If we told you a 71-year-old was boarding a flight to Estonia today and then Rome the following week, you’d probably casually assume they were off on a solid European holiday, wouldn’t you?
Not John Coyne.
You’re a DirtFish reader, so you’re probably more than aware of the current rallying significance of those two locations.
In case you aren’t, the World Rally Championship lands in Estonia next week for the seventh round of the season and the week after that the European Rally Championship resumes with Rally di Roma.
Irishman Coyne isn’t heading from his home in the US back to Europe to compete – although he’s still a regular on the stages – but instead to support young Irish talent Josh McErlan, William Creighton and Callum Devine. Hyundai junior McErlean will recce Estonia and compete in Rome, Creighton will contest Estonia in the Junior WRC while Devine (below) will continue his ERC campaign in Italy.
A regular now in the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National series, Coyne competes when he can but is playing a very active role in helping the next generation too through his involvement with the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy.
It’s quite rare for rally drivers of Coyne’s generation to still have such an active involvement in motorsport. His retort to this fact when put to him by DirtFish is as simple as it is endearing: “Because I enjoy it!”
Although perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong time to raise that particular point given 91-year-old Sobiesław Zasada’s extraordinary efforts on Safari Rally Kenya three weeks ago.
“I thought I was doing OK until I saw Zasada doing Kenya,” Coyne jokes. “Ninety-one years old, holy crap!
“[It’s] unfortunate for the man that he got stuck in the sand on the very last stage, that was really a bummer. But I hope I’m still at it when I’m his age!”
If he is, it would mean Coyne’s rallying story would span an incredible 65 years from its start in the mid-1970s.
“In 1976 I bought my first homologated car, a Group 1 [Chrysler] Avenger and I remember I paid £1800 for a fully prepared car that had just come second in the Autosport championship in ’75, and I bought it off the finish line of the final event,” Coyne recalls.
“From that point forward I tried to run homologated cars to give me the opportunity to do internationals and potentially travel outside the country.”
Coyne’s career went forwards too. In the famous Irish Tarmac Championship, Coyne beat Russell Brookes and Bertie Fisher to the 1982 title in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus.
I drive my race and if I happen to do well that’s great, but if not I have a fun timeJohn Coyne
That proved Coyne’s Everest as he wouldn’t climb as high in terms of success in a rally car, but that fitted his agenda. As the years rolled on Coyne’s name started to appear less and less on the entry lists until, after a rally in Malaysia in the year 2000, Coyne – in his words – went “AWOL”.
“I decided fairly early on that business was going to come before pleasure and for me the rallying has always been about enjoying myself,” he explains.
“I realized pretty early that it would be pretty difficult to make a living just rallying so I focused on work first in order to enable my pastime. And then as I got into bigger and bigger jobs I just didn’t have the time to devote to it, and it was only then when I retired that I went back to it.
“So now I have time to devote to it and happily have the resources to devote to it, so I’m able to indulge myself.”
Coyne’s return came in 2014 and he’s been rallying around the world in a variety of cars ever since. The ARA is now his regular stomping ground, and he recently switched from the Fiesta R5 to the newer Rally2, run by McKenna Motorsports.
“It just seems to do everything a little bit better,” Coyne says, comparing the two machines.
“It’s smoother, turns in better; nothing that really stands head-and-shoulders better than the previous car but just a lot of little things that add up.
“I’m not sure I’m driving it any quicker but I know I was more comfortable in it on the first event so it’s easier to drive at the same pace. Now my next trick has to be to push myself a bit and make it go faster!”
Chasing wins is no longer the target for Coyne. Instead he’s there to, as he said, “indulge” in his passion.
“I drive my race and if I happen to do well that’s great, but if not I have a fun time but I’m not hanging on the finishing times,” he reiterates.
“It may be partly because the way things are in the US, you don’t have the depth of field that you would have in Ireland or Europe so you’ve got four or five guys out in front, then you’ve got a couple of minutes, and then you’ve got me and a couple of other R5 guys and then you’ve got another couple of minutes and you’ve got the rest.
“It’s good when all the R5 boys turn up but unfortunately we’re not getting them all out on every event because distances here are so vast that not everybody can afford the time or the money to travel across the country multiple times.”
