TEENAGE rally navigator Sara McFadden hopes to catch the eye as she competes in Donegal for the first time this weekend.
The 18-year-old, from Castlebar, is Ireland’s first visually-impaired competitor in Irish rallying – and could secure a class victory in the Border Championship tomorrow at the 2019 Donegal Harvest Rally.
Sara was born with albinism, which has affected her vision. In sunlight, for example, Sara sees ‘nothing but white’. Along with her albinism, Sara has a condition called nystagmus, meaning the muscles behind her eyes are not fully developed and her eyes move constantly. In order to read, Sara has to work to stop her eyes from moving.
Born into a rally-mad family, the sport was always her dream.
“When I was 12, I found out I’d never be able to drive and that was just a devastating blow,” she says.
“I always wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps. All I wanted to be was a rally driver.
“It didn’t take me too long to realise that I could navigate. When I turned 16, we started putting things in place and I got my licence last year.”
Sara has used a kart track in Galway to practice her skills as a co-driver and, having passed the various criteria laid down by Motorsport Ireland and the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, she was granted a licence to compete as a navigator.
Last year, she called the notes for her dad, Keith, at the Imokilly Rally in Cork.
“I have no problem reading the pace notes,” Sara says.
“They’re big enough and once I can feel where we are on the stage, I can follow the notes.
“My eyesight is worse in sunlight. So, when it’s bright, I can’t see very much at all. I see basically nothing but white. When I’m inside, I’d see a little bit – not a lot – more. Sitting in a rally car is quite difficult with the changing light – at speed!”
Sara used an iPad while at Davitt College in Castlebar and is now studying at IT Sligo.
Rallying is her big passion and the Mayo native literally has to get a feel for the stages at recce before she competes.
“So, obviously it’s harder for me,” Sara says. “I do it mainly through feel, whereas other navigators are able to look out the window. I’m able to feel the corners and know where we are on the stage.
“It’s literally all about getting the feel for it. You get used to it and adapt.”
Sarah and Keith will take to the stages tomorrow at the Harvest Rally in their Honda Civic hoping to edge Roger Kennedy and Wendy Blackledge for the Class 3 title in the Border Championship.
“We always have a good battle ever day we go out against them pipping each other by a few seconds on every stage of the day but this time it’s different – this time there is a lot more on the line,” Sara says,
“It doesn’t mean we will have any hard feelings, regardless of the outcome on Saturday evening as I know that we fought hard all year for it.”
The McFaddens are regular visitors to Donegal as spectators, but now Sarah will get a proper taste of some of the county’s famous tarmac.
She says: “I’m absolutely over the moon to be going to Donegal.
“I can’t believe we’re actually going to compete in Donegal. I’m really excited. Now, I’m competing with the likes of the people I looked up to.
“Every year, we’d be up at the International and the Harvest as well. It’s always special coming up to Donegal to watch, but I never thought I’d be coming up to actually compete in Donegal.”