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'It's an incredible journey and we're only getting started' - 17-year-old Cork drifting star enjoying family affair

Conor Shanahan is Ireland’s most exciting young motorsports talent and one of the brightest rising stars of global drifting.

IT’S HARD TO believe that Conor Shanahan is just 17. 

The Irish drifting sensation is so well-spoken, uttering each and every word with an air of confidence and maturity. It’s often a hopeless attempt at drawing blood from a stone when interviewing others his age. But everything just comes naturally to the Cork teenager who is making waves in the motorsport world.

conor-shanahan Conor Shanahan will tackle the 2020 Drift Masters European Championship with a fresh new look and a renewed will to win, now officially part of the Red Bull athlete family. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His family were always big into the game, so it was inevitable that he would follow this path — or cover some distance of it, at least. Shanahan’s father, John, was a rally champion in his day, his mother, Valerie, was the only Irishwoman to win a national Autoglass championship, among others, and then there’s his brother, Jack.

At 20, Jack is also enjoying an impressive journey in the field of drifting, with both brothers soldiering together through the years. It’s all the Shanahans of Mallow have ever known.

“I’ve been racing since I was like seven, go-karts and that,” Conor tells The42 after officially signing as a fully-fledged Red Bull athlete. “I’ve been competitive in motorsport since the age of seven or eight.

“My first time drifting was when I was nine but it was only like for one day, just to see what it was like. From then to when I turned 12, 13 was when I got really big into it.

“I used to play an awful lot of soccer, I was playing county soccer and stuff so I wasn’t focused massively on my motorsport career at the time.”

Football, and a bit of GAA too, was his number one, but that all soon changed.

He and his mother did plenty of travelling, following Jack when he was competing away. It was in Poland, at the first round of his brother’s first European championship, where Conor well and truly caught the bug — fittingly, right across the road from where he went on to win his first event a few short years later.

“That moment was an eye-opener for me because I saw the level of European drifting, I saw how exciting this sport was,” he picks up. “I watched this sport for so long on the outside, it kind of gave me way more understanding than anybody else had.”

Adrenaline.

Speed.

Danger.

It had it all.

For those unfamiliar with drifting, it’s a discipline which highlights car control — the driver intentionally oversteers, with loss of traction, though they must maintain control around corners — under the watchful eye of judges.

Firstly, at competition, drivers participate in two solo qualifying runs on track, attempting to show control, speed and style. If they make the cut, they progress to head-to-head duels, as lead car and chase car, and try to avoid making contact. (The below video explains everything much better.)

Source: Red Bull Motorsports/YouTube

Shanahan loved everything he saw, and when he got up close and personal and witnessed his older brother’s exploits on the track, he knew he wanted to follow in his footsteps. 

“For me, I learned a lot from my brother’s mistakes as well as learning from my mistakes,” he nods. “When I go into it, I knew what to expect straight away.

“I knew the lows. I knew when I was going to win it was going to be great but when things go wrong in this sport, it’s not the best times. You just gotta cope with them and get back into it. It was good that I had that understanding.

“Jack’s an incredible driver. He’s a three-time British champion, pro champion, two-time Irish champion, runner-up in the European championship this year. He’s one of the top dogs in this sport so for me, when I got into it, at the start I was competing at high enough levels.

“I went from being nobody in an amateur class to all of a sudden, competing in a pro class and being on the podium. Jack was a massive help in that, for getting it across to me and explaining what way I need to change my driving style when I do change to pro and stuff.

“It was a massive help that I had somebody backing me that could push me every step of the way.”

Just before turning 13, Shanahan began driving competitively. He contested his first amateur events, and started on a winning note against top drivers. The ball got rolling, more and more doors opened and this prodigy’s star well and truly rose.

“I think the fact that I was young, it gave me great coverage. I was being posted on big media pages at early ages so it gave me a good following from the start. I just realised that if I worked hard on this, I could get to where I want to be now and hopefully progress even further.

“I managed to win my first Pro-Am championship, I won my first pro event, I went to Europe which is one of the highest levels for competing. I’m the youngest-ever driver to win Irish, British and Europeans. It’s quite an incredible journey to here and I think from my point-of-view we’re only getting started. There’s a lot left in the tank yet.

“Hopefully we can push on and get some more good results in the near future.”

Through the journey to date, Jack — and the support of his entire family — has certainly been a constant. The brothers are thick as thieves, competing together, enjoying every minute, and helping each other out as much as possible.

“It’s good that now we’re on the same level so we can bounce off each other,” Conor smiles. “But I think from his performance last year, I have a bit of work to do before I can get back on his level.

