Pinned in sixth gear, that last 1500 rpm before redline is where things get sketchy. It’s a proper Superbike, cranking out upwards of 220 horsepower, so top speed is in excess of 200 mph. At that velocity the rear tire skitters around, the rider in full tuck trying to catch a draft from the bike ahead. All the while, telephone poles, fence posts and roadside curbs ensure mistakes meet with either injury or instant death. A casual observer must think a road racer crazy…
Practice is underway for the 2010 North West 200, and American competitor Jimmy Moore describes his most recent session, his right wrist pantomimes top gear pinned, the left hand wavers back and forth like his Yamaha R1’s rear. Familiar vapors of racing fuel waft through pits, along with the rhythmic wail of Inline-Fours as crews blip throttles prepping bikes. The fickle Irish weather has treated the paddock with an unusual clear blue sky, ideal conditions for racers and fans alike.
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Northern Ireland braces for tomorrow’s races. Tens of thousands will flock to Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, the small trio of towns on the northern coast upon whose public roads the 8.9-mile circuit runs. The Triangle follows the coast between Portrush and Portstewart before heading inland to Coleraine and then back. In between, racers will blur through landmarks by now ingrained into their neural circuitry: York Corner, Primrose Hill, Ballysally Roundabout, Mather’s Cross, the Metropole. Along the way, spectators line the course to view the action as riders chance fate.
It’s a form of racing that goes all but unnoticed in America, with the NW200 just one stop on a robust Irish road racing schedule that counts more than a dozen events. And this is true road racing, in its most literal form. The road racing spoken of in the US, which is to say races held on purpose-built closed courses, are referred to here, rather dismissively by some fans, as “short-circuit” racing. And while the TT on the nearby Isle of Man may be the world’s most recognized road race, the North West has a mystique all its own.
Wilson Craig Honda’s Guy Martin skirts the curb on a wet road. The rain is an issue in road racing only when it’s wet on some portions of the circuit but dry on others.
First running in 1929 as an endurance race, back then the 200 moniker possessed a literal meaning. Surviving through the decades, the NW200 missed seven years during the Second World War, as well as 1972 for the civil strife that would come to be known as The Troubles. Somewhere along the way its international prestige eclipsed the Ulster Grand Prix, an even more historic road race that runs on the Dundrod circuit south of Belfast. Now the NW200 stands as the crown jewel of the Irish road racing establishment, holding the distinction of being the largest outdoor sporting event in Ireland with attendance estimates as high as 150,000.
While the “200” name remains, the current racing program consists of six races in familiar classes like Superbike, Supersport and Superstock. The North West also features a 125cc 2-stroke class, though the 250cc was dropped for 2010 and the 125’s future seems perilous at best. Races take place on Saturday, with practice on Tuesday and Thursday also drawing crowds. The practice sessions are critical not only for bike setup, but qualifying as well, as the NW200 is a true sprint race. It is another wrinkle that makes the NW200 such a riveting spectacle, as riders grid up and fly off the start line en masse like a traditional “short-circuit” race. The Isle of Man TT, which is itself a notoriously dangerous enterprise killing more than 200 during its 103-year history, launches riders off one at a time to race each other via lap times. At the North West riders bash fairings for position.
It’s not a sport for the squeamish. The allure of road racing comes in no small part from its high danger quotient. The level of risk is such that most fellow professional “short-circuit” riders want no part of it. Rider safety is why road courses like the Isle of Man and Ulster Grand Prix are no longer on the World Championship schedule. The margin for error is slim, with mistakes devastating. While fatalities are not frequent enough to be termed commonplace, they do happen – a natural consequence of the racing.
Joey Dunlop in his trademark yellow helmet leads brother Robert at the 1991 NW200.
When the ‘King of the Roads’ died during an Estonian road race in 2000, the funeral in his native Northern Ireland drew thousands of mourners for their national hero.
It is a grim sport that has taken the lives of its legends, two of the greatest being brothers Joey and Robert Dunlop. None have amassed more road-racing glory than the Dunlop clan. The two brothers chartered a family dynasty from the ‘70s through the ‘90s and into the new millennium.
