Mervyn Whyte: 'Viewing figures are colossal, it's beyond my wildest dreams'
The director of the North West 200 tells Chris Kilpatrick of his pride at the growth of the road racing festival, and how he has been affected by competitors' tragic deaths.
Q. Looking around this area, it's full of country roads and some might say it's madness to ride along them and speeds of 200mph and more, what's the attraction?
A. I suppose it's the buzz, it's the excitement, the adrenaline rush which brings competitors to the event. From an organisational point of view it's the satisfaction of putting on a good event and keeping the North West 200 name to the fore. People enjoy coming to the event and it's set in a brilliant area in the north coast.
It brings a lot of families out and we know many of them don't go to any other motorcycle racing events. The whole atmosphere of the event itself attracts people and that's something we have built up over the years.
Q. You've been involved with the North West since 1972, how did that come about?
A After school I started to work for DuPont outside Limavady where Billy Nutt also worked. We talked about a club being formed in Limavady which we then joined. It was basically off-road stuff then it led to me being involved in the car section with Coleraine and District Motor Club and I was involved in some of the official work involving car rallies. That progressed to becoming a marshal at the North West in 1972, at Station Corner.
Q. What was it all like back then?
A. Station Corner was totally different in those days compared to now. There were trees, whin bushes and a ditch. The very first year I was a marshal there was a competitor killed at Station Corner. That set me back a bit and I wasn't sure whether I would continue or not, having seen that incident.
It gave me the challenge though to move on to greater things. I got involved in the actual set-up of the course which is completely different nowadays. Our guys are working on the course for months prior to the event, setting it up, whereas before two weeks probably did it. I then was then treasurer, then secretary and then in 2000 I took over as overall organiser of the event, later as director with overall responsibility. From 2000, the North West has been full-time commitment for me.
Q. The very real risks of road racing were brought to you from the very start. Did that plant a seed to work to improve safety?
A. It possibly did. I suppose I never really thought of it in those days. Our complete emphasis is on safety now at the North West. We look at everything, we risk assess everything we do. If it's not safe we don't do it. Bearing in mind motorcycle racing is a dangerous, high-speed sport, all you can do is work and work and work to make it as safe as you can. That's our priority.
We have a brilliant events safety plan at present and we work closely with all the agencies to pull that together. It's probably led me to see that safety is the priority. We've done that through many upgrades of the North West, through introducing the likes of chicanes at various locations. Not all the measures have been favourable with some of the competitors and spectators but the bottom line is if it can save lives, that's what it's all about.
Q. You never raced motorbikes yourself, has that ever been a hurdle when you are responsible for those who do?
A. It was I suppose to a certain extent. I never raced bikes but I raced karts back in the mid-1980s. Back then we raced them on the roads and there were six races in Northern Ireland. That gave me some insight into high-speed sport. It's working at it and building up the relationships, and improving all the time.
Q. More than 100,000 turn out each year, the North West is screened to millions around the world - did you ever imagine it would become as big as it has?
A. The viewing figures are colossal. Viewing rights have just been agreed in America too. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would get to this stage. No matter where you go in the world there is somebody who can relate to the North West or talk about the North West.
Q. What work goes into staging the North West?
A. It's all year round. We manage everything. From the basics, carry out risk assessments on the course, the course set-up, flag marshal positions, marshal positions, hospitality, caterers, bar facilities, supporters' club, caravans, camp sites... everything from start to finish. If you get the detail right, everything will follow. We have 800 volunteers on the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Q. What does it cost?
A. It costs about £900,000 to run the event. It doesn't get any easier because you have to get that money back in again to promote the event. Insurance costs £30,000, toilets around the course £10,000, £30,000 to £40,000 for first aid cover - so it all adds up to a massive amount of money.
Q. Where does that come from?
A. Your sponsorship and your programme sales are your main source of income. We are very fortunate to have Vauxhall as our title sponsor as well as a number of individual race sponsors who have been with us for years and years.
Q. What's the economic spin-off from the North West?
A. It's about £4.5m for the local economy but it's £9m for the Northern Ireland economy.
Q. Given that, what assistance do you get from Stormont? You've described funding as a "pittance" in the past.
A. If you look at 2013 when the event was washed out we were getting a small amount from the government and Tourist Board. After that I made an appeal that we needed to be recognised and this event needed money to progress and move forward. I told them they pump a massive amount of money into one-off events, you have the golf, the city of culture, the World Police and Fire Games. They were all brilliant events, there's no doubt about that. But we have an event running from 1929 and it's taken for granted. Government at that stage were paying lip-service to it.
The amount of money was small in comparison to other events. They did sit up and we worked closely with the DETI minister and Tourist Board and we got a three-year package which amounts to £360,000 over a three-year-period. We're okay on funding until 2016. We appreciate it but it is a small amount of money compared to others. We have a good working relationship.
Q. We are going through a period of unprecedented cuts. Could the event be in jeopardy if that funding is cut after 2016?
A. It's a possibility, it always is. The event runs annually and it's not really giving us much money to go on. We bring in what we spend and that's it. We would like more money. I would like more to spend on safety improvements but I just don't have the money. Simple as that. I have appealed to government around that to give us more for safety bales, pole protectors and kerb protectors, things like that. Those could be used for all road races in Northern Ireland. But unfortunately in the present climate with all the cuts that's not possible.
