Francis O’Hara is perhaps an unlikely adrenalin junkie! Well, in reality he is probably not at all, but racing motorbikes is always regarded as a high-octane pursuit. It is a sport where precision judgement is perhaps more critical than in any other.
Originally form Belmullet, Francis followed the well-trodden road to NUI Galway for an engineering degree. To that point his only brush with two wheeled racing was of the self-propelled variety with Mayo Wheelers, as a teenager, and West Coast Wheelers, as a student here in Galway.
“I was always interested in motorsports, watching Formula 1 and bike racing on TV,” Francis explains. “I got my first motorbike here in Ireland, just for recreation and commuting really. It was a Honda CBR 600. I had no drive to race or anything at that time and I ultimately sold it before off.”
Post NUIG, and with a mechanical engineering degree in his pocket, Francis set out for New Zealand. At about the time the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was in its death throes. Settling into life in New Zealand, Francis followed traditional practices and first got a car for getting about – but the lure of motorbikes was still there.
Initially he got himself a normal road bike – a normal road bike to a guy like Francis O’Hara is about a 600cc job! This writer had a @Honda 50 in the dark and distant and even that was scary!
Getting involved in motor sports in New Zealand, “The choice was either karting or motor bikes,” says Francis. “I went along to the local kart club but decided the entry costs into karting would have been too expensive.”
The decision was bikes! The process for an introduction to bike racing is get a bike and sign up for some track days. “I managed to get an ex-race bike, a Ninja kawasaki 600cc. On track days you show up with your bike and license. You are placed in groups of six with 15-minute sessions throughout the day.”
Essentially on track days riders are graded into slow, intermediate and advanced so that their sessions are with riders of similar ability on bikes of similar performance.
“Track days are an excellent way of de-stressing and getting the speed bug out of your system in a safe environment with medical care on hand within seconds if things go wrong. You can’t say the same about touring around on public roads. You would be lucky to get medical care within half an hour on the roads. These days are great for feeding the adrenalin bug! But probably more importantly, they give prospective race riders an insight into their own ability, the performance of the machine they are riding and how to cope with racing in close proximity to other riders.”
The natural progression for Francis was to try some circuit racing. So, he started with his ‘Ninja’ in the clubman category for beginners where you have to wear a ‘high viz’ vest for a number of races – while you are getting the hang of it.
“I raced the Ninja for two years but I could see in the early races that riding a better machine would deliver better results.” This is a classic reaction – when a competitor becomes dissatisfied with their equipment, they are ready for the next level!
Given the prohibitive costs in all motor sport you have to look at the most cost-effective methods of making progress. “There was a class, ‘Pre89’, superbikes from that era, so pretty much a level playing field – all riders having somewhat similar machines once you get your bike reasonably competitive.”
Francis bought an ordinary road bike and converted it. “That’s the thing at this level of competition, you are the rider, you are the mechanic, and you are the back up team! I started racing this class in 2014 and managed my first win the following year at Hampton Downs in Auckland.”
These races last 6-8 laps of a road circuit where top speeds can reach 250 kilometres per hour! Not for the faint-hearted. Francis won three races in New Zealand before coming back home to Ireland. He had work waiting in Galway, as an engineer with Goodman Medical, where he is part of the automation team, designing automated manufacturing techniques and equipment. In addition to bike racing in New Zealand he also found time to get married to Alison and they now have a 14-month old duaghter, Nia.
Back in Galway, the hankering to race high-powered motor bikes still remained and so Francis set about continuing his fledgling sporting career. The current machine is a Kawasaki er 6f 650 CC and 2017 was his ‘first bash at racing here in this country’. “Racing here in Ireland is a different kettle of fish. Races are held on closed public roads, the speeds are higher, the risks are higher but the reward is immense. The sport here in Ireland is truly a spectacle.”
This is how he fared last year.
Walderstown (Athlone): 14/21
Killalane: Race abandoned after 3 laps. Disappointing as Francis had put in 7th fastest time in practice. The event was subsequently abandoned due to deteriorating weather conditions.
“Cookstown was a real baptism of fire. I missed the practice with technical problems, but managed to qualify – got on the grid. My objective was not to finish last. I just managed it.” Gradual progression was the name of the game in 2017.
What of the future? It is certainly a sport that requires passion and no little skill. The costs can rack up quickly when you consider that a set of racing leathers + helmet, boots and gloves can set you back up to €2,000. A new race-prepped 650cc bike can cost up to €20k and a set of racing tyres – a cool €350!
“The costs quickly add up, transport to and from the races is my biggest expense, race entries, tyres, and something on the bike always need replacing given the physical demands on the machine.”
The 2018 season will run from April to September and already Francis is setting his sights high. “I aim to do 6 or 7 races next season with the Ulster Grand Prix in Dundrod being the pinnacle. The Ulster Grand Prix is the fastest road race in the world.”
The off-season is spent fine-tuning and when the bike rider is also the mechanic and an engineer, there is always something that can be ‘more finely tuned’.
Sponsorship is something that tends to elude sports people like Francis as exposure for the sport is often confined to the ‘petrol head’ community. However, there must be some people in Galway (or beyond) that would see value in being associated with a unique sporting endeavour. Get in touch with The Galway Eye and we will pass you on
Chatting to Francis you get the sense that he has a clinical approach to his sport. He has a passion for what he does but sees it in context – his technical nous and competitive spirit should combine to deliver continuous improvement and keep him in one piece while doing it.