By John Kenny
Forty five years ago this year Mondello Park in County Kildare opened its gates for the first time and much has changed in that intervening period as the circuit now looks to its future.
Mondello was opened in 1968 by Stuart Cosgrave, who now owns a number of Karting Tracks in Ireland, along with partners Eddie Regan and Jim Morrin, and Dubliner John Keaney was credited with winning the first ever race on the newly opened track which measured 0.8 miles in its early days.
Before Mondello came into existence, motor racing in Ireland had taken place on closed public roads such as Dunboyne in County Meath, where the likes of John Watson had won the famous Leinster Trophy back in 1966 in his Crossle.
Watson went onto race in Formula One for the likes of Penske and McLaren where he won five grands prix in his career,
With safety becoming an issue on the street circuits and with the demise of Dunboyne as a venue, a permanent motor racing circuit was required in Ireland and Mondello, named after a beach in Palermo in Italy, was born.
The original circuit lasted for just one year before the track was extended to 1.2 miles for the start of the 1969 season.
Mondello hosted European F5000 events in its early years and attracted decent crowds for its international events, but it was a struggle to nail down domestic classes and drivers.
However, with the arrival of the budget Formula Ford 1600s in the 70s, Irish interest began to grow and the likes of Derek Daly Eddie Irvine and Martin Donnelly all passed through Mondello Park on their way to Formula One.
The circuit ran into financial difficulties in the 1980’s and was rescued from closure when it was sold by the original owners to a consortium of Motor Clubs and the Royal Irish Automobile Club.
County Mayo’s Martin Birrane later stepped in to purchase the circuit from the consortium and the track was then run by a number of different franchise holders before Birrane took full control of the venue in 2000, having financed the extension of the track to 2.2 miles in 1998.
The 1990s saw the real heydays of the Kildare circuit as Motorsport Ireland introduced the new Formula Opel class as its premier series and together with the Formula Ford Zetac class, full grids and live RTÉ TV saw a real sense of excitement as drivers turned up in droves.
"It has been tough for Mondello in recent years"
The circuit development was completed in 2001 with the arrival of a pit garage and hospitality suite complex, a larger all-tarmac paddock and a state of the art control tower and medical centre.
Since 2000 Mondello Park has staged a round of the FIA Sports Car Championship, run a European championship historic racing event, hosted the BTCC, British GT and Formula 3 series and is the only overseas venue to ever feature on the British Superbike Championship calendar.
However little by little those International and British series have now departed and after the demise of the unloved Formula Ireland class early in the new millennium, circuit racing in Ireland went into a tailspin.
In order to survive, Mondello has had to diversify into the likes of its Motor Racing School alongside corporate days, 4x4 courses and Motor Manufacturer training and driving days.
But there has been a turnaround of sorts in the last few years on the track.
The Adelaide Motor Cycle races have proved to be popular, while the introduction of the Irish Touring Cars (ITCC), Ford Fiesta has seen new drivers come into the sport.
The reintroduction of Formula Ford this year has also given a fresh impetuous to circuit racing in Ireland with a new breed of ‘Young Lions’ now competing in the class.
It’s not perfect as Formula Ford still only race at Mondello a couple of times a year, but it’s a start.
It has been tough for Mondello in recent years.
British and international classes coming to Ireland are rare these days, but there is hope that the return of the European Rallycross series to the track in 2014 will be the start of a reversal of fortune for the iconic circuit.