Bobby Willis' Circuit revival earns major accolade
The driving force behind the great Circuit of Ireland Rally revival has been honoured in the presence of motor racing royalty.
The achievement of Bobby Willis, in single-handedly resurrecting the famous old Circuit, was recognised with the prestigious Contribution to Motorsport Award at the 21st anniversary celebration of sporting charity SPARKS NI with F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart as chief guest and speaker.
While three times world champion Sir Jackie brought down the house with his entertaining and inspiring speech, local boy made good Bobby earned a standing ovation from an audience, including top local names from the world of motorsport and motorcycle racing, among them new World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea.
Others in attendance included Rea’s WSB colleague Leon Haslam, World Rally Championship competitor Kris Meeke, from Dungannon, his two-wheel townsman Ryan Farquhar, veteran MotoGP and road racer Jeremy McWilliams and North West 200 supremo Mervyn Whyte.
In addition, the annual Celebration of Motorsport event, held at the Culloden Hotel, raised over £30,000 for the local Action Medical Research charity, dedicated to saving and changing children’s lives. SPARKS NI is the sporting partner of Action Medical Research.
Two and four-wheel success stories were the theme of the evening with the main accolade to Bobby Willis unanimously acclaimed.
Eight years ago the Circuit was on its knees. Thought to be the second oldest rally in the world, it had fallen from the heights of the Seventies and Eighties when the sport’s biggest names, from Ari Vatanen to Hannu Mikkola, came to take part.
It had become a local, parochial event with dwindling entry lists and seemingly no future.
In stepped Bobby Willis, a Belfast businessman and motorsport consultant. The son of a former Belfast Telegraph managing director, he chose to stay on in Ulster when his father left to take up a new newspaper role overseas.
Willis became a top international co-driver, competing all over Europe and the Middle East, before setting up Rallymaps, a company which supplies detailed, high resolution maps to the leading teams for all the major rallies around the world including the Dakar Rally.
But the fate of the Circuit of Ireland kept gnawing away at him and in 2009 he offered to take it off the hands of the Ulster Automobile Club. At the time he said he wanted to “re-awaken the sleeping giant”.
“No matter where you travel in the world, the Circuit of Ireland holds a special place in peoples’ hearts – I want to re-invigorate that nostalgia and host a rally worthy of its heritage,” he said at the time.
Right from the start he raised its profile, brought in seasoned people to help run it and used his considerable contacts to promote it among politicians and motorsport’s hierarchy. He also used his own money to keep it afloat.
The rewards came, first with elevation to the International Rally Challenge in 2012 and more recently to the European championship where it is rated among the competition’s flagship events. There have also been suggestions it should be in the World championship but with the big manufacturer teams favouring an expansion to the Far East, notably China, it remains just an aspiration for now.
But none of this would have been possible without Willis for although the Circuit of Ireland is far from a one-man-band, he is the driving force, a terrier-like character who refuses to take no for an answer.
It was the type of attitude Sir Jackie Stewart had in mind when he exhorted the motorcycle racing fraternity in the audience, earnings-wise the poor relations of motor sports, to look to maximise their earning power in the same way as racing drivers. both during and after their careers on the track.
“If you always under-promise but over-deliver - you won’t ever get the sack,” he told them. Bobby Willis is proof of that.