Neil McCance raced with a smile to the very end
Good times or bad, Neil McCance invariably finished a rally stage with a smile on his face. Even when he competed on the 2010 Circuit of Ireland just six weeks after major surgery to remove one of his kidneys he would still smile through the pain.
But sadly we will never see that smile again or hear his infectious laugh. The former Northern Ireland production champion and winner of the Irish Mitsubishi Evo Challenge died at the weekend after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was just 46.
There were hopes that he had beaten an early cancer diagnosis when he had the kidney removed at the start of 2010, but 18 months later, after suffering back pain following a heavy crash on the Lakeland Rally, scans revealed the cancer had returned.
It brought to an end a rally career which saw the larger-than-life Neil enjoy not just considerable success at the wheel of his Mitsubishi, but become one of the most popular drivers across Ireland and the UK.
Not that he bowed out quietly. Not Neil. Even after he had been told his back wouldn't stand up to the bumps and bangs of a rally car he insisted he had to get behind the wheel one last time and turned out for the Magic Bullet Stages at Kirkistown at the beginning of the 2012 season.
At the time he told me: "I didn't want my last memory of driving the Mitsubishi to be 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 Neil got back to the service area at the end of the rally it looked as though he had won.
A big crowd had gathered round the service wagons of his support team from David Greer Motorsport, spraying champagne over him and Tanya and the Mitsubishi in a celebration so poignant there were many who had to fight back the tears.
"For a minute or two I thought I was Sebastien Loeb," he joked.
Neil McCance, a director of the family steel supply company, was a fine, flamboyant driver but an even better man. Supported every step of the way by Tanya, children Mark and Melissa, dad Brian, mum Lynn and aunt Ann, he lived life to the full whether it was business, rugby, scouting or rallying, making friends wherever he went.
One of those friends, writing on Facebook, said: "Neil your wicked laugh is echoing round my head and your infectious smile is at the forefront of my thoughts. Your passion for life, your family, rallying and rugby right to the end is an inspiration and I am so very proud to have had you as a friend."
Thoughts which are shared by so many people.
Neil will be buried in his home town of Comber on Thursday. SH