FROM COLEMAN TO CHAMPION TO CAMPION
Team Ireland’s benefactor John Campion is the millionaire backer with a purpose; to inspire the Irish people with rallying. By Jack Benyon Inspire the Irish people with rallying. By Jack Benyon
Rockstar, Thin Lizzy. Blues guitarist, Rory Gallagher. Rally driver, Billy Coleman. An odd mixture. Yes, they’re all Irish, but why are the three of them appearing in a Motorsport News intro?
They all inspired a boy from Cork. He left in 1984 with a few pounds in his pocket in search of a better life. His name is John Campion.
Now living in Jacksonville, Florida, Campion is the philanthropist behind Team Ireland, which provides physiological, psychological, media and fitness training to six lucky drivers in Ireland ( see sidebar).
But the journey that put Campion on a path to supporting the likes of Rob Duggan and Josh Moffett is as entertaining as any.
In the vein of his hero Thin Lizzy, he headed for the United States where he became a roadie. He spotted a flaw in the way concerts were being powered, as bands like AC/DC brought bigger pyrotechnics and lighting to each show. “There wasn’t a lot going on for me in Ireland,” explains Campion. “I went to America in 1984, and started working for rock’n’roll bands. A lighting guy, a roadie.
“While I was doing that it came to my attention that the Motley Crews or the Van Halens would go into an arena and there wouldn’t be enough power. The promoter would get a local generator company to show up, typically it’d be a generator in the back of a truck and sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. I started a company called Surepower supplying power generation to the entertainment business.”
From nothing, Campion took Surepower public in 1998 and sold it to General Electric in 2000. After that, he went to work for Alstom – an engineering company – and built up a division for them. He soon bought it and built it up – once again – from nothing, to revenues of 500 million dollars. Not bad.
Campion is currently the chief executive officer of APR Energy, valued at £1 billion in 2014. APR provide mini powerstations for areas in natural disasters. Following the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, Campion’s company had a plant in place in just 45 days. Campion steering a company with its roots set in helping people is no surprise, but what did come as a surprise was the opportunity to become part of Team Ireland. But why did a rock’n’roll roadie specialising in generators fancy helping young rally drivers?
“It was 1978, I was 15 years old and in Killarney at Easter,” he recalls. “We used to go to Killarney every Easter. We were in a forest at 0700hrs in the morning, it was cold and damp with the sun coming through the trees. It’s real hobbit, Lord of the Rings stuff.
“Around the corner, friggin’ screaming mad in a Lancia Stratos, was Billy Coleman. And he was driving the chequered flag car. Around the corner it comes, this thing was totally alien. It’s from out of space. In my opinion, Marcello Gandin’s [Bertone designer] greatest creation. Not the Lamborghini Miura, not the Lamborghini Countach. It’s the Stratos.”
With that, he was hooked. The antics of Billy Coleman were just as inspiring as a rockstar or a sensational blues guitarist. The country needed role models in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Coleman became just that.
“Rallying is probably the national sport of Ireland,” continues Campion. “Obviously with Billy, multiple Circuit of Ireland wins, multiple Donegal rallies, RAC champion in 1974. Growing up with that and watching them build a Ford Escort and take it off on a single axle trailer to England and compete against the works teams was awesome.
“That was real David and Goliath stuff; massive inspiration for a guy who wasn’t very good at school. I was held back in secondary school, twice, it was thought I wasn’t very bright.”
How wrong they were. By the time Campion had made his millions, the usual luxuries followed. The collection of Ferraris, a garage, a Gulf Stream Jet. The usual trimmings.
But Coleman stuck with him and after one of his visits to Ireland to see his parents, a memory came flooding back and a quest began.
“I had a passion for automobiles so I bought quite a lot of cars,” he says. “I had a nice collection of Ferraris, an F40, Lusso, Dino, Daytona.
“While I liked them, they never really meant a lot to me. You make a few bob and you buy these things.
“I was back in Ireland and I had this memory [about Coleman and the Stratos]. So this thing was burned in my brain and I decided I had to have a Group 4 Stratos. I didn’t want a converted Stradale, I wanted a Group 4.”
And thus started the Campion
Collection. A Stratos was sourced, a car that competed on the 1976 Monte Carlo Rally. Following that was a Fulvia with plenty of pedigree. The next car certainly added some sparkle to the collection.
“I bought a Fulvia Group 4 factory car which I bought from a guy in Tenerife. Then, you know, you have an addiction, you just need more. So we’re feeling good about the Stratos and the Fulvia, so I decide I want an Intergrale. The trouble with Delta Integrales is that it was a Group A car. They were counterfitted like they were going out of fashion. Getting the correct provenance and paperwork is key.
“So we found one, a 1988 car. It had competed and won three rallies that year, driven by Miki Biasion’s championship winning car. Right, so where the heck is it? We tracked it down to a barn in Sydney.”
