2008 Northwest 200 - Luck Of The Irish

Death And Redemption At The 2008 Northwest 200

There are those who say Robert Dunlop should have known better. A 47-year-old father of three has no business racing motorcycles on dangerous public-roads courses like the Northwest 200. Especially one with his long history of injuries: Some 14 years after battering his diminutive legs in an accident at the Isle of Man, Dunlop had recovered to the point he was expected to win his 16th race at this year's 200 by a margin wider than the river Liffey. Unfortunately, there's the family legacy to contend with. Like the Kennedy clan, tragedy and triumph are inextricably linked with the Dunlop brand.

So I shouldn't be surprised to find myself attending Robert Dunlop's wake in the small town of Ballymoney, where I share a moment of quiet reverence with roadracing fans from all over the planet. Robert was killed when the engine of his Yamaha TZ250 seized during practice at Mather's Cross, a dangerous section that claimed the lives of several of his peers from the fabled Armoy Armada in the 1970s.

There is shock, there is disbelief and there are a few tears among the crowd drinking pints at his late brother Joey's pub, but the race, as the locals plainly put it, must go on. "The event is larger than just one man," explains Phillip McCallen, proprietor of a large, multi-line dealership in Lurgan, just outside Belfast. Known for his intense gaze, McCallen was a decade ago the fearless firebrand to Joey Dunlop's mature roads craftsman. But there was method to his madness as he won the Northwest 11 times before retiring in '99, clocking an amazing three wins during one manic day in'92.

Today, McCallen is still involved in the annual event which began as an actual 200-mile race in 1929. Today races are either four or six laps, and during one of the two brief practice sessions, he leads newcomers around the 8.96-mile course, mercifully lined with hay bales and sections of AirFence. A running joke among traffic cops suggests the hay bales are deployed to protect the local infrastructure. "The danger is just an accepted part of racing on the roads," says McCallen, echoing local sentiment. Racing this close to the edge may seem mad, but the event is so popular it draws around 150,000 fans each year. That's no mean feat when Northern Ireland's population is only 1.5 million. It'd be like 30 million Americans attending the Super Bowl. On motorcycles.

The Craic
As I ride my borrowed Triumph Sprint on the slender, curvy roads between Portrush and Portstewart, the unique psyche that makes the Irish natural roadracers soon becomes apparent. The roadside scenery is breathtaking, veering between windswept seaside cliffs, deserted beaches and vivid shades of green not found in a Kawasaki racing paddock. No wonder they call this the Emerald Isle. But when I pause to enjoy my surroundings, the high-pitched whine of four-cylinder engines snaps me back to attention. Small squadrons of sportbikes overtake me at race pace every few miles. Passing is legal on nearly all Irish roads, and the most foolhardy riders pass along the centerline, into oncoming traffic, often with knees scraping pavement. Scary? Let's just say I now understand why there are so many pubs.

From this environment come competitors like James McBride, a 37-year-old contractor from Northhamptonshire, England. "I got a late start racing at 27, but this is me fifth visit here and I'm placing top 10s," he says. "This is unique in sport because it presents unique challenges and is the bravest discipline going. I'm just glad to take part."

McBride, whose Spartan Pazzo Racing/Speedy.com Yamaha paddock is as modest as his approach to racing, competed at Daytona this year after meeting American racer Geoff May at the Macau Grand Prix. And he found the superspeedway undaunting. "It's actually slow compared to the Ulster Grand Prix and the Northwest 200. Well, that and at Daytona there's run-off," he laughs. There's a great deal of gallows humor amongst the low-rent glamour in the Northwest 200 paddock. Top runner Martin Finnegan's white Yamahas sit unused with his name still stenciled on his race trailer a week after he was killed racing in Ireland's Tandragee 100.

Veteran real roads racers like Bruce Anstey of New Zealand and British Superbike regular Steve Plater enjoy climate-controlled motor homes and six-man teams of technicians. Pretty girls, perhaps not as fetching as those at a MotoGP round, flit about in mini-skirts. These frontrunners ride World Superbike-spec machines and earn six-figure salaries. Meanwhile, privateers employ parents, grandparents and very worried significant others for pit duty, and mom-and-pop businesses are often sponsors. Even Robert Dunlop's son Michael wears the badge of "Around A Pound," a local dollar store.

Since his debut in the late '90s, Morecambe's John McGuinness has gone from sleeping in his truck as an also-ran to top dog, and he's seen some of his fastest competitors pay the ultimate price. This dubious list includes David Jeffries, Darran Lindsay and cherub-faced Richard Britton, whose status as martyr means his likeness now adorns the sides of caravans and semi-trailers like a roadracing Tupac. Still, after all the carnage and enough wins to be considered heir to Joey Dunlop's throne, McGuinness shows no signs of fatigue. "Sure, you think about the risks and the friends you've lost, but it's worth it," he says. "It's worth it for the atmosphere, the event, the people, the buzz. I don't know what else I'd want to do."

As he says this, I realize the deeper appeal of real roads racing. It's the craic, a Gaelic term pronounced "crack," meaning a really good time. McGuinness was a clam fisherman before finding his groove in the lanes, and you can't blame him for abandoning an unrewarding career that can wreck a man's body as badly as a fencepost at 190 mph. Not much craic to be had clamming.

