In 45 years as a motojournalist I have seen almost every form of racing in the bike world but the one event I had never visited was the North West 200. You can read our Managing Editor’s excellent race report here
but this is the event from a fan’s eye.
There are two factors which dominate the NW 200. The first is location, right on the north-western tip of Ireland, running alongside the North Atlantic. If it isn’t raining here – it’s either getting ready to rain or has just finished raining.
The second dominant factor is the course. The North West is a triangle of public roads, some rural but many running through urban areas, roughly in the shape of a distended triangle – and ferociously fast. The speeds are mind-blowingly quick. In 2013, Martin Jessop was clocked at over 208 mph – and this on a two-car wide, public road surfaced with normal tarmac. The reality of these speeds is that the fastest riders will cover the length of a football field in one second.
The NW200 is billed as Ireland’s biggest sporting event with a claimed 150,000 visitors. This may well be true because there were a lot of people watching from the available areas where viewing was permitted.
Whether the races are the attraction they claim to be, in terms of bringing non-local visitors into the area, is another matter. The people we met were overwhelmingly from Northern Ireland and a look at the number plates on the bikes and cars showed the great majority were local, with only a sprinkling of visitors even from southern Ireland. Mainland Brits were very thinly represented.
Does this matter? The answer is yes and no.
The fact that the Northern Ireland government actively and enthusiastically supports the event financially and logistically is to be commended. If it doesn’t make strict economic sense, then so what? There are many, many other activities getting huge amounts of money which do not reach nearly so much of the population.
There is no argument that the North West is hugely popular with a vast swath of the local residents who pay their taxes, so why shouldn’t they enjoy an event they love? Every house along the track seemed to be full of spectators, who had paid to be in someone’s garden, or the house owners themselves. Clearly, the commitment to the North West is writ large and very publicly.
There is also no doubt that a lot of hardcore enthusiasts put in a huge amount of voluntary effort to run the event successfully and they deserve both every credit and respect for their work. A few officials are paid but why shouldn’t they be? The North West is a big, complex event and it can’t be run from notes on the back of an envelope.
The enthusiasm for the event is palpable. Wherever we went there were positive comments – but it is also run in a very grassroots way. We watched from a grandstand at York Corner – a fabulous viewing spot. The admission was $40 per person. For a raised grandstand, this was a fair price. What is interesting was that the seating was not sold out and certainly where we were, there were a lot of non-Irish customers.
When we mentioned this to some Irish friends, they laughed at the thought of paying $40 to sit when you could pay $8 to stand in a garden. $40, they considered, was ludicrously expensive.
This attitude has positives and negatives. By York Corner there were a few portable toilets – all with long queues and smelling to high heaven. The reaction from the locals? What do you expect, it’s the North-West – take it or leave it.
Battles were intense at the 2014 North West 200.
Across the road, the local pub did a roaring trade charging $8 to stand out of the driving rain – and to use their bathrooms. As the doorman said, it had been a bad year for business so far, so they were going to take every penny they could while it was there.
As for the track action, you will either love road racing or find it utterly boring. The dullness comes from the length of the lap which means that a lot of the time there is nothing to see.
The fascination is that this is racing on public roads. Forget the bits of foam padding on walls and fences – you don’t want to make a mistake on the roads. Of all the sports I have ever done, road racing is the most utterly addictive and nothing compares with riding a motorcycle flat out past houses and round walls.
What made the North West different is the speed, closeness and intensity of the racing. In the Supertwins race, four riders battled for the lead – line abreast at 160 mph. The outer two were inches away from the rain sodden grass verge. The bravery and skill this takes is beyond comprehension.
However, the award for the person with the greatest courage goes to North West 200 Race Director Mervyn White. Mr. Whyte, with the support of rider representative Steve Plater, took on the responsibility for allowing the first Superbike race to go ahead despite standing water on the track and conditions about which previous North-West winner Michael Rutter said: “You can’t see two feet in front of you because of the spray.”
So, keep the show on the road and allow a mass start of 200 mph Superbikes to race on flooded public roads. Now that is truly carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
The danger involved in each NW 200 session is quite literally a matter of life and death. In the Superstock race, Simon Andrews, an extremely talented English professional racer, was very badly injured and airlifted to the hospital in critical condition. Every accident racing on the roads is potentially going to be a huge one, and in this case fatal as Andrews died from his injuries on Monday.
No rider’s death is of a greater or lesser importance than any other but I had the pleasure of knowing Simon personally, and he really was a lovely person and held a very special place in everyone’s heart. Not only was he a brilliant racer but he was kind, courteous and helpful and a complete delight to work with. Not only motorcycle racing but the whole world will be a poorer place without him. Truly, road racing is a magnificent mistress - but savagely brutal and utterly unforgiving too.