Coyne clearly enjoys competition, which is just as well given the other significant part of his life today. While he doesn’t strive to be the one making the headlines himself, he’s decided to support the next generation of Irish rallying talent to ensure that his compatriots are the ones DirtFish wants the exclusives from in the future.
In that way, he says he can “live vicariously through these young guys who are now doing what I was doing 50 years ago”.
I’m extremely happy with how the program has begun to take shapeJohn Coyne
The Billy Coleman Award has been a recognized accolade for any young Irish driver since the year 2000, and its previous winners include current Hyundai Motorsport driver Craig Breen and four-time British Rally champion Keith Cronin.
But Coyne thought the system could be “amped up a bit” and so the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy was born in 2019. Now an array of drivers can benefit from additional support which goes far beyond just some money towards the following season.
“I’ve got a great deal of pleasure out of rallying over many, many years and also take pleasure and pride in looking at successful Irish guys getting to the top,” Coyne explains.
“I wish I’d had the kind of assistance that we’re now providing in terms of not just money but the structure of the program where we’re trying to give them physical training, mental training and PR help and nutrition.
“It’s a full elite athlete program that we’re modelling from a lot of other sports that have national sanctioning bodies and have a progression ladder to bring people on.”
Current members of the Academy include the aforementioned Devine, McErlean and Creighton who are flying the flag for the program on the international stage. But there are several drivers competing closer to home in the Junior British Rally Championship this year like Brian Brady and David Kelly in smaller Rally4 cars.
This is the perfect place for their talent to be fostered, but Coyne is a big believer in going “outside your comfort zone”.
He reasons: “There’s nothing wrong with Irish events, they’re some of the best events in the world but if you stick in your own little group, you never realize that there’s another level of competition out there that’s actually going to stretch you.
“And just going to somewhere where most people don’t speak your language and the rules and regulations may be a bit more rigorously applied.
“In Ireland most laws are suggestions, or at least they’re interpreted that way so that whole experience of getting out of your comfort zone and stretching yourself on multiple parts of the sport I think is very useful to grow these young guys.”
This kind of program isn’t a brand-new concept. Nations like France have long had a talent scheme – Rallye Jeunes – which has bred two of the most prolific champions in WRC history in the shape of Sébastien Loeb and Ogier as well as discovering the rising Adrien Fourmaux.
The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy therefore has a lot to live up to, but Coyne sees no reason why the system can’t echo its forefathers and foster Ireland’s first ever World Rally Champion.
“Absolutely, and it should be very realistic,” he says. “There’s nothing to get in the way of that except structure and money. We’re working on solving both, and then of course we’ve got to have talent too but I think we’ve got a lot of talent to work with.
“It’s a question of moulding it the right way and giving it the right opportunities to blossom,” Coyne continues. “I would say I’m extremely happy with how the program has begun to take shape.
“I mean we’re only two-and-a-half years in now, if that. We’ve accomplished quite a bit so far and we’re trying to improve and refine it all the time. But that is the objective, put somebody at the top step, have the Irish flag flying at the top of the podium ceremony in the WRC.”
But despite these lofty ambitions, Coyne confesses the drivers have “certainly moved along quicker than we anticipated”.
Devine earned Hyundai junior status last year following an eye-catching ERC podium on Rally Hungary, while McErlean has now effectively replaced Devine in the Hyundai Customer Racing set-up for 2021.
It all went full circle for Coyne when the pair joined him to compete on the Olympus Rally in April – and were very competitive. McErlean stole the show with a stage win – the first for a pure R5 ever in the US – and a podium finish, and Devine was also fast but robbed of the chance to display his true pace because of a developing engine issue.
“It was an eye-opener I think for a lot of the US folks to see how quick the two boys were in R5 cars,” Coyne argues.
“For the younger R5 guys here, it showed them how they need to improve to reach a pace.
“And it was a good confidence boost for the two boys and for me it was just great to see them come over and show the way. That’s the living vicariously through these young drivers.”
If you didn’t know John Coyne before reading this, hopefully you know a lot more now: a very successful rally driver in his own right who still enjoys driving quickly between the trees, but also has a huge desire to boost his country’s profile on the world stage.
That second mission is only just beginning, but even aged 71, his desire to get behind the wheel doesn’t appear to be relenting either.
“I’m lucky enough to do a sport where you’re sitting down while you’re doing it!” he laughs. “Any other sport I’d be completely screwed.”
What can we possibly add to that?