Fulton on the road less travelled
A remote, mountainous area in Mexico, a couple of years back, and two men in overalls stand on the side of the road beside their crashed rally car.
Swarming round them are locals, standing in for selfies and offering them bottles of beer, delighted at the novelty of having the foreign stars around.
A mad scene but when you’re in the middle of it, says James Fulton, all you’re thinking about is time – getting from stage to stage, getting round as quickly as you can. It’s only when the race is over that you have a chance to reflect.
Fulton is probably the best-travelled sportsman in the county. His role as a sought-after navigator for top rally drivers has taken him all around the world. A couple of weeks ago, for example, he was in the cockpit in the desert sands of Qatar with local driver Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. The pair came second in what was a leg of the Middle East Rally Championship, an event which takes in stops in Jordan, Oman, Cyprus and Lebanon as well.
When the Celt caught up with James, he was at home in Bailieborough, quarantining as per the regulations.
“It was different to what I’m used to here in Ireland or in Europe,” he explained.
“It’s desert rallying, that’s the best way to describe it. You are trying to keep on the right track, you’re in the middle of the desert and it’s not very well-defined landscape. You just have flat areas and there are no hedges or anything, you’d have a tree here and there, so, yeah, it was definitely a challenge.”
How did it come about? Al-Kuwari is a big deal on the rally scene. Fulton had been “getting his name out there”, creating a stir with impressive results, and Al-Kuwari came calling.
“A lot of the people in the Middle East would have English-speaking navigators with them so he used to have a guy from Ireland sitting with him a few years back.
“He asked him for my number and he just Whatsapped me one day asking me would I be interested. We did out a deal. Opportunities like that don’t come about too often so you have to take them.
“It did come as a surprise, I saw this message coming through one day and I thought, ‘Jaysus’… I knew the name because he had done a lot of rallying on the World Championship all around the world. We sent a few messages over and back and sorted it out and next thing I got the itinerary sent to me, flights and stuff, and I was good to go then.”
The relationship between a navigator and driver is a bit like that between a caddy and his golfer. Most professional caddies are scratch golfers in their own right and most navigators are more than proficient behind the wheel too but the line is strictly defined. Funding plays a big part in that.
Fulton started off ‘on the notes’ with his friend Gary Kiernan almost a decade ago, learned the ropes and has been a specialist navigator since then, gaining experience as he has advanced.
“To drive you have to have a lot of money basically, it’s a very expensive sport, everything is very expensive in it. The driver obviously pays for everything so you’d want to have plenty of good sponsors or personal backing. I started in 2012 with Gary Kiernan. My father would have brought me to local motorsport events, the Cavan Rally, Monaghan Rally and things like that, when I was younger.
“I was always interested in engines and cars and any machinery at all and I just got into it. Myself and Gary started off with a very limited budget now, it was kind of thrown together, but bit by bit it just progressed. I kept at it… Keep building every year, building up your name and kind of progress up the different levels and bit by bit, got there.
“It took a lot of hard work, it takes an awful lot of commitment. It’s like any sport, if you want to achieve in it, you have to knuckle down and commit to it.
“It took a lot of work throughout the years. You go to different drivers who are going to be going to events overseas. It’s all about experience too, you’re not going to be brought unless you have the experience so it’s about building that up and then people coming looking for you. That’s the way it works.”
Cavan, along with places like Monaghan, Donegal and Kerry, is a hot spot for the sport in Ireland. There is a strong tradition and there are opportunities but it takes a rare dedication and ambition to push on to international level.
The role of a navigator requires a degree of fearlessness as well as sharp logistical skills. The behind-the-scenes part of the job is, James says, the most taxing.
“Definitely having a cool head would be the main thing but you have to have a good relationship with the driver and trust is a massive thing because he’s committing to whatever you’re telling him is coming up. But for a lot of it, especially in Europe or on the world stage, the easy part is calling the notes.
“Preparing for the event, there are so many rules and regulations. People looking in who wouldn’t know anything about rallying think it’s getting in and driving round a road for a bit of craic but there are so many rules and regulations.
“You’d be preparing for the rally for a few weeks beforehand with schedules and watching on-boards [videos]. It’s busy, a big operation.
“For example, in the rally in Qatar, the team that run the car are from Germany so that car was flown in on a plane from there and was flown back out after. It’s massive, even service trucks and everything, getting them ready, there’s a lot of organisation involved.”
Even at local level, taking part in a rally is a mammoth logistical operation and the navigator’s role is about much more than just announcing what sort of corner is coming up next. By way of illustration, he runs through a typical weekend at the Cavan Stages Rally.
“Saturday is when you start what you call recce. That’s when you go with a blank book and make the notes. You’re allowed three passes on each stage.
“The roads are open, everything is as normal, you’re in a normal road car, not the rally car. In Cavan, you’re leaving the Hotel Kilmore and you have a road book. You’re given a trip and you’re counting down the kilometres. It’ll tell you, say, ‘100 metres, you turn right’ or whatever and you follow it to the start of the stage.
“You start the stage and the driver is telling you what he sees basically and you’re writing down the notes, whatever he tells you. You do that for the first pass of each stage and then the next pass, I call it back to him and he tells me what to change and then the third pass you’d have to be pretty spot on and you’d be putting in little things, stuff would be coming fairly quick, I’d have little things to tell him to get him to slow back or whatever.
“That’s on the day before the rally and while you’re doing that, the mechanics are putting the car through what’s called scrutiny which is where the officials check through the cars to make sure everything is above board safety-wise and that you’re entered in the right class because there are all different classes for different size engines.