Joey claimed 13 NW200 races to go along with an astounding 26 Isle of Man TT and 24 Ulster Grand Prix victories. Dunlop’s career included a whopping total of 117 career Irish national road race victories. Walking through the crowds at this year’s event, the name Joey Dunlop is still heard in casual conversation, often mentioned in a reverential tone. The “King of the Roads” remains a national hero, whose popularity rose above the sectarian divide of his native Northern Ireland. Younger brother Robert carved out his own impressive career and the “Mighty Micro” remains the winningest rider at the North West with 15 victories.
Yet the brothers’ legendary aura has been paid in blood. Aged 48, Joey perished during an Estonian street race in 2000, his death instantaneous upon impact of roadside trees after losing traction on a wet road. His funeral drew more than 50,000 mourners. Robert’s death came at age 47, crashing during 250cc practice at the 2008 North West. A seized engine threw Dunlop over his handlebars while going 160 mph at Mather’s Cross, a particularly lethal high-speed section of the track. He was hit by a following rider and later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
The two are interred near the NW200 grounds in their hometown of Ballymoney, a small city in County Antrim – one of the six Ulster counties to make up Northern Ireland. Ballymoney remains a sanctum of Irish road racing, with the town hall hosting a museum dedicated to the sport. The Joey Dunlop Memorial Gardens are also there, which honor the fallen heroes, and just down the road from them sits Joey’s Pub, a popular stop for riders to hoist a pint in memoriam.
Brothers Michael (top) and William (bottom) carry on the Dunlop road racing legacy, the sons of the NW200’s winningest rider Robert Dunlop. Cousin Paul Robinson races in the 125 class.
Those greats are gone, but a new generation of Dunlops have since claimed their road-racing birthrights. Brothers William and Michael, sons of Robert, each have NW200 victories already under their belt. Cousin Sam competes in the 125 class, the son of Jim Dunlop, a brother of Joey and Robert. Yet another cousin races 125, Paul Robinson, whose father, Mervyn, married the sister of Joey and Robert. Mervyn “Robbo” Robinson was himself a road racer of great renown – a member of the famed road-racing quartet dubbed the Armoy Armada (see sidebar) The elder Robinson was also another casualty of the sport.
At the 1980 North West a then five-year-old Paul waited trackside, with the thousands of other spectators, to see his father race. But his father never appeared, having died at Mather’s Cross, the very spot that would claim uncle Robert 28 years later. Mather’s Cross was the site of a 2009 fatality as well, racer Mark Young. For 2010 a speed-reducing chicane was built at the location to improve safety. In spite of the danger, then and now, Robinson continues to race. All the racing Dunlops know the ultimate consequence of their sport.
Of the current Dunlop racers, Michael has tallied the more impressive totals, scoring a coveted victory at the Isle of Man in 2009. It was also Michael who in 2008 took victory in the 250 race just days after his father died, dedicating the win to him. “I’ve been in road racing and I’m a road racing fan, so obviously I’ve been at it from the start,” says Michael Dunlop, in the NW pits at a fundraising booth for his father’s memorial statue. “It’s just one thing I’ve been brought up with.” But when asked about the risks and obvious danger, the plain-spoken 22-year-old is unsentimental. “No, that’s the way it is. That’s the sport. There’s going to be risks. Obviously we know what we’re doing, so we’re trying to do it. It’s one of those things I guess.”
In spite of its somber potential, a mood of celebration permeates the festivities. Riders gather from all points of the British Isles to spectate. A heavy Irish presence attends, but a great amount of Brits ferry from across the Irish Sea as well. Many riders stride about the streets in full racing leathers. Give them 60 seconds to pull on gloves and full-face helmets, which they carry, and most would be fit for a trackday or even a hot lap on the NW itself. In fact, given the fully-geared nature of the fans and the open access of the pits, it’s difficult to discern between competitor and the serious fan.
John McGuinness (above) an Isle of Man TT legend and five-time NW200 winner. Honda rider Steve Plater (below left) crashed hard in practice, lucky to suffer only a broken arm. Guy Martin (below, right) an Englishman and one of the more popular riders in the road racing circuits.
