Leather-clad lads, spectacular speed and glamorous grid girls — it’s a potent cocktail which makes for an intoxicating weekend every year at the North West 200. More than 150,000 people from all corners of the globe will, by tomorrow, have converged on the picturesque North Antrim coast to drink in the electric atmosphere of Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting event.
More than a day of world class sporting action, the thrills and spills of high speed motorbike racing have seen the Relentless International North West 200, in association with Black Horse, grow into an exciting week long festival, attracting families and tourists along with an international army of biking fans.
The crowds — made up of all ages and backgrounds — pour into the famous Coleraine-Portrush-Portstewart triangle to lap up the action and atmosphere of a racing event that is watched live via BBC internet broadcasts in 57 countries worldwide.
Many thousands make the annual pilgrimage from across the world to Northern Ireland for the unmissible spectacle which sees the quiet Antrim coastal roads reverberate to the thunderous roar of powerful bikes.
In electrifying scenes, the world’s best riders thrill the crowds by pushing themselves to the limit as they reach speeds of over 200mph while negotiating hairpin bends, open corners and straights.
We caught up with some of the top riders who will be dazzling the crowds with their speed and skill tomorrow, as well as locals who play equally crucial roles behind the scenes.
First-time competing here
Reigning British Superbike Privateer champion Gary Mason (31), from Litchfield, is standing in for injured teammate Simon Andrews in his first North West 200 with team MSS Colchester Kawasaki.
It is just fantastic to be part of this massive festival of racing. When asked to stand in for my teammate Simon I jumped at the chance. The reputation of the North West and the crazy amount of legends that have raced here is just phenomenal and it feels unbelievable to me to be part of it.
Since we got here on Monday the atmosphere has just grown everyday as more and more supporters arrive, all walking about in their jackets showing the teams they will be supporting.
“Around the grandstand and the paddock looks brilliant and I can already imagine the buzz there will be tomorrow. I’ve driven round the track in the car and it is such a beautiful part of the world, especially along the coast road with the blue sky and sea, although at 180mph I don’t think I will have much of a chance to take in the lovely scenery on race day.
Part of the course was an eye-opener and I will be trying to get my head round it. My fiancée Rachel is here with me. She knows the danger but supports me because she knows this is my dream and my passion.
The track itself is something that needs to be treated with so much respect. If you don’t, it will bite you hard, so I will be using my head and trying to learn it before the race.
As it’s my first time here and its probably the most competitive it has ever been, with so many good guys out there who have already won here, I will be over the moon if I get into the top 10.
To me that would be just fantastic. I am not putting too much pressure on myself, I am just going to go out there and enjoy it.”
Riding high on dream job
Laura McManus, business and operations manager of the North West 200 was brought up on the Antrim coast in a house which sits on part of the race course. She says:
From the age of three of four I grew up with the North West and because our house is on the course, our garden was always full of BBC crews and journalists and it was always a very exciting time. My local knowledge of the event has been a huge advantage for me and as a local girl, I'm very passionate about it.
To be working as part of the North West team is like a dream come true for me — it is just fantastic. My role includes developing the commercial elements to it and getting more sponsorship.
We have brought the Continental market to the event this year and also a new park-and-ride facility. The event has got much wider appeal, not just to the biking fraternity but also families and young professionals and others who normally wouldn’t follow bike racing and I’m working to provide extra facilities to cater for them. The North West 200 is now very much a week-long festival and a flagship event for Northern Ireland. It is real highlight of my career and a real privilege to be part of it and watch it grow.”
NW champion hoped for another victory hat-trick
Current British Supersport champion Steve Plater (38), from Luton, made his North West 200 debut in 2008. Unfortunately, due to a crash in practice last night he won’t be racing tomorrow. He is married to Vicky and they have two daughters, Jasmine (3) and Poppy (1). He says:
As soon as we got here you noticed the buzz about the place. The atmosphere here is always fantastic which doesn’t surprise me because road racing is very big here. In fact we are recognised here more than anywhere else — even back home in England.
You go shopping in Belfast and people are coming up to you and wishing you well, whereas back home they wouldn’t know who you were.
The fans are right across the board, with women just as fanatical as the men. We love coming to race here. it is close to my heart and for us the event takes up a full week, given the logistics of getting here and back again. But it’s always awesome and the atmosphere is just fantastic.
As well as the pure road racing fans, the North West is also a big family event, which is great for the sport. The depth of competition is very strong and this year there is a new chicane which no one is really sure about. Plus, the weather itself can be a surprise — hopefully it will be kind.
