Nigel Frazer looks back at the story behind the Summit 2000 Rally as world rally stars took to the roads in Fermanagh

This year marks the 20th anniversary of “the biggest thing that had ever happened to rallying in Fermanagh.”

The Summit 2000 Rally, organised by Enniskillen Motor Club, brought the glamour of the World Rally Championship to Fermanagh for the first time when former World Rally champions Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola showcased their skills across mountain roads in the south of the county.

The event proved to be a forerunner to a decade that would see Fermanagh’s profile increase dramatically throughout the rallying world.

The county had the honour of hosting the first stage of the 2009 World Rally Championship when Rally Ireland came to Enniskillen, and two years prior to that they had hosted the service area and several special stages when Ireland first featured in the WRC.

Fermanagh would even lay claim to their own World Champion with Niall McShea going on to win the Production World Rally title in 2004, but in 2000 the county’s rallying reputation rarely stretched beyond our own shores.

The Summit Rally started to change that. Drew Wilson, the current President of Enniskillen Motor Club, was the Clerk of the Course for the event and he was no doubt about the enormity of the occasion.

“It was the biggest thing that had ever happened in rallying in this area,” he stated. “Hannu Mikkola would have been over for the Circuit of Ireland at times, but to have this based in Fermanagh was top class. It was a big thing, and to get Mikkola and Blomqvist was a major coop.”

Enniskillen Motor Club was the driving force behind the rally that was put together at short notice when the Irish Tarmac Championship was hit by event cancellations before the 2000 season kicked off.

Ian Greer had won the 1999 Tarmac Championship but the series in 2000 was thrown into jeopardy when the opening two rounds did not run as planned.

The Galway International Rally had suffered from adverse public relations after a series of incidents relating to anti-social behaviour from spectators and they decided not to run in their traditional February date, while the Circuit of Ireland suffered from a lack of entries and a date clash with the Killarney Rally and as a result cancelled their event.

The Ulster Rally was also undergoing organisational restructuring and were not a part of the championship, as was the case with the Manx Rally.

That left the series in crisis and desperately in need to an event that would boost the number of counting rounds.

That was the cue for Enniskillen Motor Club to step forward.

“It was some undertaking for a small club like ourselves,” admitted Drew, who had Keith Boyd and Declan Gannon as assistant clerks of the course.

“If you count the number of people that were involved in the whole day there would have been several hundred when you included everyone, but the organising committee was probably only six or eight of us, which was a big undertaking. We were nervous about taking it on but it went extremely well.”

Austin Frazer was the Chairman of the Irish Tarmac Championship Organisers Association and also Enniskillen Motor Club Chairman, and he revived an old rallying partnership with his former driver Bertie Fisher and other members of the club to deliver the unique one-off rally that would be a showpiece event as well as a round of the 2000 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship.

Fisher’s connections in the local business community led to discussions with Sean Quinn, who gave permission for the club to hold a single venue special stage around the roads of his quarry near Derrylin.

Fisher Engineering sponsored the rally, which would straddle the border with the ceremonial start at Enniskillen Castle, and the finish at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell.

The event was originally given the title of the “Millennium Super Special” but was soon rebranded as the Summit Rally to reflect the terrain.

The club were aware that the event was always likely to be a one-off venture and were determined to make it a highlight of the motorsport calendar.

The date of the event was scheduled to avoid a clash with the World Rally Championship and to increase the chances of attracting a current World Championship driver to compete.

David Richards, managing director of WRC team Prodrive, was approached in an attempt to attract Subaru driver Richard Burns, who would go on to claim his first world title the following year.

That approach did not come to fruition, but the club did manage to secure Mikkola and Blomqvist, who although not current WRC drivers had a rich history at the top level of the sport.

“We would have run navigation rallies and the biggest thing we would have been running was the Lakeland Stages Rally which was really for local competitors, but this was part of the Tarmac Championship which was on a different level,” Drew admitted.

