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The fast and the furious ... a tribute to Ulster's speed kings of road and circuit

Eddie Mateer played many sports, but his true love has always been motorcyling. Paul Lindsay casts his eyes over a fantastic new book that looks back at our best racers and Eddie's renowned magazine

Published 24/09/2016

Joey Dunlop
Joey Dunlop
Eddie Mateer at the launch of his book with Ian Paisley MP and Sports Minister Paul Givan
Reluctant hero Ray McCullough
Brian Steenson took second place behind Giacomo Agostini in the 1969 UGP
Jimmy Jones at Ballygarvey Corner in the 1957 Mid Antrim
Dick Creith
Ernie Lyons (no 17) riding a Triumph makes a break from Artie Bell (no 3) on his Norton at the Ulster 100 Road Race in 1945. Bell went on to take the flag
Robert Dunlop

Motorcycle racing is part of the DNA in Northern Ireland and has been since the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s when Ralph Bryans became our first ever world champion in 1965, later followed by Joey Dunlop and Brian Reid, and more recently by Ballyclare's Jonathan Rea, who is the reigning World Superbike champion.

There are many others - unsung heroes, if you like - based locally who have made the two-wheeled sport what it is for many enthusiasts in Ireland, both North and South, with generations of fathers, uncles, mothers and brothers passing down the desire to stand behind a hedge at Dundrod for the Ulster Grand Prix or on the north coast at the North West 200.

One man who was bitten by the bug as early as 1945 was Lisburn-based Eddie Mateer. A former teacher at Stranmillis College, Eddie's father, Sammy, took him to the Ulster 100, run at the Ballymacash Pond Park circuit, just a miles from his then home.

It was this experience that started Mateer on a two-wheel journey that was to see him go on to cover motorcycling as a reporter for his local newspaper.

This in turn was the platform he needed to produce Ulster Road Racing in Focus's first edition in 1994.

The magazine was unashamedly set in place to self-fund his son David's fledgling career on the tarmac that same year, and 22 years later Eddie has produced a 220-page comprehensive history of Ulster Road Racing in Focus in hardback form.

It includes photographs and historic editorial from the Ulster Grand Prix, North West 200, Sunflower Trophy, classic racing and sidecars, as well as paying tribute to those in the sport who are no longer with us, but who left behind a legacy of dedication to road racing.

This is the first book of its kind with a wide variety of Ulster motorcycle racing memorabilia from the 1920s right up to the present day and never-before-seen pictures and stories.

Ulster Speed Promotions was formed in 1994 after having previously promoted several classic car and racing motorcycle shows in Lisburn Leisure Centre in aid of Cancer Research.

Eddie, who also played senior football for Glentoran and Glenavon, as well as managing the Northern Ireland Ladies' football team during his sporting career, takes up the story.

"Northern Ireland has always been the epicentre of Ireland's involvement in motorsport, for both two and four wheels," Eddie adds.

"We have produced world champions in Ralf Bryans, Joey Dunlop, Brian Reid and Jonathan Rea, but have also produced exceptional riders in Tom Herron, Ray McCullough, Tommy Robb, Sammy Miller, Artie Bell, Gary Cowan and Robert Dunlop. The list goes on."

Speaking of his latest publication, the well-rounded sportsman, who captained the rugby and hockey teams during his time at Friends' School in Lisburn in 1956 before going on to represent Ireland in hockey at schoolboy level, explains: "It's been a labour of love, and putting it together really took me back to the early days."

"One particular memory was when my brother and I 'mitched' off school to go and watch the mighty NSU Team during the Wednesday practice at the Ulster Grand Prix," adds Mateer, who would end up in hot water over his decision to skip school.

"We got our picture taken with the team of Haas, Baltisberger, Hollaus and Muller, but when it appeared in the Belfast Telegraph we had some explaining to do," he laughs.

While other magazines were produced to rightfully exalt the stars on the road racing and short circuit scene, Ulster Road Racing in Focus catered for all tastes over the years. "Variety is the spice of life," as Eddie, a true gentleman of the sport, so eloquently puts it.

His book has been designed to cater for all tastes - from the pride of Ulster through to the clubman and spectator, many of whom will see their pictures published in the numerous fans' galleries spread throughout the excellent 220 pages of enthralling information and visual entertainment.

