We’ve all heard stories of old race cars that were discovered in someone’s barn or garage or similar places. Usually, they’re all rusty or falling apart or are in dire need of a makeover.
But here’s a story you likely haven’t heard before. It turns out the No. 31 1989 Chevrolet Lumina, which competed in four Winston Cup races in 1991 (as the No. 53) and 11 races in 1992 (as the No. 31), was recently “discovered” by guys from the drift racing web site DriftGames.Life (DGL).
But instead of finding it in a barn or well off the beaten path, the DGL team found the car tucked away in a museum at Ireland’s Mondello Park International Race Circuit, near Dublin.
“We were walking down pit lane at Mondello Park and came across probably the most insane thing you’re ever going to see in Ireland, a fully fledged NASCAR,” said DGL’s Dave Egan, who narrates the video below. “We’re going to get our full Cole Trickle on because ‘Days of Thunder’ was (the thing) when I was younger. That was the best film, with Tom Cruise, and this is the car from that era. It’s old-school NASCAR.”
This is no replica or show car. It’s the actual race car — and it’s in great condition (except for a few old tire scuff marks from the usual beatin’ and bangin’ that goes on in Cup racing).
Here’s the back story: Irish entrepreneur, former race car driver and former Lola Race Cars owner Martin Birrane wanted to go NASCAR racing in the U.S., so he formed “Team Ireland” in 1991, becoming one of the first foreign owners to field a team in NASCAR’s premier series.
With a chassis built by and purchased from Dale Earnhardt Inc., complete with a Richard Childress Racing motor, the team ran four races in 1991, two with Bobby Hillin Jr. behind the wheel of the No. 53, and two other races with John Paul Jr. in the driver’s seat.
Birrane brought Hillin Jr. back to drive in 1992 in the rechristened No. 31. The car’s best finish with Hillin Jr. behind the wheel was 13th in that year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Later that same season, the car was disqualified at Charlotte following the Mello Yello 500 (Hillin Jr. finished eighth in the race before the DQ) for using illegal cylinder heads. Because the team could not afford to pay the hefty $50,000 fine levied by NASCAR (one of the highest penalties assessed at the time), as well as being unable to attract additional sponsorship, that ultimately and abruptly ended Team Ireland’s and Birrane’s brief foray into NASCAR.
After the team disbanded, Birrane brought the car back to his homeland. The car was brought back to life recently by the DGL crew, with Irish driver Ian Beatty putting it through its paces at Mondello Park, which Birrane and now his family owns.
Beatty took the car for a spin on, believe it or not, with the same tires that it had after its Charlotte DQ, rubber that is over a quarter-century old.
“It’s a handful,” Beatty said of his experience driving the car. “It’s a bit like driving a bus with 850 horsepower. … And of course these tires are 20-30 years old, so there’s no grip on them. It’s a handful, but it’s fun.”
One humorous highlight of the ride came before Beatty took it onto the track – he got stuck trying to climb through the window and couldn’t slide down into the seat because the old-fashioned steering wheel blocked him. The team had to remove the steering wheel and then Beatty was able to get to work.
Birrane passed away last June at the age of 82. Hillin Jr., who now runs an oil company in Houston, fondly recalls his time with Team Ireland.
“Martin was a true gentleman,” Hillin Jr. told NBC Sports. “I liked him a lot. I feel bad that I lost touch with him.
“Martin will be remembered for somebody being a pioneer and coming over here and doing a NASCAR team and investing in NASCAR. … I don’t think the sport really appreciated what he had to offer when he was here, and it’s too bad.
“I was never able to go to Mondello Park, but I was pretty impressed with him because he really was committed to NASCAR and wanted to make a go of it, to the point where he was flying in from London for all the races, sometimes week to week or once a month. It was kind of too bad the way things turned out.”
Then, Hillin Jr. added: “The biggest thing I remember is people loved the car and the big Irish cloverleaf on it. I don’t know how many of those people were Irish, but they sure loved it.”