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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.