If you’ve been to the first practice of NW week, always held on a Tuesday, then you’ll have seen some racers wearing bibs being led around the circuit at a rapid pace.
The high speed introduction to the course is done by a nucleus of three former racers and Stephen Ferguson is one of them.
It’s not a low speed cruise, with time to take in the beautiful scenery of the North Antrim coast and vista across the sea to Donegal. Each lap is carried out at an ever increasing pace as the newcomers become familiar with the roads. The on-bike introduction was one of the measures brought in a few years ago to try and make the race as safe as possible for competitors.
With hindsight, it’s no surprise that Stephen, aged 43, started road racing. His father, Bobby, has been a long standing member of Knock Motor Cycle and Car Club and Stephen attended his first race, the Mid Antrim, as a baby in his father’s arms.
“Apparently an MZ two-stroke race bike gave a big rip and I gave a big yell like a banshee,” Stephen said. That, even if he was too young to appreciate it, was the beginning of his interest in motorcycles and racing.
More about his biking career later but as a mark of this skill, he was one of the first riders to lap the Dundrod circuit, the home of the Ulster Grand Prix, at 120mph, accomplished on a 750 machine.
Tuesday of race week, May 11, begins with Stephen, and his colleagues, Michael Swann and Brian Gardiner, meeting the riders and the officials. “We give the newcomers a rundown regards to procedures, all the does and don’ts, and then we organise them into groups for the first practice session.”
The newcomers, if they have done their homework, will have been around the circuit earlier, on foot or by car or ordinary road bike, some of them many times, as they learn the course and work out their own landmarks and braking points.
“We try to restrict the groups to four or five at a maximum, because, from experience, we know this to be the best number. We take them out for five practice laps and built up speed on each lap.
“While they are not newcomers to racing, all will have experience of racing on tracks, we have to get them up to speed because it is such a fast course. (The top riders will be hitting almost 200mph on one section and other sections are almost as fast).
“If a rider is falling behind I will slow down (Stephen’s idea of that and the average every day rider is light years apart) to allow the bunch to regroup and then I’ll pick up speed again. I’ve found that the newcomers are very impressed by the course because it ridden at such high speeds, 150 plus, for long periods.”
Stephen, Michael and Brian are also helped in the on-course introduction by colleagues, including racers like Ian Morrell, Davy Morgan, Stephen Thompson and John Burrows. From listening to Stephen, I’m sure he, Michael and Brian still get a kick out of riding the course at high speeds. The fire inside an ex racer never dies.
He got into racing through a neighbour who used to live next door to his family home at Newtownabbey. Hugh Ross, now in Jordanstown, helped sponsor Richard Hewitt from Carrickfergus and Stephen used to help out, learning to work on racing motorcycles. He also helped ex racer Gary Millar before getting his own first race machine, a Mark 4 Honda 125 in 1987/88
That machine was a disaster for him as it had an ability to self destruct. He then raced a 350 power valve Yamaha, rode it daily to work and converted it for the track at weekends (he’s now a clerk of works for a housing association).
He graduated on to a 600 Honda in the productions series and did well by winning the championship. In 1990 he started competing in the Regal championship and was runner up to Alan Irwin, competing on Hondas, Yamaha and Suzukis over the years.
He was backed by father and son, Tommy and Keith Heslip, and his successes included a couple of podiums at the Ulster Grand Prix. In 1999 he decided “to pull the pin on racing.” We realised that the bike was no longer competitive and I was buying a house.
“I knew then that I was going to become involved helping newcomers to racing, through the Ulster Centre of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland, and that made the decision to stop easier because I was still going to be involved with the sport”. Today he’s married to Diane and they have a four year old daughter, Kaye.
To finish, a couple of insights from Stephen about racing at the NW 200.
“At the North West a lot of it is down to learning the braking points, you’re always arriving at them at very high speed. Once you’ve learnt them, really the coast road section is the hardest bit of the course to master.”
What goes on in his mind? “Because the straights are so long and you’re sitting at anything between 160 and 180, you can start to think of other things completed unconnected with racing.”
That thought will not be in the minds of the racers on Saturday, May 15, but it illustrates only too clearly the difference between someone of Stephen’s ability and the rest of us mere mortals.
*Next Thursday: a NW200 competitor who stands out from the bike racing set