Gary Milligan is best known in motorsport circles from an organisation role, however just a few weeks ago, he celebrated a landmark occasion as a competitor.
This year’s Thoroughbred Sports Car Club of Northern Ireland’s Croft hill climb event, on the outskirts of Holywood, Co. Down, marked the 500th competitive event for clubman racing driver, Gary Milligan.
A remarkable career that has spanned some 42 years, I think you would agree it has been some inning, especially when you consider that the last 33 of those years have been at the helm of his trusty Mini.
Gary is no stranger to Motorsport as a former Clerk of the Course for the Ulster International Rally and is Chairman of his much loved, Omagh Motor Club.
Having featured Gary, and his Mini, in CarSport magazine some 8 years ago, it was with great pleasure that I chatted to him in the paddock at this year’s hill climb, a round of the Northern Ireland championship, where Gary celebrated his 500th event.
His first competition Mini was a fairly standard Mini 1000 and he competed with it in autotests, navigation rallies, and production car trials. He won the BP beginners autotest Cup in 1980 and went on to represent Northern Ireland in an Inter-association auto test in Larne.
This event was notable in that the three Northern Ireland teams that were entered; finished first, second and third. In the tandem tests, Gary’s opponent was England team member Russ Swift, who later went on to become famous for his driving stunt displays around the globe.
In 1982 Gary competed in his first sprint and having got a taste for this type of event, the 998cc engine was replaced by a 1293cc power-plant.
In 1985 Milligan began to compete in hillclimbs and it was in this discipline that he would concentrate his efforts for the next 34 years. Having won the 1300cc road going class at Benbradagh in the opening hillclimb of 1986 and finished second at Spelga, his season came to an abrupt end at Cottage Corner on the Cairncastle event.
“I came into the corner too fast, lost control and hit the bank on the outside of the bend fairly heavily. The front sub-frame and engine moved back about six inches and that was the end of my first competition Mini.”
“Most of the mechanicals were usable and I persuaded my brother to let me take over his Mini road car. We fitted a roll cage and basic safety equipment and I used it in standard 998cc trim in the final hillclimb of the season at Glenariff. At the time, I didn’t realise I would still be using the same car 33 years later.”
The car started out with great success in clubman motorsport with an overall win in an MGCC autotest at Carrickfergus, followed by another win at an MGCC production car trial.
Soon after, saw the first running of the Ulster Automobile Club’s, Circuit Retro Rally, and with his brother Brian navigating, the Mini completed the 600 mile route which took in many classic Circuit of Ireland stages in the west and south-west of Ireland, before finishing in Killarney.
Until the mid-nineties, the car was powered by an Autosprint 1293cc engine, after which an MED built 1380cc unit was fitted to the car enabling Gary to be competitive across all forms of motorsport including single venue rallies that he had only just started competing on.
His most memorable event was in fact a rally event, Lark in the Park to be exact, as Gary recalls “the Mini was made for the tight confines of the park. The first year that I competed on the event the early part of the day was wet. We led the Historic class and were in the top 20 overall. Unfortunately the road began to dry in the afternoon and I got overhauled by John Keatley’s Porsche, for the historic win.”
The 1999 Lark in the Park provided some notoriety of a different kind when he dropped the car, and his co-driving wife Mandy, into the St.Columb’s Park river.
Gary continued to campaign the car in hillclimbs and sprints, picking up a couple of hill climb class championships in the late-nineties and again in 2007. His son, Robert, began to compete in the car around this time and much to the amusement of Gary’s fellow competitors; he beat his father at Spelga hillclimb in 2008.
Robert headed off to Bristol to study a motorsport degree giving Gary time to ponder the tenths-of-seconds lost to his son. At this point, an ECU controlled 1399cc engine was to become the answer for Gary and his lost time. A Swiftune head, full race 310 cam, and the obligatory 45DCOE Weber all helped the engine achieve over 130bhp.
The drive is through straight cut drop gears, a Tran-X limited slip differential and a dog gearbox, which, when combined with the 13-inch Revolution wheels and Avon slick tyres makes for an exciting combination. The front suspension is fully rose-jointed and the rear sub-frame has been replaced by a speedex beam axle, which utilises coil spring shocks.