“Then the next morning, you get up, you’d record your recce on a Go Pro and you’d be sitting watching it on a DVD, checking, checking, checking again. You start the rally that morning and everything is timed. Once you leave the service area, you have a time card – this is all the navigator’s job – you have a certain amount of time to get to the beginning of the stage and if you’re early or late, you get penalised.
“Then you start the stage on your allocated time, you obviously go as fast as you can to get to the end of it, then you get your time at the end and it’s the same thing then to get to the next stage.
“That keeps going the whole way through all day to the very finish. You hand the time card back in and it has to be correct or you’re penalised. It’s the navigator’s job to get him there on time.
“People don’t realise that end of it. If you go off the route, even between stages, you can’t do any of that. There are trackers on the car and they are watching it the whole time.”
Corners are graded from one to six; 90 degree turns are called square corners. Some drivers, though, will use a different system so the navigator must be adaptable. More than anything, there must be total faith between the two.
“You just have to remain as calm as possible because if the driver notices any hesitancy or fear or anything like that, he’s not going to commit to what you’re saying so you’re going to be haemorrhaging time. It’s all about time, who can get there the quickest.
“The delivery of the notes, you can’t go too far ahead or he’s going to get confused but you can’t be late because you’re in trouble there too.
“Trust is a massive thing. It’s hard to describe. I didn’t know that guy before I went to Qatar, I spent the week beforehand with him alright and we practised some recce and pace notes and stuff. At the end of the day I was there to do a job and I had to be on the ball.”
It is, by its nature, a dangerous sport but it’s run in the safest possible manner.
“Of course I’m going to defend it. You have a full roll cage in around you and you have a five-point belt and a neck restraint so you can’t get whiplash and a helmet and all these safety features are updated every so often. Once I’m in the seat behind the belts, I literally can’t move.
“There is obviously an element of danger, of course there is, when you are going that speed, if things go wrong… I have been involved in a couple of crashes but thankfully walked away no problem. There is that danger but you can’t have the fear when you’re in the car or else you’re not meant to be there, you may just quit.
“To be fair, every year there are new safety features that you have to have. The safety regulations are very good.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t the odd hair-raising scrape.
“In Poland in 2017, we started a five km stage and on the first corner, we pulled the wheel off and we finished the rest of the stage on three wheels. A lot of people, that would be the end of your rally but luckily it was the stage before the service… We got back in and got it fixed and got back out for the next stage.
“The first big crash was with Gary Kiernan in Longford, we just rolled and ended up upside down. We weren’t moving in the car. Luckily enough I haven’t had any really big ones, not yet anyway.”
A part of the lure is that this is a sport that can bring a young man places he never would have gone.
“A lot of these places you go to, you’d be in places that you’d never be if you went on holidays so you get to see the middle of nowhere. You see loads of different things that you’d never see otherwise.
“There were a few places we were warned not to go in Mexico but the people out there were lovely.
“Even in Qatar, I went out by myself, I didn’t know this man as such. I met his family and learned about his whole culture and his religion, he explained all that and it was cool to see that side of things. Heading out there on your own and getting to spend a week or 10 days with a family out there. It is definitely different but it’s really enjoyable.”
Between rallies, when he’s home, James works for Kiernan’s pig farms.
“Gary, who I started rallying with, is my boss and only for them, I wouldn’t be able to do it. They are very encouraging and want me to see how well I can do at it. To get time off is not an issue with them, which is huge. Only for that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says.
Having won Man of the Match in the Minor Championship Division 1 final in 2009, it’s reasonable to assume that he had a bright future on the football field too but rallying has taken precedence.
“I play a bit but the last few years has been getting pretty busy with rallying. Both take a lot of commitment. I train away during the week with the football team but what happens is you’d train away, I might be at home for a couple of weeks, and you might be getting close to getting near the team or something like that and next thing you’re away for two weeks rallying and that’s gone.
“You can’t get too invested in the football for that reason unfortunately but I love the football too and the craic. I train away and I might play a bit of junior if I’m about but you can’t commit to trying to push for a place on the first team because you’re going to be away, it just doesn’t work.
“You have to just commit to one. This year is looking pretty busy, I’m heading to the European Championships which is eight weeks away and eight different events throughout Europe. Hopefully that goes ahead with Covid and also the Middle East Championship.
“That’s with Callum Devine, he’s a few years younger than me, a very good driver. Last year was a rookie year for him, he was getting used to events and what it would take to go to them and compete. He is supported by Motorsport Ireland. I did a few rallies with him last year.
“It’s a big operation, it’s the equivalent of a county team you could say. He’d have a psychologist, a nutritionist, a physio, a personal trainer, all that sort of stuff. You’ve targets to meet, weight targets because you’re losing time if you’re overweight for the car.
“Being physically fit is important. In Qatar, the heat in the car was cruel. You’d be given vitamins and electrolytes and things like that by your team to keep yourself ticking over. Abroad, that is a really big part of it, it’s pretty intense like that.”
If the borders were open, he says, he’d be spending some time in the States where he has some links to top drivers. His next goal is a crack at the European Championships, which have been put back till May, again with Devine.
If he can enjoy success there, anything is possible. How far can this bring him?
“Obviously you want to go all the way, there’s no point saying otherwise. There will be people saying ‘you’re mad, you’re never going to get there’ but you just have to believe and work for it.
“I think I’m on the right track anyway, going to Europe. There are a lot of people in Ireland who would like to be in the position I am in. You get into some good events and start to get some good results and get noticed. You just have to keep working hard for it.”