The Main Event
The triangular-shaped Northwest 200 race course is a spectator's Valhalla thanks to the endless viewing opportunities afforded by the undulating landscape. In the minutes just before the small army of marshals announce the "roads closed" directive, swarms of sportbikes zip along the course in a mad dash to find the best viewing spot. Though ignoring the posted speed limits may be an accepted way to travel in these parts, the motorcycle cops here are no joke. Many ride Honda CBR1100XXs or Kawasaki ZX-10Rs adorned with sirens and police lights. "We don't get anyone trying to outrun us like you would in the States. Instead, we pull them aside for a friendly taking to," explains officer Paul Symignton, who works with UK motorcycle safety program Bikesafe. The police superbikes have proven popular with the crowds, and Symington claims the program has even fostered a sense of camaraderie between Irish Republicans from the South and the Northern Irish police, something solely lacking in previous years. "I stopped to chat with a bunch of lads from the Republic and now they've invited me for a day of off-road riding. That's something a sporting event can do that politics can't."

Conditions have improved a great deal in this area in recent years, reckons Jim Tate, a marshal from Belfast who's worked in the Northwest for 45 years. He mentions "the troubles" that made Northern Ireland a war zone for 30 years as reluctantly as possible, and is elated to see no signs of political infighting during the race. Anyway, he says, there are more important matters at hand, like making sure the riders who leave the start/finish line end up there again. "Back in the 1950s and '60s, before the safety standards were up to date, you had riders at York Corner failing to make the turn and riding right into the water. I was there when Martin Finnegan was killed and I've seen a lot, but you get this in your blood and you'll come back. I'll bet I see you here again," he says with a wink.

Many of the locals are aware of the appeal of the Northwest 200 and take full advantage. Private homes erect construction scaffolding for viewers and charge a couple of pounds for a "seat." On the long, blindingly fast straights from Gavally to University Corner, the event has the homey atmosphere of an Irish county fair, with farmers, local hotties and would-be boy-racers all lining the fences for a look. Grandmothers proudly show off infants born over the previous winter, the smell of greasy fried food wafts in from mobile kitchens and grizzled old men who look like characters from a frozen fish package openly wager on who'll finish where. Race day feels like a scene stolen from one of those quirky Irish independent films on late-night cable TV. This being a British protectorate, my bold red Triumph draws approving glances from locals. Nationalism is fierce, and I'm told many times there will be a huge celebration once Triumph wins here.

Watching practice, I notice a Honda CBR1000RR trailing the racers, the rider's leather-clad frame overloaded with dayglo-orange satchels. That's Alistair Murray, an emergency room physician from Dublin who's part of a trio of very fast and competent physicians who chase the pack around the course, attending to fallen riders. Murray has run the course for five years, reaching speeds of 180 mph. He doesn't have a race license as do the other two doctors, but he has no problem staying just behind the roaring pack of superbikes during the race. "We're as fast as the backmarkers because we have to be to deal with those first crucial 10 to 15 minutes of care," he says. It was one of Murray's crew who reached Robert Dunlop after his practice accident, administering CPR in an attempt to save the fallen rider's life.

The surrounding towns and the Northwest paddock took Dunlop's death hard, and for a while on the Friday before Saturday's big race, there were serious discussions of whether the event would continue. Both of Robert's sons, Michael and William, were slated to compete, and though officials leaned toward preventing 20-year-old Michael from competing, he insisted on taking to the grid for the 250cc race. Unlike the Isle of Man TT, the Northwest 200 features a mass-start, and mine weren't the only fingers crossed as the wailing two-strokes filed past. The little 250s can reach some impressive top speeds, and the four-lap event goes by in a haze of blue exhaust smoke and stolen glances at the massive video screens fed by heli-cams. Though young William's machine failed to launch on the starting line, the crowd let out a cheer as Michael beat last year's winner Christian Ekin to the checkered flag. In a scene fit for a movie, Michael took the podium and then broke down in tears as he dedicated the win to his late father.

Later that evening, under teary-eyed toasts in a Colerane pub, I was asked whether I'd be back to see the Northwest 200 again. "I think John McGuinness summed it up perfectly," I replied. "I don't know what else I'd want to do."

One scene you won't see on this side of the Atlantic: Author Mike Seate parks his borrowed Triumph Sprint long enough to enjoy a serving of Boss Hoggs Traditional Fish 'n' Chips.
No Hogs here: Well-trained Irish police ride Kawasaki ZX-10Rs and Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbirds. Do not try to outrun them!
HM Plant is Ireland's factory Honda effort, piloted by series hero John McGuiness who finished third and fifth in Saturday's two Superbike races.
Pazzo Racing/Speedy.com Yamaha pits are far more modest, but rider James McBride still managed a 14th-place finish in the first Superbike race.
Umbrella girls maybe aren't as fetching as those at a MotoGP round, but we're not complaining.
Unlike the Isle of Man TT, the Northwest features mass starts. Robert Dunlop's 20-year-old son Michael (3) topped the 250cc race.
The 1000cc Superstock bikes funnel through one of the slower chicanes.Winner Alastair Seeley (7) averaged a mind-blowing 121 mph-on public roads.
Where else can you get this close to the action?