In 2011 Gary had a fairly major off at the last corner on the Drumhorc hill climb which necessitated a full front-end bodywork rebuild. Since then the Mini has gotten much lighter with carbon fibre doors and various fibreglass panels which brings the weight down from the 640kg of a standard Mini, to a mere 595kg for this little motorsport special.
At its current specification, Gary is comfortable with the usable, yet enjoyable performance, all of which has been done over three decades and within an affordable budget.
Gary has mostly completed on hillclimb and sprint events, with the Mini managing to achieve one or two class wins per year, Gary explains that the times don’t change drastically, as the car gets faster but its driver slower, year-on-year.
It is somewhat poignant that Gary’s favourite event, Croft hillclimb, turned out to be the one on which he completed his 500th event.
He then recalled his favourite Croft event of all time, when in 2014 he was stuck in a brawl between Christopher Rogan and Gordon Fogarty, all of them fighting for the class win.
The event came to a close with Chris and Gary finishing on the same time, whilst Gordon was a mere 0.04sec adrift of the leading pair. In the case of a tie-break, whoever set the best time on the first run, takes the win, with Gary and his trusty Mini coming away victorious.
It was fantastic for Gary, that on his milestone event at Croft this year, he was able to top the time-sheets in practice, with visible delight at his, and his Mini’s ability, to still put in some solid runs 500 events later.
It wasn’t to be though on the timed runs, as Gordon Fogarty slammed the door firmly shut whilst making sure there wasn’t going to be a repeat of five years prior.
Milligan settled for a more than respectable second in class and an overall position of 30th is something to be very proud of.
On sprint events, it has been the tight and technical Nutts Corner and St. Angelo events that have proved fruitful, with half a dozen class wins on these events in more recent times.
Gary explains that Kirkistown, with its long straights, isn’t best suited to the lesser-powered yet more nimble Mini, against the likes of David Evans in his potent Peugeot 205.
As mentioned earlier, Gary’s son had done an event or two in the car and having beaten his father, was shipped off to University on the mainland where, as it happens, Robert now resides thanks to a job at Aston Martin.
This means Gary has the car all to himself again and with Robert recently starting competing across the water on various events in his very own Mini, the Milligan name will remain on entry lists for years to come.
We’d like to congratulate Robert on a BTRDA autosolo championship round victory in recent months.
On talking of his 500th event, Gary commented “I mean, when I started out, I never thought I’d still be doing it 500 events later, I always had a passion for motorsport and to get to 500 is a nice milestone to achieve.
Mini’s were always the driving force with around 400 of those events being in a Mini, I enjoy driving them and I suppose that drove me on to maybe a longer career than had I been jumping about various cars every season.”
The Omagh driver continued “I got to know a lot of people within the sport, both competitors and officials, and I enjoy the camaraderie and the social side of the sport when competing at an event.
Over the last couple of years the enjoyment of the sport has increased greatly due to a few of us ‘gentleman drivers’ from the West of the province, all in Mini’s, competing between ourselves for the bragging rights of ‘the fastest Mini in the west’, something that is a regular feature in our weekly newspaper”.
To put into context, the vast number of event starts Gary has achieved, Lewis Hamilton has only managed 240-odd starts in twelve years of F1, even Michael Schumacher only managed 300-odd starts, over two F1 careers.
For many of us on the Emerald Isle, who are more inclined to rallying, a more understandable set of stats would start with the fact that nine-time world rally champion, Sebastian Loeb, has just over 240 event starts in rallying.
Now, think of two of the biggest personalities of world rallying, Petter Solberg and Colin McRae, both former world champions, both having 235 and 244 rallying event starts respectively.
For professional drivers, these really don’t equate to figures worth boasting about.
So for Gary, a working man like you and I, to achieve such a milestone is incredible, and worldwide, I can’t see many clubmen matching, nor bettering such an achievement!’
If ever there was a gentleman in Motorsports I think most, if not all of those involved within local Motorsport would agree, that Gary is indeed that gentleman.
Words & Photos: GRAHAM BAALHAM-CURRY
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