Michael Dunlop is not a lunatic... he's a genius, says Philip McCallen
The Ballymoney man is road racing box office, the next generation of a legendary dynasty. Savour the richly deserved plaudits, Philip McCallen tells him, just don't try to go on forever
I keep hearing it from people who should know better: Michael Dunlop is a madman. Michael Dunlop is a lunatic. How insulting. How blinkered. Let me tell you what Michael Dunlop is: a genius. A man who deserves to be right up there with the other sporting icons who have put our wee country on the map. A man who, unlike so many others, puts his life, his very existence, on the line every time he goes to work.
But, of course, I can understand why some people think the man from Ballymoney is crazy. He does, after all, propel a powerful motorbike around twisting country roads at speeds of up to 200mph.
And at that velocity there is no room for mistakes – none whatsoever. Trust me; as a former road racer myself, I know all about the margins for error – and the consequences of getting it wrong.
But I also know the feeling of exhilaration when it all comes together. This is a sport were 'job satisfaction' means an adrenaline rush like no other.
And Michael has been doing his job rather well in the Isle of Man this week – which is probably why people have been glancing in my direction every time he takes the chequered flag.
He now has 10 TT victories. That's just one shy of the total I'm particularly proud of, a total he could equal, or beat, today.
But I'll be just as proud if and when Michael surpasses my TT record. He deserves his success. He's flamboyant, charismatic and intensely – but not insanely – competitive.
Some people can't understand how someone can lose both his father (Robert) and uncle (Joey) to road racing and then board a bike himself. But the sport is, literally, in his blood. The Dunlops have the history, the heritage. Michael, along with his brother William, are the next generation of a dynasty.
They grew up with it and have what their world-famous, legendary predecessors had; a fierce will to win and the mental and physical ability to carry it through.
These are smart boys. To win a race at this level, to maintain such jaw-dropping speed over multiple 37-mile laps, complete with bends, bumps, stone walls, manhole covers and telegraph poles, requires not just talent and skill, but incredible mental strength, concentration – and bravery.
If there's one thing I envy Michael for this week, it's the incredible rush he'll get when standing on that winner's podium. After all, the TT is the biggest challenge in the world on two wheels; the Everest for road racers.
And Michael is the biggest name in the sport at the minute. Not only has he helped put Northern Ireland in the headlines for good reasons, but he's also helped make road racing a truly international phenomenon with both fans and competitors.
These days 80,000 people stand trackside at the North West 200, it's broadcast into 650 million homes worldwide – and the TT figures are even greater.
So my advice to Michael, who has only just turned 25, is this: enjoy your success and the rewards that come with it for the next 10 years or so – just don't try to go on forever.
I woke up one morning back in 1999 and decided enough was enough. I'd had a wonderful career in road racing; joint-fifth on the list of all-time Isle of Man TT winners, four TT wins in one week (1996; it would have been five but I ran out of petrol), five wins from six starts at the 1992 North West 200, and five wins in one day at the 1996 Ulster Grand Prix
But I'd also broken my neck, my back (twice), fractured my skull (twice), smashed my pelvis and my feet. In total, I sustained a dozen major fractures.
None of them, however, made this Portadown native scared to get back on the bike. I did realise, though, that you can't compete as well at the highest level of sport when you're 40 as when you're half that age.
I think the secret is knowing when to stop and I just knew it was the right time.
The two fatalities at the TT races this week hit me, and everyone else connected with road racing, hard. We're a close-knit family, we all know each other and we feel each and every loss.
No one is saying it's not a dangerous sport, but it's also one of the most exhilarating to compete in and to watch.
There have been four deaths at the North West in the last 10 years and, obviously, that's four too many. But eight fishermen have lost their lives in Ireland over the last two months.
It's a dreadful, tragic thing to happen – yet nobody is calling for fishing to be banned.
Motorcycling legend Phillip McCallen, from Portadown, is fifth in the list of all-time Isle of Man TT winners with 11 race victories, one more than Michael Dunlop. See Out There, page 49