anybody else we'd seen. 

That and more to come in Part II.  Next week.  (Hey, I'm even starting to write like a TV guy.)