An investment of £124,000 at the North West 200 saved these riders' lives... now let's give the event even greater resources
In years from now the year 2017 at the North West 200 will be spoken about in almost sacred and hushed tones. Everything about the Thursday race and the Saturday keynote event was spectacular. But it was more than that. As each race took place, even with a delay on Saturday for rain, everyone knew we were building to something very special.
Alistair Seeley continued to break into new stratospheres of record setting glory now holding more than 20 victories and the family dynasty of the Dunlops continued to thrill. In fact, race one was a County Antrim exclusive podium with Seeley and the Dunlop brothers claiming all the glory. And rightly so! The Ulster men know these roads and just have a special gift for pure road racing. I was honoured to present Michael Dunlop with his trophy - a very special treat for a race fan! Anyone who knows the Dunlop boys finds a special place in the heart for them. They are just regular guys who happen to be super sportsmen on bikes. Who have never lost sight of where they are from and in spite of all the pain and heartache they stay true to NI and the fans here.
But it was the North West 200 race itself, of the powerful Superbikes, that stole the show. A new kid is on the block. A young man with racing pedigree standing well over six foot , slim and fit and with an infectious smile and a local County Antrim accent, Glen Irwin graduated from contender to champion in seven laps of the triangle course. In what can be seen as one of the best races of all time, he piloted his powerful Ducati machine around the course side by side with Seeley and Englishman Hutchinson in what was not only the race of the meeting but a race never to be forgotten. In fact, if you never see a road race again and get the chance to watch this road race on TV take it because you will never see a better example of racing by pure professional sportsmen as this one.
The manner in which it was marshalled by Mervyn Whyte and his team of officials was exemplary. Waiting for just the right time to begin the race and finishing moments before the heavens opened, it was as if everyone was smiling on the North West on Saturday. And rightly so. These races don't take place by accident they are carefully planned by Whyte and his team and take most of the year between races to sign up the racers the sponsors and obtain the necessary cash to make this event happen.
For Northern Ireland, the detractors, of which there are some, should consider all that is positive. This week will have generated over six million pounds into the local economy. The BBC pictures broadcast worldwide to 800 million people will see a spectacular Northern Ireland and many will visit as a result. It sends out a positive message that this is the home of two wheel motorsport.
As Chairman of the Motorsport Taskforce, I have commissioned work to examine the true baseline of the value of motorsport to the local economy. When those figures are published at the end of this year I believe they will be startling. Remember more than 800 people alone volunteer to make this event in the triangle take place and for other motorsport events across Northern Ireland, thousands more are involved. Retail sales around the world of commercial bikes are partially determined by the results at these races. That value alone is startling. Going forward I want to see the Northern Ireland government really focussing on this sport and bringing to it a sense of value and investment.
This past year motorsport was blessed with the single largest injection of cash by the government in its history. Over £500,000 has been injected into motorsport safety this year and it has paid off considerably. Make no mistake about it - the new safety measures deployed at the North West 200 most certainly saved John McGuinness' life when his machine failed him and he hit a kerb. That kerb had one of the new safety protectors on it that if John had hit himself he would have had far worse injuries. On Saturday another racer, Lee Johnston, hit one of the new bales at high speed. He got up, made his way back to the pits and competed in the next races unscathed because the new safety measures worked. The foresight of Mervyn Whyte and his team making safety a key priority and demanding resources to put in place new measures has worked. The £124,000 spent on North West 200 safety measures this year has definitely saved lives. Going forward if a new government can be established at Stormont it will realise quickly that more resources and support are released to enhance and develop the sport further.
I believe the government of Northern Ireland ought to be planning to sponsor its own trophy and race with good prize money and international appeal. The Isle of Man has been doing this for decades and made a fortune for that little island - we, too, can do much more because simply put the North West 200 the Ulster Grand Prix and the Armoy Road Races are amongst the very best road racing events to be seen anywhere in the world. It was excellent to see the former First Minister, Arlene Foster, at the race endorsing what her government has done and under different political circumstances I know that the Secretary of State had planned to attend also as his predecessor Teresa Villiers had done before him.
So let's all realise the potential of what we have here and insist that the government finds annually a million pounds to help develop this sport - that is nothing in the scheme of things. We found £500,000 last year from one department with a bit of effort and we can find more going forward. International companies that come here have a desire to invest in the community. I will be seeking from Invest NI a plan going forward that raises the opportunity for investors to give back to the community investments in this sport also. What we need is people pulling together and realising this annual event that will soon be here for 90 years has more potential.
Mervyn Whyte and his team have professionalised this event and so much that the entire sport had developed so fast it requires good men and women to take it forward with skill. Like most I believe Mervyn Whyte has had to carry this event and all the thankless pressures it places on his broad shoulders. I can fully understated why he would want to assess his future. Whatever he decides I will back him as he is a very wise head. But I know this, that the smell of Castrol oil burns deep and he will not be very far away from this sport in whatever capacity. To him and his team I personally say a hearty thank you for a wonderful week of racing.
- Ian Paisley is MP for North Antrim and the Independent chairman of the Government Motorsport Taskforce