The car had been campaigned by Australian Rally legend Greg Carr, and when it was dug out of the barn it featured the Sydney Morning Herald and some empty Fosters cans, in true Oz fashion.
He wasn’t done there, the collection became an obsession. Eventually, he’d go on to own all of Lancia’s rallycars from the Fulvia to the Integrale. But at this point there was still a few missing.
Next up, the 037. Where do you find a Martini-liveried car driven by Markku Alen, the last two-wheel-drive car to win the world championship? The Czech Republic, of course. No sooner than the 037 arriving in the collection; the pieste resistance was on the way. The S4.
“What are you going to do, you’re missing one important car, the S4. So I’ve got to find an S4, and a Martini S4. Again, there’s quite a few fakes out there. So we find one, it’s immaculate. It’s a test car and actually went on to be a Jolly Club car and had a fantastic history. It also won the Mille Miglia, so the 037 won it and then the year after my S4 won it.”
A Fiat 131 Abarth in Alitalia livery was also added, as its engine would be used in turbo form in the 037 and in turbo and supercharger form in the S4. The collection was complete. Or at least at present day, it’s complete for now. The link to Team Ireland came soon after. It started, strangely, with a family grievance.
“This is a bizarre story,” explains Campion. “January of 2015, my mum passed away, she was 93. She had a fine life. I got home in time to see her.
“We had the wake and we had the funeral. I was in Cork airport, walking up the stairs of my Gulf Stream. I said to my wife, ‘that’s the end of my life in Ireland’. She said ‘what do you mean?’. I was coming back for the last 30 years just to see my parents. So I said that’s the end for me in Ireland. My wife’s American but her people are from Galway, so she puts her hand on my shoulder and said ‘you never know’.
“We go back to America and get back to our lives, and I got a letter from a fellow called Art Mccarrick and the long and short of it was ‘we’re starting Team Ireland’ and he gave me a bit of a brief about what Team Ireland was and I rang him up on the phone.
“I said ‘this is fantastic what can I do for you?’. And in typical Irish fashion he said ‘you can write the cheque...’.”
Campion’s humour aside, it’s not about the money. Rallying in Ireland is riding the quest of a wave with Craig Breen contending for a 2017 WRC seat and Killarney local Paul Nagle guiding Kris Meeke to rally wins and a team-leading role at the factory Citroen team.
Much the same way Coleman inspired Campion in his “alien” Stratos, the American based millionaire wants to be part of the next generations’ inspiration.
“You’ve got Craig Breen, whatever Craig can do he’s there,” adds Campion. “He’s supporting them [Team Ireland drivers], and we’ve got a situation where Irish drivers are coming to the forefront which is phenomenal as far as I’m concerned. I’m passionate about it because that’s what I grew up with.”
Campion’s steely determination is a credit to Team Ireland, his gravitas and business-building ability is important. But even more important is his passion to make Team Ireland succeed, and to inspire in the same way Coleman did. He’s doing it for all the right reasons.
“That’s one of the main reasons I’m involved in this, its young fellas not doing so well need someone to look up to,” he adds. “And Craig [Breen] and Paul Nagle, they can look up to these lads. As I tell people I didn’t get my first pair of long pants until I was 12, but the inspiration of Billy Coleman, of Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy, you could do anything? That was inspirational for me at 20 years old to come to America.
“If I can give back little but to something I love which is obviously motorsport in general and have some people that young fellas can look up to I think that would be tremendously successful.” ■
MONDELLO PARK: CKMC BY LEO NULTY
Former Motorsport Ireland Young Driver Of The Year Kevin O’hara dusted off his Formula Vee for the Vee Festival and pretty much dominated, the class regulars having no answer to his pace. Having won his heat from the back, O’hara fluffed his start for the final and was swamped by the grid. He was soon back at the pointy end though and when the red flags flew after one of many shunts over the weekend, was declared the winner from team-mate Dan Polley and Colm Blackburn.
Polley continued his quest to the 2016 title with a pair of championship wins on the opening day of the meeting.
Robbie Parks’ Mitsubishi FTO was first of the Future Classics across the line but he eclipsed the barrier time on the final tour, the penalty handing the win to Timmy Duggan from Adrian Dunne with David Hammond’s giant killing Fiat Uno in third.
Cian Carey took another win in BOSS Ireland race one despite the best efforts of Barry Rabbitt, but in race two Rabbitt slithered his Formula Renault down the outside of Carey into the first corner to snatch the lead and hold on for a win, despite Carey piling on pressure.
Sam Moffett took the first Supercar race but had Peter Barrable and Andy O’brien for company all the way. In race two, O’brien led away but Moffett snatched the lead with a superb move at the final corner. Barrable followed him