North West 200: Lives will be saved and local economy will flourish as direct result of funding package
At Stormont yesterday, Sports Minister Paul Givan announced the biggest investment by government into safety at the North West 200.
He has granted the event, organised by the Coleraine and District Club, some £124,000 to invest in safety equipment and training for both competitors and spectators.
This announcement comes off the back of this year’s fatality at the race, which resulted in the tragic death of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, and is in no small part down to the public interest and debate generated by this newspaper at the time.
The government has made available approximately £300,000 for motorsport safety and this will be allocated to the North West 200, the Ulster Grand Prix and the Armoy Road Races.
Other circuits will benefit by sharing the safety equipment that will now be in more plentiful supply.
There is no doubt this investment is both significant and will be life-changing for the event.
I believe the North West 200 is Northern Ireland’s premier sporting event.
Don’t take my word for it — just look at the figures.
Around 100,000 attend the event from all over these islands.
It is truly international in who attends and it is estimated that a further 800 million people worldwide have seen the event on television and on the web.
They see Northern Ireland in all its coastal beauty; they witness a spectacular racing event that all the advertising and government missions can’t buy.
It is a fact that many people who are exposed to these pictures subsequently visit the country.
The local economy flourishes at race week and the North West generates almost £6m additional spend in the locality.
If the event didn’t take place, the seasonal impact on local restaurants, B&B and hotels would be significant.
Make no mistake about it, this is not an indulgence by government into some pet project to make locals feel good.
This is a strategic investment into moving Northern Ireland forward by supporting, in a significant way, motorsport that will generate the economy in a particular direction.
I know some will complain about the amount of money spent on the sport and can rhyme off numerous worthy causes from healthcare to education, and it’s easy to agree that other causes deserve support.
But taxpayers’ money must be spent in a strategic manner leading to results.
This money will make the North West 200 and other races safer for spectators and competitors.
It will see investment into capital equipment such as kerb protection and safety bails that are designed to absorb high speed impact and protect the racer from serious injury.
We can’t cry out that something has to be done when a tragic accident occurs and then, when government responds positively, complain when something is done that is significant and life-changing.
Our nearest island — no, not Rathlin — the Isle of Man, is a motorsport world capital.
The government there invests significantly in the sport in terms of safety measures, marketing support and direct sponsorship of races.
I have an agenda for our administration to make Northern Ireland the world capital of motorbike sport. That includes seeing more government investment annually, not just into safety equipment but marketing and direct sponsorship.
I look forward to a government of NI-directly sponsored race that will have significant prize money to attract the very best.
I want to see the building of a purpose-built track that can attract rounds of world track racing also.
Whilst my heart is in road-racing and I want to see it grow, we produce some of the world’s finest track racers and they should be able to compete at home on a world-class race course.
Next week I hope Jonathan Rea will be crowned the double World Superbike champion.
He is inspiring racers all over the world, but can’t compete here. We should be capitalising on him.
Look what happened when we as a country grasped Rory, Darren and Graeme in golf! The world got behind us and other competitive golfers emerged from Northern Ireland.
We now have lines of golfers coming forward to do us proud. That too will happen with motorsport if we get behind the likes of Rea on the race track and behind our many, many world class road-racers on our world famous road race.
The North West 200 is the nearest thing we will ever have on this island to a F1 race at Monaco.
We can do one of two things — shun it or grasp it as a unique opportunity.
This is an opportunity of its time and we should seize it.
The thing about such opportunities is that we must take the time to turn them into success.
So I will go on campaigning for more resources from both private sector sponsors and from government assistance to make this the world capital of motorbike sport.
But today I am thankful that the Sports Minister, after I wrote an article in this paper and met him with race organisers, recognised he could make an intervention and has done so. Make no mistake about it — lives will be saved as a result of this allocation of money.