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What it means to be the most successful club driver in UK and Irish motorsport

Michael Cullen has claimed many a title in the club racing scene since he first started competing 40 years ago. In 2023, he headed Autosport's national driver rankings for the year.

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You could hardly get two more different drivers as the most recent conquerors of the Autosport National Driver Rankings. Back in 2022, it was teenaged historic single-seater sensation Samuel Harrison who led the way, while last season it was veteran Irish racer Michael Cullen who topped the charts having triumphed in a range of tin-top machinery and also in a Seven-style Stryker.

But that is the beauty of the rankings, which is a straightforward list of the drivers who win the most races in the UK and Ireland during a calendar year – it is open to everyone, regardless of the category they compete in or how experienced they are.

“One of my good friends, Dave Maguire, sent me a text and said it’s no surprise – you’ve done more mileage than a London taxi, which is potentially accurate!” says 60-year-old Cullen of his success.

“But I’m just having a bit of fun, as it should be. I’ve been racing for 40 years – I had my first race in a Fiesta at Mondello Park in 1983 in a Production Saloons race and I came fourth and my dad [Des] came third and I was in a family friend’s Fiesta. That was my first race and here I am 40 years later racing a Fiesta, so I haven’t really progressed but have had a bit of a journey! I’ve had a great time and it’s always been for fun.”

That journey initially took Cullen from his native Ireland to the UK at the end of the 1980s to compete in the Metro Challenge, before he had another spell racing on British shores in the British Touring Car-supporting Fiesta championship in the late 1990s, with his rivals including the likes of Colin Turkington. Cullen then moved across the continent for a very successful stint in the Ferrari Challenge Europe in the 2000s, winning the title twice, all of which led to a British GT assault alongside fellow Ferrari racer Paddy Shovlin in 2008.

“We won the first race and led the series and we ended up third in the championship,” recalls Cullen, who says the economic crash then put paid to any thoughts of another title bid. “We only did one race in 2009, the Spa 24 Hours, and then didn’t race for a few years.”

He returned to the cockpit for a couple of Maserati races before becoming a regular fixture of the Mondello Park scene again from 2015, achieving plenty more success. All of which led up to another twin attack on the Irish Stryker and Fiesta ST series for 2023.

Cullen competed in the Fiesta ST series in 2023 as part of his programme

Photo by: Michael Chester

Cullen competed in the Fiesta ST series in 2023 as part of his programme

But Cullen’s latest quest for silverware got off to a challenging start as he missed the opening Mondello event in order to compete at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting. After sharing his Lotus Cortina with World Rally star Craig Breen the previous September, the Irish pair were again due to race with each other last April in the Jim Clark Trophy, before tragedy struck.

“A few days before, Craig was called up to do that test [for Hyundai] on the Thursday and had to pull out of Goodwood and Sam Tordoff took his place,” says Cullen. Sadly, Breen never returned from the Croatia test after a devastating crash, and that left Cullen debating what to do for the best. In the end, he and Tordoff opted to race on in tribute to Breen, but it proved to be a tough event on track as well. “We blew an engine in qualifying and started at the back,” explains Cullen. “But we had got up to 10th place on the last lap and then the car in front of Sam spun off on oil and Sam also went off afterwards.”

All of this meant it was not until May that Cullen won his first race of 2023 – but he opened his account in some style, winning both Stryker races at Bishopscourt before triumphing twice in Strykers and Fiesta STs at Mondello in June to kickstart his championship challenges. He again completed the quadruple in July and never looked back from there in the Stryker series, only being defeated by his son Victor at Anglesey. “It would’ve been ironic if that cost me the top place [in the rankings]!” laughs Cullen, who enjoys racing in the Caterham-style category. “It’s a 1.8-litre Zetec engine and they’re reasonably quick with 160bhp, so it’s comparable to the second-quickest Caterham series [310R].”