“Last year was a bad year for me with car problems and stuff so I’m quite hungry to get back and hopefully, with a good car underneath me, I can push for good results. We’re just happy at what we’re doing and we’re grateful for every opportunity we get. Winning is a bonus, and if we’re there it’s also a win for us.”

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While his rise has been seriously impressive, Shanahan — who’s in Transition Year and intends to complete his Leaving Cert and have a full education behind him — is well aware that with the good, comes the bad. That’s something he understood quite quickly.

It’s all a learning experience.

Recently, things have been a little more challenging and as he says himself, last year was “kind of my first bad year in competitive drifting.” In the early days of his motorsport career, the victories came thick and fast. He won everything there was to win in amateur, and did the same in his early pro days.

But in the face of adversity, he just rolls with the punches.

“I just never took any notice because I always felt I came into this sport not just to win, but for everything else. I always love to give time to the fans and appreciate everything I get because there’s people who are sitting in the grand stands of the events who are wishing they were in my shoes. If we do lose, we’ve just got to take it.

“Of course it’s good to win but you just got to get on with it, prepare for the next event and make sure that it’s not going to happen again. You’ve got to have the bad ones to learn and that’s where you learn. You won’t learn if you’re winning all the time. You’ve got to have bad events to learn to make sure that you can come back stronger next time.”

That’s what he’s hoping to do when everything gets back up and running after this enforced break. While 2019 is in the past, he’s learned from it, its falls and the difficulties he ran into building his car. And he also takes from the highs of 2018, too.

Having won his first European event two years ago, Shanahan was “this kid who everybody was talking about,” he laughs. “That was the moment that put me on the map and got my feet running with the big fish. I was kind of a nobody at that event, but I showed that I could compete there. That set the bar high.”

A successful year followed, and this teenager from Mallow’s name was among the best on the continent, and even the best in the world.

conor-shanahan Shanahan is Ireland's most exciting young driver. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Going into 2019 I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me,” he recalls. “At the time, it was great because everybody looked at me as a kid who was doing great things but now I’m just one of the guys.

“I have to be prepared to win, I’m expected to win. I kind of had to give away that time where I was maybe treated a bit different — if he doesn’t win, ah he’s still learning along the way.

“Now, I’m still learning every step of the way — I’m only in European drifting maybe two years — but people just think now I’m one of the guys and I have to get the job done. For me, there’s a pressure aspect coming into it.”

You can almost hear the pain in his voice as he reflects on the struggles of last year, but it’s fair to say that everything is looking up once again. Just moments later, he’s speaking with belief and hunger; conscious to point out that it’s not cockiness, but a deep-seated confidence. And he has determination, in bucketloads, to match it.

If there are events at the end of the year, Shanahan will come out with all guns blazing, that’s for sure.

But for now, he’s keeping himself occupied through lockdown, whether that be working on cars in the garage, keeping sharp and focused by playing virtual world, going for runs or riding a motorcross bike in a forest beside his house.

“Staying fit, keeping the mind healthy and keeping the body healthy,” he nods, always plotting and planning so he’s prepared for when the green light eventually comes.

“We just have to get through this pandemic together as the whole world. For me, it’s quite annoying that we’re not competing. We’d love to be driving, of course, it’s frustrating but I respect everything that’s going on.

“All the decisions that are being made are being made for a reason and we just have to wait until this is all over. There’ll be plenty of time for driving and we’ll able to get back on track. Hopefully it will be soon. Once everything will be okay, that’s the main thing.”

Shanahan is happy to sit tight and count his blessings, focusing on the positives ahead of what should be the start of an exciting new chapter in the Red Bull family, which contains the likes of Neymar, Max Verstappen and Lindsey Vonn.

conor-shanahan It's been an incredible journey for the Mallow teenager. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s incredible,” he beams. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity that I have got. To be alongside so many famous athletes in the world and in the same story picture as them, it’s incredible.

“Looking back at when I was a kid, you went to a racetrack or a big event and there was a guy there wearing a Red Bull helmet or he had a Red Bull car or was a Red Bull athlete, you always would have said he was fast, and he’s doing something right.

“It’s a massively proud moment for me, but not only for me; my whole family, my team. My family has went through real rough times to get me to where I am today and I appreciate that and where I am right now.

“Without them, I wouldn’t have got this far, and thanks to Red Bull of course for giving me this opportunity that I can carry on now and hopefully we can represent the colours with pride and I can do them proud and get some results.”

He’s now that guy in the Red Bull helmet, the fella with the Red Bull car.

And it’s something 17-year-old Conor Shanahan certainly won’t take for granted going forward on this incredible journey.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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