The day we lost our hero, Joey Dunlop
It's exactly 10 years since the sports world ended, as far as Ulster was concerned, and Joey Dunlop the man we thought would go on for ever crashed to his death in Estonia.
The date was July 2, 2000 and I will always remember this, for as everyone knows where they were when someone famous died, I was no exception.
I was covering the Irish Derby at the Curragh when I received a call from a good friend of mine, Willis Marshall who worked for Patsy O’Kane — one of Joey Dunlop’s closest friends.
Willis told me the unbelievable, “Joey Dunlop has been killed”. I just didn’t believe this, for only a month earlier Joey had scored a treble success at the Isle of Man TT to give him an overall total of 26 wins, more than anyone else in the history of the races.
Dunlop was 48-years-of-age at the time and he appeared to be indestructible. For him to have gone off to Eastern Europe and meet his death within a few weeks was something I couldn’t comprehend and I thought it was all a bad joke.
But Billy Nutt, organiser of the North West 200, had his ear to the right places and he told me the awful truth.
Dunlop had indeed crashed into a wood while racing in Estonia and this great and glittering career had been brought to a heart-stopping halt.
I was numbed by the news and felt that no one would take Joey’s place. His brother Robert was still on the scene and he too could hardly comprehend what had happened.
Robert told me: “At the time I was going round to Mum’s house at Ballymoney and she knew something was wrong when I arrived at the door.
“She didn’t know what it was then she burst into tears when I told her what had happened. It was one of the occasions in my life which I would never want to recall again.”
Robert Dunlop bravely carried on and organised many aspects of the huge funeral which was attended by a staggering 50,000 people near Joey’s home in Ballymoney in July that year.
I felt at the time that this was an enormous tribute to a man who had become an icon in Irish sporting circles.
Even bikers from Dublin made the trip despite the fact that there was some civil unrest in Northern Ireland at the time and Robert pleaded that no one be intimidated on the way to Joey’s resting place.
Happily those with some sense listened to this and Joey’s turnout was something I personally will never forget.
Since then the song may have ended but the melody has lingered on, for in recent years the legacy of the Dunlop family has continued with Michael Dunlop, Robert’s son and William Dunlop another offspring taking up the reins.
Michael has proved to be highly successful and sadly he too had to move into the family shoes for yet another funeral when his father Robert was killed in practice for the 2008 North West 200,
Michael organised everything and then decided at virtually the last minute he would ride in the race itself against the wishes of his fans and organisers.
In an almost fairytale ending Michael won the 250 cc race. You couldn’t have written a credible script for this and at the same time William dropped out early in the race because of a machine failure.
Michel waved his hand in triumph and then broke down in tears after he had won the race.
He said afterwards: “I am just thinking of my Dad and my uncle Joey. They would have been proud of me.”
Since then Michael has gone on to win a TT and become one of the hottest properties on the motorcycling scene. He will be in action at the Skerries 100 in County Dublin later this month as will William who has had his successes at the Ulster Grand Prix where his Uncle Joey first made his mark.
Joey Dunlop will always be remembered as the ‘quiet man’ of road racing.
He never said an awful lot but what he did say was always quite memorable. Short, sweet and to the point.
In his early days he had a friend who performed ‘charms’ to heal his many injuries and this seemed to pay off.
Hector Neill, one of his closest sponsors and friends, told me: “I remember Joey being injured in practice at the Ulster and he sent for his healer who got him back onto the starting line in time for the race.”
That was Joey, there was just nobody else like him.