Barely old enough to drive, Conor Shanahan is carving out a career for himself as somewhat of a drift racing phenom.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, participants take part in two solo qualifying runs where they attempt to showcase their car control around corners at high speed with high angled drifts before being paired off into head-to-head battles where one car takes the lead while the other tries to match the pace and overtake en route to victory.
The 17-year-old Shanahan has signed with Red Bull and is en route to becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport.
Success seems inevitable for the Mallow man. Something that comes as no surprise considering the pedigree his family brings to Irish motorsport.
Not only is his older brother Jack a back-to-back British Drift Racing Champion but his father also holds multiple rallying titles while his mother was the first woman in Ireland to win a national driving championship of any kind.
It’s in the blood, clearly, and for the Shanahan family, seeing the clan’s youngest member don the colours of a brand representing household names such as Max Verstappen and Neymar is a testament to where hard work and sacrifice can get you.
“It’s a really proud moment to see everything in the Red Bull colours, it’s amazing,” Shanahan tells Pundit Arena.
“For me, as a kid, I always would have gone to a track and if you seen a guy wearing a Red Bull helmet or if there was a car, you would always have said, ‘he must be fast’ or ‘he’s doing something right’ so yeah, it’s a cool moment.
“It’s not just a proud moment for me, my family have worked so hard for this and it’s good to see that what we’re doing is being recognised by such a huge brand, we’re doing something right, you could say.
“My Mam and Dad have put everything they have into us over the years and they’ve lost a lot because they put everything into what we were doing.
“It doesn’t really bother us to say that because my Mam and Dad are happy. It’s been a fun couple of years for sure but it’s been quite stressful. There have been many events where we’ve barely had enough money to pay for diesel to get home. So to see what we’re doing is being recognised by Red Bull is a cool feeling and shows that hard work pays off.”
The sport of drift racing is riding the crest of a wave in Ireland at present.
Not only have the Shanahan brothers forged careers for themselves but their near-neighbour and close friend James Deane claimed three consecutive Formula Drifting Championships between 2017 & 2019. The Castletownroche man is the first driver in the sport to complete the three-peat, meaning he’s regarded among the best on the planet.
However, whilst Ireland’s stars are bound by family ties and North Cork roots, it’s important to remember that drift racing is an individual sport meaning they are often pitted against one another.
“It’s a great buzz,” Shanahan says of competing against his brother, Jack, four years his senior.
“The one thing I will say about us competing together, we just know there’s not going to be any games. It’s flat out and go as hard as you can and let the best man win.
“I think he has a few up on me but I have beat him. We’ve had some good battles but Jack’s an amazing driver.”
As for Deane, well despite his dominance in the sport, the 28-year-old is all too aware of the talent brewing over the road in Mallow.
Shanahan recorded “the best moment of his career” when he defeated Deane on his Drift Masters European Championship debut in Poland two years ago. However, rather than the then European Champion sulking at having lost to a child on his 15th birthday, what sticks out in Shanahan’s mind is how proud his neighbour was to see him competing with, and beating, the best in the world.
“He was quite proud that I managed to do it,” Shanahan says
“He was as happy for me as I was, to have somebody like that in your corner whose still delighted for you despite the fact he lost is amazing. He’s a really good guy, you could not meet a better guy, he really deserves all he’s achieved in the sport, and he’s phenomenal for sure.”
Don’t get it twisted though, despite his young age, ability to beat champions and partnership with one of the world’s biggest brands, the Cork native has experienced plenty of lows in his fledgling career.
It’s par for the course after all when it comes to elite-level sport.
With multiple Irish racers on the grid, the final leg of the European Championships takes place at the famed Mondello Park in Co. Kildare in an event commonly known as ‘Japfest’. It’s here that Shanahan gets to end the season on a high surrounded by family, friends and the Irish drifting racing community.
“The European Championships, which is what we compete in, the final round is in Mondello so it’s good for us that we get to come home and put on a show for the Irish fans.
“Obviously the Championship is decided in Mondello but it’s also great to have that opportunity at the end of the year especially if you’ve not had a great year, it gives you a buzz to see there are still people happy with what you are doing.
“It’s always good for us as a family because we can bring a lot of friends and family to that event. Jack won the event and finished second in the Championship last year so it was a great buzz around our team and it’s great to see the support we have around the place from our own country.”
However, it was at the famed racing event where the younger Shanahan brother experienced the toughest moment of his career to date.
Despite experiencing car difficulties throughout most of last season, he went into Japfest having just won his first pro event in Ireland, something that came after maiden wins in Britain and Europe.
Shanahan felt confident the week leading into it but through no fault of his own, what could have been an epic homecoming for the family turned into a bittersweet event.
“I was super confident coming up to the week of Japfest,” Shanahan recalls.
“My Mam and I are pretty close and I was saying, ‘this is it, I’m not going in to win one event, I’m winning the two events, I don’t care who comes my way.’
“I just had that mindset and then Saturday came which was the first event. We qualified first and the car was working unbelievable, the best it had worked. Then got to the semi-final and it should have been an easy enough win for me, in my eyes. We got up to the starting line in the semi-final and noticed there’s a problem with the car.
“We couldn’t get it fixed within the five-minute rule and that was that, our game was over. So we finished third on the first day.”
Shanahan continues, admitting he was happy enough with a third-place finish on day one before it all went pear-shaped on day two.
“I was happy enough thinking we could get the car fixed and head into the next day which was our main day anyway.
“So Sunday came and the car was working unbelievably again and I qualified first again. Super confident. Probably the most confident I had felt in the car.
“I just had the mindset that I was capable of winning the event and then the top 16 came. I was nearly finished, probably would have won the battle and then my gearbox broke. So yeah, I fell at the wrong hurdle again and it was a devastating one.
“I never actually get caught up in the downside of drifting and competing. I just always get on with it because if you do [get down] you will not be successful in this game. So for me, it was a tough one to take because I’d had such a bad year, I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders going off the year before and it just wasn’t the best of moments.”
From appearing on the Grand Tour alongside Richard Hammond at 13 to defeating a world champion at 15, Shanahan has grown accustomed to the pressure of being a young sporting phenomenon.
However, it is his winning mindset seems to be what sets him apart. The 17-year-old exudes a subtle confidence that will surely replicate into major honours.
As well as this, they say sports needs superstars and Conor Shanahan comes across as a star in the making. One that could transcend drift racing into the eyes of the greater Irish public.
“The mindset I have is to always win and I’m in a really good position now.
“Obviously I’m still young but I’ve been around the game a long time and have years of experience and even outside of competing I know what happens in this sport, I know how ruthless this sport can be.”
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It’s a proud moment for me, my family and my team to share this exiting news – I’m now a fully fledged Red Bull athlete! • The past couple of months have been crazy, and a massive step in my career seeing everything progress to this, it’s a dream come true and I’m still asking myself if it’s real. I’m forever grateful for this opportunity that Red Bull have given me and I will represent the brand with pride and hopefully when these strange times are over we can go win some events! I hope you guys are all doing ok and we all hope that everything will get back on track soon. Thank you all so much for the support, this is a moment I won’t be forgetting! @redbullire #Givesyouwings #CS79
“For me, though, drifting is definitely a sport that should be on the mainstream media, there are not many other sports where we can boast a three-time world champion and multiple European champions so I think we should be taking full advantage of that.
We should probably add child prodigy to that list.