by John Kenny - R.T.E

I knew Neil Shanahan. I’m glad I knew him.

Motorsport is a dangerous sport and it was doing what he loved that ultimately cost him his life. Neil Shanahan was destined for big things. Last Monday his passion and spirit were snuffed out, the candle of the best prospect in Irish motor-racing since Eddie Irvine flickered and died.

This year his first season with the Van Diemen works team in the British Formula Ford championship, the 19-year-old Dubliner was playing catch up.

Most of the other drivers had a season or two behind them in the series, Neil was still learning the tracks and it was taking time in an uncompetitive car.

A 4th place in the 4th round at Brands Hatch was a sign that he was getting on the pace. It didn’t follow on the 5th round at Oulton Park in Cheshire last Monday., the Van Diemen just wasn’t up to the speed of the faster Rays and Mygales.

He was 10th on the grid for the Bank Holiday race, there was work to be done. It happened on lap 2, a tangle and a crash. Most drivers walk away, bruised, battered egos, recriminations in the bar.

Neil never climbed from the wreckage. The sport that he adored took his life and for those of us who knew him it has robbed us of one of the best drivers ever to leave these shores.

I was glad to call him my friend. I met him for the first time at the Formula Ford Festival and world cup at Brands Hatch in 1997. He was with Mick Merrigan who was to become his manager, all the positivity of youth, smiling happy, mouth full of braces, taking it all in, looking to get on the next rung of the motorsport ladder.

He started racing in Ireland in 1993 in junior karting and by 1996 had risen to Formula A where he was second overall in the National Championship. In 1997 Shanahan, helped in no small way by his adoring parents, decided that Neil had the talent to go further and he raced in the Stars of Tomorrow Formula Ford 1600 championship.

It wasn’t the most competitive of classes further down the field but he had some memorable races at the head of affairs with Michael Keohane. His championship success also gave Shanahan the distinction of being chosen as the 1997 Dunlop Driver of the Year. In 1998 he raced in the Irish Formula Ford Zetec series with the Mick Merrigan Motorsport outfit. A season-long battle with the likes of Chris Paul, Philip Kehoe, George McAlpin and Mark O’Connor meant the series went down to the wire; the last round of the championship. There, before the RTE live TV cameras, Neil stamped his authority on the ’98 season with a win to cement a brilliant year and to earn him yet again the Dunlop Driver of the Year accolade.

Neil then competed in the Formula Ford Festival and World Cup at Brands Hatch last October where he made the semi-finals only to suffer a blown fuel pump at the end of the opening lap, which possibly cost him a place on the podium, if not an outright win.

However, he had done enough to convince Van Diemen that this was a driver to be taken seriously, and was offered the ’99 drive in the works car in the British Championship – Neil was on his way. Five races in the dream came to an end in a tangled wreckage at Oulton Park. Neil Shanahan is no longer with us and the world is a sadder place. Neil Shanahan R.I.P.

From a personal point of view there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think of Neil. Even after all these years the memory hasn’t faded. It’s as if I saw him last month. It’s strange.

He still gives me strength in my lowest moments. He and I had the same taste in many things, including our love of music. Rock music – only good and heavy, low slung guitars, and our women blonde and called Debbie.

The girls loved him. I had him out in the car in the 1998 2CV race in Mondello Park and he was great. I was crap but he encouraged me all the way, and when we went to dinner after the race the young ones (including my daughter Danielle) were drooling over him. No surprise there. A good looking chap, cool, and a racing driver as well. How could they resist?

His funeral was a hard one. I touched his racing helmet in the car as it left for the grave. I was devastated. When Neil died part of my life went with him. He was a smart ass, cool as you like, and my abiding memory of him looking up at me when he was sitting on the bank after his oil pump blew at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands. A shrug of the shoulders, I knew he was disappointed but he caught my eye and started to laugh.

‘Neil you old messer’ I thought. Upwards and onwards. It didn’t last long as we all know.

Neil Shanahan may be gone but from my point most certainly not forgotten.



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