For the racers, it is a case of keeping your head down and giving it your all. My wife Vicky and I have two girls, Jasmine and Poppy, and Vicky has the hard job of travelling around with them. Of course, she gets very nervous before a big race but she also enjoys the success with me. It is nice to get out there and win, it always puts a smile on your face.
This year is not going to be easy. It is a big year for Suzuki with their anniversary and they will be putting a big effort into it but after my three wins here, I would have liked to been pushing for more.
Winner enjoys ‘race buzz’
Chasing trophies — Ian HutchinsonIan Hutchinson (30), from Guiseley in England has had one North West win and this year will be hoping to add to that with team Padgetts Honda. He says:
This is my fourth year at the North West 200 and I will be competing in five races so it will be a pretty pressurised day tomorrow.
There are some really good riders taking part this year, who all look like they can do it and the Superbike race will be the most competitive it has ever been, but you just don’t know until the day itself.
While the racing all happens on the same day, the whole week before is really special as the fans come down to watch the practices.
By last night it was very busy and the fans were going walkabout in the paddock, so you get to meet and talk to them. On race day, there is nothing quite like the buzz at the North West, especially around the grandstand area. The hospitality tent, the grid girls and the fans all help make it very exciting. Setting off is special, you have all the fans in front of you and the hills behind you and the feeling is unbeatable.
It is probably the most beautiful racing circuit anywhere in the world. Every racer wants to win races and yes, I would definitely like to win some more at the North West.”
Hoping for first NW win
Two times TT winner Cameron Donald (31), from Australia, who spends the racing season in Northern Ireland, will be riding this year with the team Relentless by TAS Suzuki. He says:
The North West is like no other motorbike race. Of all the places I have raced in — throughout Australia, Asia and Europe — I have never raced anywhere like Northern Ireland and the North West. Nothing beats it for atmosphere. The fans are just brilliant and they make it really special. So many familiar faces come back every year and they are all so knowledgeable about the sport, the riders and the teams.
This will be my third year staying in Northern Ireland during the racing season and it has become a home from home for me.
The people are similar to Australians and so I have been able to fit in quite easily. I don’t like the cold though but must say when you do get a good day here, people really know how to make the most of it.
I first competed in the North West in 2005 and have done every year since but have never had a win. It has eluded me even though I have won at the TT. It is a huge event and the hype and atmosphere on race day is always amazing. It is like no other motorcycle race I have ever been in.
It is dangerous and you do get pretty close to the kerbs and the hedges but that is what the thrill of motorbike racing is all about. It is the ultimate test and such high pressure and so exciting, especially the coast road stretch. This year I am competing in five races and so it will be a very demanding day. There are a lot of top riders taking part and it is a big ask but I will be out to do my best. To get my first North West win would be just fantastic.”
Stuart provides medical cover
Paramedic and motorbike racing fan Stuart Stevenson (35), from Portadown, has a bittersweet role at the North West as part of the unique team of professionals who provide advanced medical cover at the races. He says:
I work as a paramedic with the ambulance team at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry but I am also a big motorbike racing fan and a member of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland (MCUI). I am part of a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers from the MCUI, which includes GPs, surgeons, anaesthetists and other paramedics who provide medical cover for racers and spectators. As we are all fans of the sport, I guess it is our way of giving something back to the motorcycling fraternity.
This will be my third time as part of the medical team at the North West. It is an extremely enjoyable and rewarding role which has helped me gain extra skills for my normal job as a paramedic, as well as allowing me to give something back to the sport I love.
The racing is brilliant at the North West and it is a spectacular setting which allows the crowds to get as close to the actual racing as you can get. The atmosphere is great and it has to be the most enjoyable event in racing in the north of Ireland.
Of course, the downside is when there are serious accidents. Everyone on the medical team is trained and has years of experience in dealing with fatalities and so we accept it as part and parcel of the job. But it is never easy, especially when dealing with motorbike riders who you get to know well from being at the races. Still, it is a very excitable time and we all look forward to going and hope it is a safe and successful event.”
Pick up your free North West 200 poster every day this week with the Belfast Telegraph
Road racing fans are in for a real TV treat tomorrow night after the races finish. In an exclusive interview, Linda Dunlop, widow of the late great Joey, talks to BBC NI’s Stephen Watson about what her husband was really like — and his legacy. Joey Dunlop Remembered, BBC One NI, tomorrow, 10.55pm