Q. So you could improve safety if that £120,000 each year was increased?
A. That's correct.
Q. At the moment the North West is free to most people who go along. Can you see entry fees being charged in future?
A. We have been working with government on that and it came up at the same time as the flexibility on the road closure order. To be fair I have some reluctance around that in relation to the North West because where do you go if you have thousands of residents in Portrush and Portstewart and the North West is on? It's the logistics of managing that. Residents would need passes to get back and forward to their homes. There's maybe something you can do around voluntary donations but it needs to be properly managed. It has been discussed with government and Roads Service but it is something which is further down the road.
Q. The change in legislation came on the back of two hard years for the North West out of three as a result of the weather. How important was that move?
A. It was a major step forward. In 2013 we had a complete day's racing scrapped because of the weather. We had spectators from around the world, we had filled our grandstand seats, hospitality was full, yet we couldn't race. It was too dangerous. We appealed to government and the proposal went to public consultation.
We had replies from around the world, about 900. All were positive apart from a few who weren't keen on motorbike racing. Government then pushed it through and the okay was given in January 2014. As a result it gave us the opportunity to move two out of three days. You had the flexibility of moving race day to Friday or Sunday. We have that flexibility but hopefully we will never, ever have to use it. We are bringing competitors from around the world and moving days can upset plans for them and the spectators.
Q. Some people have been concerned this is Sunday racing by stealth. Can you rule Sunday racing out?
A. This was never about Sunday racing. It was giving the flexibility. I met with all the ministers and clergy in the area. We had a number of meetings around it because they were very much in the dark because nobody had brought them up to speed on it. Rumours start and things start to fester. People begin talking and say 'these guys from the North West are going to run here on a Sunday and there's no discussion or anything else'. So, we had a lot of good meetings with all the churches around the area.
We have the flexibility at present to run from 9.30am on a Sunday through to 1.30pm. Hopefully we'll never have to use it but the legislation is there that if it's a disastrous day at some stage, it could be used. It's not our intention to use it. Our intention is that unless on a Friday weather conditions are so severe we can't run on a Friday, as a very, very last resort we would go into a Sunday. We want to cause the least amount of annoyance to residents and the churches.
Q. You took over in 2000, the same year Joey Dunlop was killed. What impact did that have on you?
A. I was in Canada at the time. It brings it home again. We have had a few more fatalities at the North West itself since too.
Q. How many deaths have there been at the North West since you took over?
A. I have had four killed in my time as director. The most recent was Simon Andrews last year and before that Robert (Dunlop). It does have an effect on you. Once you see it and review the whole thing it makes you think. At times I've thought maybe it was time to move on. Particularly with Simon's death last year at the North West. Simon spent a few days in the Royal with his parents who are really nice people before he unfortunately passed away. Last weekend I met up with Simon's mother and his sister. It brings it home to you.
Q. You reconsidered your role in the sport after those tragedies?
A. It is hard to accept, very hard to accept. You get very close to competitors. I brought Simon over, a young fella who wanted to come to the North West and do a bit of road racing. He was the best of fellas, a really good lad. Simon had so many injuries over the years. When he crashed out after the TT I texted him to see how we was and he came back to me saying he was badly beaten up, a lot of broken bones but he still had his good looks. That was his way. His death hit me for six. Robert was the same. I'd built up a really good relationship with Robert. It's hard to accept.
Q. Losing close friends made you think of walking away?
A. That's the thing. You are building up a close relationship with these guys and everyone is the same. We had a couple of newcomers on the circuit on Monday and you bring these guys across and build up the relationship. With all the riders you can lift the phone, talk to them. They would do anything for you, each and every one of them. It hits home when some are taken away. It does make me think.
Q. Is there a selfishness among the racers?
A. I'm not sure you would describe it as a selfishness. It's their way of life, it's their job. It's like you and me having a job to do. It's difficult for these guys when they get into it to get out of it. It's the buzz, the excitement. I've spoken to guys who have recently retired. Life just went from living on the edge and racing motorbikes to doing nothing at all and it drives some of them mad. It's so hard to get away from. I don't think they are being selfish.
Q. Every time there is a tragedy at a road racing event there are calls for the sport to be banned. What is your response to that?
A. You are always going to get it because you are talking about a high-speed sport, a sport people love at the end of the day. It's an adrenaline-filled sport. You are always going to get that, unfortunately. We work and work to make it as safe as we possibly can. We have competitors who want to race motorbikes. What do they do if they don't race at the North West 200? Do they go out and race them on the open roads? Do they end up being killed on the open roads?
We are providing somewhere which is as safe as we can possibly make it. Granted it is a high-speed motorbike race but you are always going to get people calling for it to be stopped.
If you look at other sports, such as equestrian sports, even cycling, you are ending up with more fatalities than we ever get in motorcycle racing. I don't measure up to banning the sport itself. I think that would be the worst thing could ever happen.
Q. In 2007 you were awarded the MBE. The proudest moment of your life?
A. That was the major highlight of my career with the North West. It was totally unexpected. I thought it was a wind-up. It was just something else.
It was great, the family were all there and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It was for the whole sport as well. I received the award but to be fair it was for all the people who provided the help and support for the North West over the years.
Q. Last year marked the 85th anniversary of the North West 200. You've been around for half of that time. How much longer will you be involved?
A. I don't honestly know to be fair. It'll be shorter term than longer term. I haven't finalised anything yet. It's for somebody in the future to take on.
We'll get 2015 over first and then see what happens.