But, while Cullen bowled over his Stryker opposition relatively easily, he had much more of a fight on his hands in the Fiesta ST category. Darragh McMullen had capitalised on his early-season absence and, although Cullen had moved into the points lead heading into the October finale, it was far from a done deal. “I was really lucky to win the title,” admits Cullen. “I had ABS failure in the last race, which puts the car into limp-home mode, so I limped home in 11th place and I think it gave me five points and I won the championship by four points.”

Yet it was Cullen’s historic racing that was to prove crucial to him topping Autosport’s winners’ table. After first joining the UK historics scene in 2019, he has since competed in a pre-1966 Mini and Jordan Racing Team Lotus Cortina. And he won in the Mini at the Historic Racing Drivers Club’s Lydden Hill meeting in June, a victory Cullen says was one of his favourites of the season. “I had a fairly savage battle with Pete Chambers and Nathan Heathcote,” recalls Cullen. “I love the track – it’s a pity it’s not used more often and it’s not on the HRDC calendar this year. The track suits the Mini and it was just full on.”

While Cullen plans to continue his rallying exploits this season, he is also relishing the chance to joke about his driver rankings success with his motorsport mates, including Alliance Racing team manager Malcolm Swetnam

However, Cullen did not climb to the summit of the rankings until late October, when he enjoyed class success in the HRDC’s Allstars category at Silverstone in the Cortina, having narrowly defeated Victor for another “really hard-fought” win. That took Cullen’s victory tally to 17, but it was still some way short of the 21 Harrison achieved the previous year and he therefore did not think he would retain top spot. “I thought one of the guys in the top five was going to do the race meeting at Mallory Park [on Boxing Day] and, if they had won one of those races, they would’ve won it,” he says. “I was relieved to see they didn’t! I was amused because I really didn’t expect to win.”

Part of Cullen’s surprise at finishing the year on top can be explained by the fact he actually contested fewer historic races in 2023 than he has done in other recent seasons because he has added yet another string to his bow. “I’ve started to do some rallying here in Ireland,” he explains. “I got an historic BMW M3 from 1987 built by a guy in Holland. [Thierry] Neuville’s got two of them, [Dani] Sordo has one and Breen had one in build. I did three rallies last year and that’s been an eye-opener – after racing for 40 years, I’m not used to someone calling the notes. It’s like playing soccer and now taking up cricket. Both are on a pitch and have a ball, otherwise they’re nothing really like each other at all!”

Lydden Hill battle was one of Cullen's favourite moments from 2023

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Lydden Hill battle was one of Cullen's favourite moments from 2023

While Cullen plans to continue his rallying exploits this season, he is also relishing the chance to joke about his driver rankings success with his motorsport mates, including Alliance Racing team manager Malcolm Swetnam. “Malcolm was the Metro Challenge coordinator in 1986 when I started racing in the UK and he and I have been friends ever since,” says Cullen. “I said to him, ‘You should be giving me a test in a touring car!’ It’s been a huge lot of fun over the last couple of weeks taking the piss out of Andrew Jordan and my racing buddies.”

And Cullen would like to add further wins and defend his position in 2024, although he acknowledges it will be a tough ask. He intends to again compete in the Irish Stryker and Fiesta ST categories and enter a selection of UK historic events, including the Classic Touring Car Racing Club’s Pre-’66 races in support of the BTCC at Croft in his Mini. Ultimately, four decades on from his debut, he is grateful to still be competitive and enjoys racing at weekends to overcome the stresses of his busy day job as CEO of a hospital in Dublin.

However, he does note a looming threat on the horizon. “I started racing against my dad and it’s gone full circle now,” Cullen explains. “Back in the 1980s, I was a bit slower than my dad and, after a year or two, I got progressively quicker and I can see history repeating itself. Victor is 18 and had his third part-season. He’s pretty much able to do the same times as me now.” So, perhaps there could soon be another Cullen to watch out for in the driver rankings over the years to come.

Cullen raced with his son in the Irish Strykers last season

Photo by: Michael Chester

Cullen raced with his son in the Irish Strykers last season

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