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Robin McKinney: Rally champion whose innovations helped speed sport into the modern era

 

Robin McKinney, who has died, was not just a two-time winner of the Circuit of Ireland but the man who moved the rally into the modern era.

Despite being just short of his 91st birthday he continued to be an intrepid traveller, driving across Europe with his wife Betty in their motorhome. He was in Spain when he became ill two weeks ago and later died in hospital back in Northern Ireland.

A former managing director of the family's Lilliput Laundry business at Dunmurry, Robin was a long-time member of the Ulster Automobile Club and its former president.

A car enthusiast all his life, he won the Circuit of Ireland in back-to-back years, 1955 and 1956, driving factory-prepared Triumph TR2s. The level of his achievement can be measured by the fact that the opposition included such luminaries as works Jaguar racing star Desmond Titterington, Paddy Hopkirk, later to become a five times winner, and Ronnie Adams, who had just returned from winning the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally earlier in the year.

The Circuit of Ireland had largely been the creation of Ulster Automobile Club stalwart Gordon Neill, but when he prepared to step down he singled out Robin to be his successor and the former winner took charge in 1963, immediately signalling major changes.

Until then it had been a traditional event with drivers navigating their way round Ireland on a route that was interspersed with driving and short speed tests. McKinney introduced the timed special stages which now form the basis of all rallying, just a handful to begin with and then increasing them to form the basis of the modern Circuit.

He also dropped the map-based navigation system in favour of a Tulip-style road book, which is still used, and experimented with crews being allowed to use pace notes.

"A lot changed in rally terms since I began competing in 1948 and during my time as clerk of the course between 1963 and 1967," he recalled when receiving a Lifetime Achievement award from the Association of Northern Ireland Car Clubs in 2010.

"I feel we helped transform and move rallying forward. We changed the old format to the new format, which is used everywhere today."

Remembered for his gentle manner and his outstanding contribution to motorsport in Ulster, Robin is survived by Betty, daughter Heather and sons William and Stephen, to whom sincere sympathy is extended.

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