He was one of the heroes of the Circuit of Ireland two years ago but sadly Neil McCance will be on the sidelines when the rally steps up to the Intercontinental Challenge next month.
The former Northern Ireland production champion is the driver who started the 2010 Circuit just six weeks after undergoing major surgery to have one of his kidneys removed following a cancer diagnosis.
But, despite being in a lot of discomfort, he completed the rally’s two days, finishing second in the production category in his Mitsubishi Lancer.
He was second again last year and would dearly love to be taking part when the big Easter event is staged as round three of the global IRC series on April 6/7.
But it is not to be. The cancer has come back and this time McCance has been forced to call a halt to his 22-year rally career.
Yet, typical of a driver who is one of the most popular figures in any rally service area, he couldn’t just walk away. He had to get behind the wheel one last time.
And in a hand-clapping, back-slapping, champagne-popping scene more akin to a victory celebration, he bowed out at the end of the opening round of this year’s NI championship, the Magic Bullet Stages at Kirkistown.
A former Irish Mitsubishi Challenge champion with successes including outright wins on the Carlow and Raven’s Rock rallies, Neil made a strong recovery from the kidney surgery and, ebullient as always, he carried on as though it had never happened.
However, last year he crashed heavily on the Lakeland Stages Rally, his Evo9 Lancer ending up on its roof.
He and co-driver Jonny Hart escaped largely unscathed apart from Neil suffering pains in his back.
“The back was still sore on Sunday and on Monday I managed to get an emergency appointment to see my doctor,” he said. “That led to me heading to the hospital for a series of scans and they revealed the cancer had returned, this time affecting my spine.
“Since then I’ve been undergoing treatment and scans at the Cancer Centre at the City Hospital and most recently my consultant has had me on a course of experimental drugs.
“That seems to have slowed things down a bit but the truth is we don’t know what the outcome will be because some of the vertebrae in my spine have been damaged and the cancer has also spread to my hip.
“But that aside, I’m doing very well,” added the engaging and ever positive Neil.
Returning to rallying, however, is out of the question. His back couldn’t cope with the thumps and bumps.
Why then was he out on the Magic Bullet Stages?
“Rallying has been a huge part of mine and my family’s lives for so long,” said McCance. “My grandfather was a rally driver and so was my father.
“In fact my dad Brian won the Circuit of Ireland when it was last run as a touring rally in 1959.
“I didn’t want my last memory of being behind the wheel of the Mitsubishi to be that moment when we were sliding on our roof down a forest road in Fermanagh.
“I wanted to do one more rally and my consultant agreed I could do the Kirkistown event because it is relatively flat and smooth with no big jumps.
“Only a handful of people knew it was my last rally and it was a very emotional day, especially as my wife Tanya got to co-drive for me. I didn’t drive particularly well but I finished – 13th as it happens – and second in the production category so it wasn’t so bad.
“But when I got back to the service area you would have thought I had won. A whole crowd had gathered round the David Greer Motorsport service wagons to cheer me in, spraying champagne over me and Tanya and the car.
“Now I know how Sebastien Loeb feels when he wins yet another rally.”
Neil insists he that he won’t be cutting his rally ties completely.
“I’ve never been one for standing in ditches watching the cars go by — that was always too frustrating — but you might find me manning a time control or helping out in some way,” he said.
“This sport has been part of our lives for too long just to walk away completely.”