“We were all amateurs and Austin Frazer was the only man who had experience of dealing with events like that. Austin had so much experience in that type of thing that he kept us all right. It never would have run without him, and I know that for a fact.

“Bertie was involved in a big way as well. Not only were Fisher Engineering the sponsor, but Bertie was the man who got Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist over. He was the main driving force behind that.”

The pre-event barbeque fundraiser and auction raised an impressive £42,000 for local charities before the high octane action started for real on Saturday morning.

The route saw competitors climb from the quarry to the fast scenic winding roads over Slieve Rushden, threading its way between the windmills before descending back down the mountain to complete the six and a half mile tarmac stage.

With a variety of different starts and finishes used throughout the day, the club were able to run eight stages.

After completing a recce of the stage in sunshine the previous day, competitors were greeted on Saturday morning with low cloud, fog and wet roads as the Fermanagh weather gave the visitors a more traditional local welcome.

Reigning Irish Tarmac Champion Ian Greer led the star studded field away from the start in his Toyota Celica. Andrew Nesbitt, who would go on to claim the first of his two Irish tarmac titles in 2000, started at number two in his iconic Cuisine de France Subaru.

Five time Tarmac Champion Austin McHale was at number three, with the 1983 World Champion Hannu Mikkola seeded at four.

Swede Stig Blomqvist, who succeeded Mikkola as world champion in 1984, was running at number five. Two young local drivers were hoping to impress with Mark Fisher one of the favourites for the Group N crown after taking a class win in Killarney earlier in the season, and Niall McShea in his Citroen Saxo hoping to use the event to add to his growing reputation.

The treacherous early morning conditions were too much for several high profile drivers, with three big names perishing on the first run over the mountain.

McShea left his braking too late in the mist and ripped two wheels off his Citroen, while two time Donegal International rally winner James Cullen also fell victim to the conditions.

Frank Meagher was hoping to contend for victory but he rolled his Escort off the road and although he eventually made it to the finish line the lost time put him out of contention.

The star of the morning stages was emerging local talent Mark Fisher. Mark had just come back from a four day test with the Peugeot World Rally Team as he prepared for his appearance on the Acropolis Rally later in the year, and back on home soil he set the third quickest time on the opening test despite his Group N car not matching the specification of the front runners.

It was a performance Mark would maintain throughout the day, eventually coming home fifth overall just one place adrift of Mikkola.

His drive was another illustration of an undeniable rallying talent, but his potential would sadly remain unfulfilled following his tragic death less than a year later.

At the front of the field the battle for overall honours looked to be going in Derek McGarrity’s favour, but in a controversial incident midway through the event his Subaru was found to be under the minimum weight limit.

That opened the door for Nesbitt and he took full advantage, powering past both Austin McHale and Daniel Doherty over the closing stages to take the rally win and secure his place in history as the first and only winner of the Summit Rally.

There were local successes among the class winners.

In addition to Fisher’s Group N win, Alan McMahon and Benny Grainger took the top spot in class one in their Suzuki Swift, with Ivan Fisher navigating Derek Jobb to a class win in class seven.

The Scandinavian visitors both finished the event and were enthusiastic in their praise for the rally. Stig Blomqvist and co-driver Mark Crowe brought their Subaru Impreza home in fourth place and Hannu Mikkola and his son Juha Mikkola, on his first ever rally, finished tenth after a late puncture dropped them down the leader board.

Speaking days after the finish of the rally, event director Austin Frazer summed up the success of an event that still brings back fond memories for those that were there to witness a significant piece of Fermanagh rallying history.

“I think that what our club achieved over the weekend was astounding when you look at where we came from. We’ve never run anything on that scale before – we’ve run NI Championship events but nothing like this. The venue is ideal for rallying and there wasn’t a bed available in the county on the Friday night. The tourist authority was inundated with enquiries. When you look at what was achieved it was of a totally unique nature.”