How a famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race-wining Porsche ended up in a muddy field near Kilmoyley…
By Sean Moriarty
This yarn started with a text message from a regular reader of Kerry Motorsport News who has a keen interest in motorsport history, locally, nationally and internationally.
He has a recollection that a Porsche 956 sportscar, the type usually found racing at Le Mans and other World Endurance Championship events, spent two days of its life in a field in North Kerry.
This, he recalls, occurred in the mid 1980s and at a time when the 956 was at the height of its racing career.
His background information, it terms of how and why this happened, was sufficient to warrant further investigation.
This is an attempt to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that his memory is not playing tricks on him.
In the 1980s world motorsport was bankrolled by cigarette companies.
Kerry rally fans will remember the glory days of the Rothmans Circuit of Ireland. The tobacco brand sponsored the last two Circuit visits to Killarney in 1982 and ’83.
They brought rally legends like Jimmy McRae and Henri Toivonen, who steered Rothmans liveried Opel Asconas, to Killarney and introduced a whole new fanbase to the sport of rallying.
Internationally the brand was involved in sports car and endurance racing. In terms of world championships, it was said that Marlboro did Grand Prix Racing, Martini did the World Rally Championship and Rothmans covered endurance racing.
Rothmans was hand in glove with Porsche and bankrolled the German sports car manufacturer’s efforts in the major long-distance races of the time. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, was and remains, the blue-riband event of this discipline.
So around the same time that McRae and Toivonen were firing rally cars around the narrow roads of Ireland, drivers like Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell were clocking up the kilometres at endurance racing events.
The Porsche 956 made its debut at the 1982 Silverstone 6 Hour race, the second round of the World Endurance Championship in the hands of Ickx and Bell.
After missing the following round, the 1000 km of Nürburgring for developmental reasons, the Ickx/Bell crew reappeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The pair led the race from start to finish and topped a Porsche 1-2-3.
Toivonen shared a 956 with Bell on a few occasions through the 1982 and ’83 seasons outside his rallying commitments.
Rothmans Porsche repeated the effort the following year; this time Australian Vern Schuppan and Americans Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert took the honours and led another 1-2-3 for the team.
A row over engine regulations kept the Rothmans Porsche team away from the 1984 twice-around-the clock-race, although privateer outfit Newman-Joest Racing won the race with Henrie Pascarolo and Klaus Ludwig.
Meanwhile Porsche set about building its replacement – the 962.
This is a crucial piece of evidence in the overall story. Rothmans Porsche could of had several racing cars and had nowhere to take them.
The row centred on Le Mans and not other rounds of the World Sportscar Car(now World Endurance) Championship. Belgian Stefan Bellof emerged as champion after dividing his time between the Rothmans Porsche and the Brun Motorsport 956.
Ironically, a row of a different sort ended Killarney’s association with the Circuit of Ireland as the organisers, the Ulster Automobile Club, followed the gold trail laid down by Waterford City business interests.
The first year that the south east hosted the Circuit of Ireland was in 1984 ending Killarney’s relationship with the rally that went all the way back to 1936.
Back to 1983, Rothmans UK were the headline sponsors British Open Rally Championship. They put their hands into their deep pockets to fund the Manx International Rally that year too.
As a sideshow, a Rothmans Porsche 956 endurance racing car was parked at the Isle of Man TT Grandstand for the duration of that 1983 rally. On the Tuesday before the rally, Manx officials closed a section of the Longton Hillclimb course where, Bell drove the car in a high-speed demonstration event.
So, maybe Porsche and Rothmans did have somewhere to go with their spare race cars…? The plot thickens.
Fast forward one year, to December 1984. Rothmans Ireland announced its biggest ever Irish motorsport sponsorship package.
Just before Christmas, and only days after the Rally of the Lakes, it was revealed that Billy Coleman and Ronan Morgan were to join the Rothmans Rally team driving a Porsche 911 SCRS built by Prodrive.
Coleman’s teammate for that 1985 season was Qatari legend Saeed Al Hajri (Al Hajri and Toivonen drove the same Rothmans Porsche 911 SCRS during the 1984 season the SCRS was specially commissioned by Rothmans for Porsche) adding another bit of spice and newsworthiness to the whole story.
The PR machine was in full flight.
Rothmans upped their marketing game. Ahead of the 1985 Circuit of Ireland, they organised a series of Rally Road Shows. These took place in Dublin, Cork and many other locations around the country – possibly even Tralee too.
They invited rally fans to come to meet Coleman and Morgan and see the Porsche 911 SCRS in the flesh.
That is not all that was on offer. Rothmans and Porsche also showed off the now iconic 956 at these events.
Porsche and Rothmans had relegated their legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race-winning car to the PR circuit.
The above statement is not 100 percent accurate…at least 12 versions of the car existed at this time and many were in the hands of independent teams as in the case of Bellof’s championship win and the Ludwig/Pescarolo Le Mans’ victory.
However what is certain is that by the end of 1983 at least one version of the 956 was being used as a show car. After its Isle of Man appearance in September 1983 it enjoyed a tour of Ireland in 1985.
The crucial missing year in the puzzle is 1984 – the same year Rothmans Porsche did not start Le Mans in June.
That was the same year that Ardfert hosted the All Ireland Ploughing Championships.
Today, it is the one of biggest outdoor events of its type in Europe and even back then it was a massive draw.
There were reports of a traffic jam from Ballycarty Cross (where the roundabout at the Earl of Desmond Hotel is today) to the ploughing centre between Ardfert and Ballyheuige.
Killmoyley to be exact!
For two days in 1984 the small parish near Banna Strand was the centre of the agricultural universe. Today people go the “Ploughing” to experience the many side-shows and exhibitions but 37 years ago die-hard ploughing fans would have argued the that exhibition got in the way of the real business of judging finely ploughed furrows.
Regardless and given the tens of thousands of visitors who would have attended the event it would have been the perfect opportunity for the marketing gurus at Rothmans Ireland to show off their products.
The cigarette company showed its financial commitment to the All Ireland Ploughing Championships – which ran between on October 3 and 4 – by taking a full-page advert in the official programme.
And to win the attention of the show’s visitors, something eye-catching and unique was needed front and centre on the display stand.
And that is how a 24 Hours of Le Mans race winning Porsche 956 spent two days of its life in a muddy field near Kilmoyley.
Given the day that’s in it, you are forgiven for thinking this is an April Fool’s prank but…
If you can prove otherwise, or if you have photos of this rare occurrence drop us a line firstname.lastname@example.org