The opening chapters are dedicated to the classic racing era from 1922 through to 1952 on the Ulster Grand Prix Clady circuit and the Grand Prix of Europe, which was bestowed upon the UGP in 1935 and 1948.

Belfast man Artie Bell is the first rider featured, and what a worthy opening feature it is. Arthur John Bell was an accomplished motorcyclist - with NW200 UGP and TT wins - and was also virtually unbeatable pre-war in trials, scrambles and grass tracks on a Triumph Tiger 80.

Bell was also a talented engineer and, while working in the Short & Harland aircraft factory, he struck up a friendship and later a business with Hillsborough man Rex McCandless, who would later become famous for designing the Featherbed Norton frame.

The book is littered with great names from the halcyon days like Ernie Lyons, the 1946 Manx Grand Prix winner who passed away in 2014 aged 99; Walter Rusk, who lapped the UGP at 100mph back in 1939; and a little later our first world champion Ralph Bryans, not forgetting others legends like Sammy Miller, Brian Steenson and Billy Guthrie.

There are potted histories of the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod and the North West 200 and an excellent read on Professor Gordon Blair, the Larne man who from 1964 bestowed his skills upon local road racing with machinery that was designed and built in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Queen's University Belfast.

Among the famous names to ride QUB machinery, tinkered and breathed upon by Professor Blair, were the reluctant hero Raymond McCullough, Brian Steenson, Tommy Robb and in later years 250cc Grand Prix racer and winner Jeremy McWilliams.

Probably the most interesting feature for any local sporting enthusiast is on Jimmy Jones.

Born and bred in Lurgan, Jones was one of Northern Ireland's leading footballers in the 1950s and 60s. He scored a record-breaking 74 goals for Glenavon in the 1956-57 season, which wasn't bad considering he was told he may never play again after having his leg broken during a serious riot at Windsor Park in 1948 in a match between his Belfast Celtic side and Linfield.

Author Eddie Mateer, who played with Jones at Glenavon in the late 1950s, understood the Lurgan Blues legend had a great passion for motorcycle racing.

In today's modern era it would be unheard of for a Northern Ireland international to be racing at the likes of Cookstown and the Killinchy 150 in between matches.

No publication on Ulster motorcycling would be complete without the mention of Tom Herron and the Dunlop brothers Joey and Robert.

Herron was an enigmatic character, who sadly lost his life on May 26, 1979, at the North West 200.

Before then he left an indelible mark on the sport of motorcycling, taking two wins at the Isle of Man TT in 1976 (senior and lightweight), the final year before it was stripped of World Championship status.

The rider also finished runner-up that same year in the 350cc World Championship and fifth in the 250cc World Championship, as well as two wins at the UGP.

What can we say about the Dunlops that has not already been said? Joey with his 26 Isle of Man TT wins, spanning from the Jubilee year in 1977 through to his hat-trick in the Millennium year, among a plethora of other road racing achievements, makes him, in my mind, Northern Ireland's greatest ever sportsman.

Robert Dunlop also gave us so much to be thankful for at the North West 200, and his record-breaking 15 wins was only bettered this year by the new "King of the Triangle" Alastair Seeley. Add to that five TT wins, nine at the UGP and an amazing 111 on the Irish National scene, not forgetting his win at Macau and a British 125cc title.

Sadly, both Dunlop brothers were to die while racing, Joey in Tallin, Estonia, in 2000, and Robert during practice for the NW200 in 2008.

Others featured in this fascinating tome who met a similar fate are Tom Herron, again at the NW200 in 1979, and Brian Steenson at the Isle of Man in 1970.

There's a lot more besides inside the distinctive racing green jacket cover enveloping the 220-page History of Ulster Road Racing in Focus.

It's a massive credit to the author, who self-financed the publication to the tune of £10,000, which involved the sale of a Tom Herron Racing winning motorcycle.

Now that's what you call dedication.

The History of Ulster Road Racing in Focus can only be bought from Ulster Speed Promotions Ltd, 6 Parkland Avenue, Lisburn BT28 3JW, tel 028 9266 4336, email ulster or via Facebook

Belfast Telegraph

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