Belfast Telegraph

North West 200: Road to recovery

By JIM GRACEY

Rain was pelting sideways, propelled by an Atlantic gale battering the sodden paddock tent where Transport Minister Danny Kennedy and hundreds more had taken refuge from the deluge that wiped out another North West 200 in May.

As the freak conditions intensified, so, too, did a clamour around the course for the showpiece event to be freed from the shackles of rigid road closure orders that meant the historic race could not be switched back to a gloriously sunny Friday the moment organisers learned on the Thursday that a storm front was headed their way on Saturday.

Having witnessed first hand the sense of loss, both sporting and financial, felt by riders, teams, thousands of disappointed fans, race organisers and local traders, at a second North West washout in three years, would the one man in a position to effect change be prepared to act, I asked Danny Kennedy?

His answer in the affirmative came without hesitation and led to our exclusive Telegraph headline on the Monday: 'I'll save NW200'.

The Stormont wheels of progress grinding notoriously slowly, cynics might have been forgiven for adding: "Aye, when?" But in fairness to the politicos engaged in aiding sport, the track record is good, notably Carál Ní Chuilín's stadia provision drive for football, rugby and Gaelic games.

And now Danny Kennedy has delivered at lap record speed for motorsports.

Just seven months from his pledge, motorcycle road racing and car rallying, two of our most popular spectator sports, now have the flexibility they have long craved to run and complete their events without the straitjacket of road closing orders restricting them to specific days.

With precise local weather forecasts available to them, organisers can now tailor their events to the most clement conditions. The North West is currently restricted to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the Ulster GP to Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Two of those days can now be altered.

The Minister's Road Races (Amendment) Bill was passed on the nod in the Assembly yesterday and with a sweep of a Palace pen and the initials ER, Royal Ascent will be granted by The Queen in the New Year, making the changes law in time for all next year's major events on public roads.

The quick turnaround, even more remarkably achieved given the summer recess, was not without genuine concern and an element of scaremongering over the delicate subject of Sunday racing at the North West but was never placed on the starting grid by the race organisers, Coleraine and District Motor Club, with regard to the number of churches dotted around the 8.9 mile north coast triangle track.

That assurance undoubtedly helped win a broad concensus from residents, business and farming interests on the course, allied to the diplomatic skills of Race Chief Mervyn Whyte, a local man tuned to local sensitivities.

He confirmed: "Sunday racing is not on our radar. We are just delighted and grateful to Minister Kennedy and the MLA's that the legislation has gone through so quickly.

"This year we had nowhere to go... now there are options. It's a safety net we hope we never have to use but now it is there, we can plan ahead if similar weather warnings occur."

Minister Kennedy accepted: "Issues were raised with regard to Sunday racing and, I believe, handled truthfully and tactfully. This was never an exercise geared to introducing Sunday racing.

"Technically, it is allowed for under the terms of the Order but neither the North West, nor motorcycle racing in general, has sought Sunday racing at any time in their long history and I do not envisage any circumstances where that situation would change.

"I am delighted to have been able to facilitate the move towards flexibility as I indicated at the North West last May. I've seen how good an event it can be in fine weather and the dismay this year's disruption caused. There's also a recognition of the economic benefits of road racing and motorsport events which meant I was able to steer the Bill through, hastened by goodwill and co-operation on all sides."

Ulster Grand Prix Clerk of the Course Noel Johnston said: "I am heartened by this news as it will allow us to build robust contingency plans into our overall event management plan for Bike Week. We've lost a lot of money over the years due to terrible weather conditions, so the flexibility to change which days we run the races at a day's notice will certainly help safeguard the future of the event.

"While the total number of days on which roads can be closed remains at three, this is certainly a step in the right direction and a vote of support for the road racing industry, which brings about significant economic benefits in terms of tourism. I've had a lot of foreign motorcycle fans tell me they'd love to come to the UGP but are put off by the chance of bad weather -- they don't want to come all the way here to look at an empty circuit. This will hopefully give them confidence to book their flights."

Alan Drysdale, Chair of the 2&4 Motorsport umbrella organisation, commented: "It is very evident that MLAs fully appreciate the considerable economic benefit to Northern Ireland of events such as the Circuit of Ireland Rally, the Ulster Rally, the Ulster Grand Prix and the North West 200."

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