Had he not been relentless in hounding officials for the latest practice times, Darwyn Young could have been one of those passed by as fan rather than a competitor. A native Irishman, Young has been road racing for three years, contesting the national series. The sport always attracted him, but he “shied away from it,” knowing his loved ones, including mom, would disapprove. But then his brother started road racing, and as Young put it, “you always want to do what your heroes do.” One hero, of course, being Joey Dunlop.
A mechanical factory technician by trade, Young typifies the everyman racers who fill the grid behind the high-profile names. They labor long weekdays for those select weekends. “You have to work 300 days a year just to do this eight or nine times,” admits Young. “This is for myself.”
The commitment involved, the shared risk and plain pure joy of the sport unites its competitors, without regards to religion or political creed. Events like the North West 200 help bring together a community that, though relatively peaceful now, still remains estranged in many ways.
“Everybody gets the divide, Northern and Southern, but with motorbike racing there is no divide,” says Young. “It’s just everybody loves just doing what they do and they just meet up and go and do it. It takes all the hassle away from it. Road racing, it doesn’t matter where your background’s from or what you do. You love bikes and you go racing.”
Competing in the Supersport class, Young gets less circumspect when asked what inspires himself to repeatedly risk his life for a sport. “I don’t call it crazy,” says the Northern Irish rider, before breaking into a wide grin. “I just call it mentally unstable.”
Mental instability notwithstanding, what differentiates the road racer from his “short-circuit” kin does lay somewhere between the ears. The majority of competitors hail from the British Isles, with a great deal of the elite riders campaigning the British Superbike series. Many are Englishmen, like 2009 NW200 winner Steve Plater, who suffered a high-speed practice crash and was rushed to the hospital at this year’s event (later determined that he escaped with just a broken arm). Soft-spoken Yorkshire rider Ian Hutchinson is one of the paddock’s fiercest competitors. Mutton-chopped Guy Martin, probably the most popular rider in the paddock, sports a jumpy, frenetic nature and a Lincolnshire accent so thick it needs subtitles for most tin-eared Americans.
Manx rider Conor Cummins is far too tall and lanky to be considered a serious roadracing specimen, yet remains one of the most consistent challengers nonetheless. (Cummins is so tall his bike physically looks different than others, the windscreen dramatically higher.) In contrast, Scottish rider Stuart Easton and Irishman Alastair Seeley are pint size – the lightweight Easton managing to shatter the circuit’s top speed in practice at 206 mph.
Former AMA champion Jimmy Moore (17) has emerged as a regular competitor at the North West, one of the few Americans to take to the unique conditions of Irish roads.
The road racing paddock welcomes a sizable contingent of veteran riders too, who parlay experience into extended careers on the road. The 37-year-old Michael Rutter, son of racing great Tony Rutter, boasts an astounding 13 wins at the North West. Englishman John McGuinness, also 37, built his reputation with 15 wins at the Isle of Man, but holds five NW200 victories. Welshman Ian Lougher (pronounced locker) remains competitive at age 46 and campaigns almost exclusively on the roads, a nine-time winner at the NW200.
A handful of international riders also discover their niche in road racing and become regulars, including New Zealand’s Bruce Anstey and Australian Cameron Donald. Americans Mark Miller and Tom Montano also test the road racing waters on regular occasion. Another Yank is two-time AMA champion (2002 Superstock, 2001 Supersport), and MotoUSA test rider, Jimmy Moore, whose discovery of road racing mirrors the perceptions of many an American racing fan.
“I honestly think if somebody back home saw a video clip or read about it, I don’t think it would honestly sink in. I don’t think they would actually understand,” says Moore on the North West. “And I say that because I was a bit guilty of it too. I knew about these Irish road races. I would read about it and catch the random video, but it never really sunk in until I was driven around the mid-Antrim course (another road race further south between Coleraine and Belfast). It’s better suited for a farm tractor and they’re averaging over 100 mph in a lap. And it’s covered in mud and rocks and cow crap. This is truly a subculture and I have the most respect for these guys.”
The American’s education of the North West began in full during his inaugural outing in 2007. At the time the Oregon resident’s mind couldn’t come to grips with the cold consequences of his new circuit.
