Eugene Donnelly became a close friend of the late Don Wilmont. Picture: Paul McIlroy

Glowing tributes have been paid to former navigator and Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC) manager Don Wilmont, who passed away on New Year’s Eve following a short battle with cancer.

Ex-Tarmac winners Eugene Donnelly, Tim McNulty and Garry Jennings have all spoken highly of Mr Wilmont, who is survived by his wife Jeanette and daughter, Arlene.

Mr Wilmont became the first ITRC manager back in 1999 and carried out the role until 2012 when he was succeeded by Gerard Seaman.

Towards the end of his tenure, he laid much of the groundwork that made the series’ eventual transition from the vastly expensive 2.0-litre World Rally Cars to the 1.6-litre generation machines considerably smoother.

His professional approach, thorough understanding of the rules and ability to come to a reasoned decision meant he quickly garnered the respect and trust of the rallying community, according to five-time Irish Tarmac title holder, Eugene Donnelly.

This was particularly true in Donnelly’s case in 2004 when, as he sped towards the drivers’ crown, debris placed in his path on the final stage of the Cork ‘20’ International Rally led to him and Paul Kiely crashing out.

It meant Glengormley’s Derek McGarrity was deemed the event winner and overall champion before a meeting of rally stewards led them to announce that the results were final following the penultimate test. Hours later, Donnelly and McGarrity agreed to share the trophy between them.

“Don was a gentleman in every way,” said Donnelly. “His understanding of his role in the Tarmac Rally Organisers’ Association as Championship co-ordinator was very professional and he knew the rules inside out.

“He was a great support to me personally. When we had the controversial incident on the Cork ‘20’ Rally at the end of the 2004 Championship, he put his heart and soul into supporting me in getting to the bottom of what happened. It was with his help I returned to the Championship in 2005 because I very nearly didn’t.

“I can remember his understanding, especially when I returned to compete at the Cork and Killarney rallies over the next few years; he knew how difficult it was for me after what happened.

“Don also worked tirelessly to find support and sponsorship for the Tarmac Championship and make it as professional as possible,” he added. “He oversaw what I would say were the best years of the Championship.

“Don put considerable effort into the PR and got clubs to support the TV programmes and the media in general. He was always on hand to support my efforts in finding sponsors for our campaign in whatever way he could.”

Before taking up the role of ITRC manager, Mr Wilmont – who lived in the town of Bushmills – navigated for an eclectic mix of drivers, including Paul Harris, Bob Fowden, Ian Jemison, Kenny McKinstry and Tony Pond – the latter a household name in UK and Irish rally circles.

That love of rallying was the quality that endeared him to Tim McNulty – the 2011 Tarmac champion. “The first thing that springs to mind about Don was his absolute passion for Irish motorsport and his professional approach in his participation as a competitor and in his administrative roles that he took on in recent years,” he said.

“He played an enormous part in promoting Irish rallying which everyone involved in the sport has benefited from. He will be sadly missed by all.”

Garry Jennings – the Tarmac champion from 2013 – added: “Don was a respectable man who could make a decision from a competitor’s side because he had done it all himself before taking on the role.

“When a joined the Tarmac Championship he got to know me and we quickly became friends. He was someone who was always there to answer any queries or questions I might have, or just give advice. And of course, he could always party!”

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