Bike chiefs unite in batlle to keep racing on the roads
Exasperated North West 200 chief Mervyn Whyte has found a major ally in his battle to free the event from the straitjacket of road closing orders, following last weekend's costly washout.
Organisers of the summer's next big road racing spectacle, the Metzeler Ulster Grand Prix, have echoed Whyte's calls for a review of the stringent road closing orders that restrict the days on which bikes can take to the roads.
The Ulster Grand Prix faced an uncertain future after the meeting was abandoned in 2008 due to torrential rain and continues to run at the mercy of the weather on stipulated racing days.
Clerk of the Course, Noel Johnston (right), of the organising Dundrod and District Motorcycle Club, said: "We sympathise with the North West organisers, as we know all too well how frustrating it is to put all that work in only to see riders and thousands of fans go home dismayed thanks to the weather.
"The Ulster Grand Prix only just made it back after the washout in 2008. At the time we tried to negotiate rescheduling the race to the Sunday.
"Despite getting agreement from local residents, having the riders onside and even a provision from the ferry companies for riders to change their bookings, a resolution could not be found with the unyielding legislation for road closures.
"I didn't think the Ulster would recover but against the odds we were able to regroup and move forward. It was only through the efforts of a small dedicated band of volunteers and the support of the general public and sponsors that the event was able to take place the following year. However, the Dundrod Club, as promoters of the event, are still feeling the effects of the cancellation.
"The North West 200 has just experienced its second washout in three years. These events cost millions to put on and in turn bring about significant economic benefits. Spectators travel from across the world to attend, people who save up and plan their annual holiday around them.
"They are arguably the biggest sporting events on our calendar, they put Northern Ireland on a global stage. If their future is to be safeguarded, then the government needs to look at the flexibility of road closing orders.
"Of course the safety of riders and spectators is always the priority but we believe that more flexible road closing orders would allow for racing to take place on an alternative day, should the weather forecast be bad."
Roads Minister Danny Kennedy gave an undertaking in this newspaper yesterday to look at ways of giving mass-appeal events, like the Vauxhall International North West and UGP, leeway to reschedule race days around weather fronts like that which wrecked the North West on Saturday.
Only two laps of one race on the five race programme were completed as torrential rain wreaked havoc for top riders like Honda Legends ace John McGuinness (below) who backed Mervyn Whyte's decision to abandon, insisting: "Safety has to come first."
Perfect racing conditions on Friday and Sunday added to the frustration, though Sunday is not on the North West agenda out of respect for the number of churches and church-goers around the 8.9 mile Coleraine-Portrush-Portstewart triangle circuit.
Minister Kennedy, who attended Saturday's aborted North West, told the Telegraph: "Legislation would be required in the Assembly to extend the road closing orders and I would not envisage any political impediment to their passage.
"Obviously the practicalities would have been looked at and a period of public consultation required with circuit residents.
"But I would favour and support the extended racing period the North West organisers are seeking to underpin the future of the race."
That will be a source of some encouragement to North West chief Mervyn Whyte in his long term planning... of more immediate concern will be recouping the weekend's financial loss of tens of thousands in revenue. An SOS to Stormont could go out when the final figures come in.
"It's very disappointing about the way the whole thing worked out," lamented Mervyn "We're all pretty gutted about it, particularly because we worked all year round to prepare.
"The problem is there's no flexibility with the current road closing orders which restrict us to Tuesday practice, Thursday practice and racing and Saturday racing.
"We could have run a few races on Friday because conditions were perfect. There needs to be a lot of work done to the whole thing. It's in a residential area so we need to address those kinds of issues.
"Ideally we could do the race across a four-day period. It would give us the opportunity to run the race rather than be in the situation where our hands are tied.
"The North West brings in massive tourism and money to Northern Ireland, £7million every year by Government estimates.
"People from all over the world come to this event so hopefully the Executive will sit up and realise they need to do something to allow us to carry out and run the event because the current situation isn't working."