“You can’t think about it. I caught myself the first half dozen practice sessions that first year looking at everything I could hit,” recalls Moore. “I couldn’t take my mind off the curbing. I was going around corners in fourth gear looking at all the flagpoles with the little foam wrap around the bottom.”
A train motors across the bridge towards Portrush while riders fly by beneath it during the North West 200.
At the North West there is no run off. There is no reset button. Not only is your life at risk, so are the other competitors. Not to mention the fans. At a certain point, it comes down to adjusting the mind to the new, frightening penalties and limits. Then riding to the edge of them, both figuratively and literally. The pressure can make the thrill from conventional racing pale in comparison.
“Short circuit racing is so sterile. It’s boring,” laments Moore. “I got so charged up in 2007 after doing the North West. Afterward I went straight to that new track in Salt Lake City (Miller Motorsports Park) and for two days I was bored out of my mind. I felt like a computer program. I’d be in the middle of practice on a short straight between two corners and catch myself looking off wondering where the people were, because I just came back from somewhere where I was catching people’s toes.”
If road racing ruins the track, it destroys enjoyment of street riding too. Michael Dunlop doesn’t bother with a “road bike” as he calls it. Rider Darwyn Young elaborated further: “I wouldn’t ride a motorbike on the roads now. Because my head and my mind has been up to speed at 130 and 140 mph, which is even slow. It would be too dangerous for me to ride a bike and enjoy it on the road.”
Admission to the North West 200 is free, though fans can purchase a prime vantage at a grandstand or local home.
Irishman Alastair Seeley had a strong NW200, taking two victories one in Supersport and the other in Superbike, an Irish rider not having stepped atop the Superbike NW200 podium in more than a decade.
Aside from Plater’s practice crash, the racing at this year’s event went fairly clean, without any deaths. Most of the medical carnage came from the spectators, one falling off a seaside cliff and another incident involving pub fisticuffs, which delayed the racing as medical personnel were sent in, much to the disgust of the fans.
From the fans perspective, the key to the North West is scouting a prime vantage and then following the action via loudspeaker, video screen and word of mouth. It’s a communal experience and information burns through the ranks second-hand, with much of the action unfolding literally miles away. General attendance is free, with tickets required only for grandstand areas located at strategic locations like the start/finish and prime overtaking corners. Many spectators show up well in advance and camp out, claiming the best locations early, like a big parade. Which it is really, a brutally fast parade. Also one of the more dangerous, as five hundred pounds of man and machine on a destructive swath could instantly take the life of a spectator.
The races themselves click off in short order and most of the riders, particularly the factory-backed top tier performers, run a daunting five-race schedule. Success in the first contest can be met with bitter disappointment in the second, then triumphant reversal once again. The man of the day at this year’s NW was Irish rider Alastair Seeley, who broke a decade-long streak by getting an Irishman atop the Superbike rostrum. Seeley also held the distinction of being the lone double-victory rider with a win in the morning Supersport race. John McGuinness, contesting his 17th NW, took the earlier Superbike win, with Scottish rider Keith Amor giving BMW its first ever NW200 victory by taking the checkers in Superstock. Ian Hutchinson claimed the final victory of the event, destroying the field in the second Supersport race. (After the win, the English rider kept on winning, making road racing history at the Isle of Man TT the following month with a record-breaking five TT wins.) American Jimmy Moore finished a respectable 12th in the first Superbike race, his best North West finish to date. Darwyn Young finished both Supersport races, with 35th and 41st-place results.
Paul Robinson laid his winner’s wreath from the 125cc race on his father Mervyn, a member of the Armoy Armada who was killed in the North West 200 in 1980.
As for Paul Robinson, the privateer rider fulfilled a dream by taking the 125 checkers, his main competitor, cousin William, suffering mechanical troubles while in the lead. It was a poignant moment for the 35-year-old, hunched over his bike and visibly emotional after securing his only North West win to date. The victory fulfilled a personal promise, as the next day Robinson placed the victory wreath on his father’s grave. He dedicated that win to his mother, Helen, a woman who has lost a husband and brother to the North West.
Tragedy surrounds road racers, as does heroism. While its ultimate severity may be hard to reconcile, Irish road racing is raw and unbridled. Motorsport in its purest form.