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North West 200: Lasting memories for the purist and the tourist

By Jim Gracey

My earliest childhood memory of the North West 200 is not of the roar of the big bikes, playing football on the beach at the West Strand between races, the train carriages packed with cheering spectators braked high on the railway embankment, itself black with people, on the line between Metropole corner and Dhu Varren.

It’s not even the thrill of seeing legends like Joey Dunlop, Tony Rutter, Mick Grant, Mike Hailwood and Tom Herron up close and personal, albeit at 100mph-plus speeds, followed by beery nights in the old Alpha Bar in Portrush or the Anchor in Portstewart and Sunday morning fry-ups in the caravan at Kellys.

That all came 10 years later, and next weekend will mark the 40th anniversary of my first real North West. Like countless thousands of others, bitten by the bug, I can’t wait.

But wait I had to, back in the day, to consummate a love affair born out of boyhood curiosity.

Before I could see over the petrol tank of an NSU Quickly, on a Saturday morning in May each year I’d marvel at the sight of a widowed lady neighbour loading up her Morris Minor car with picnic hamper, deckchair, flask and umbrella to head to the North West and her day-long vigil at the Metropole. For weeks afterwards the streets around would be regaled with stories of the great adventure. That North West must be some place, I decided.

It was a ritual that continued until her passing in the mid-70s, by which time I’d matured enough to be able to ask the attraction of this motorcycle race, above all others, for a lady who showed no interest whatsoever in any of the myriad sports we’d played round her door.

“I just love the day out,” she said.

And that, in a nutshell, sums up the everlasting appeal of the North West 200 and its unique selling point. Like no other in this great sporting landscape, it is for the purist and the tourist.

Where else would you get it? The magnificent backdrop of the Atlantic breakers crashing onto those fantastic beaches, the coast road seascapes, the crack in the Harbour Bar, nights in those fantastic restaurants that have transformed a fine-dining desert into a bountiful oasis... and if you are into bikes, it’s a bonus.

If the sound and sight of those mighty Superbikes, and their bravest of the brave riders, racing leather to leather at up to 200mph down the straights does not set your heart racing, it is time to check your pulse.

Other races may be considered more of a pure road racing spectacle by the out and out bike fans. But the North West is an elixir, a sum of many parts, and if you could bottle all the ingredients that keep us coming back you could cheerfully retire.

I came home from my first North West in 1975, sunburned. The following year, sitting on the same grassy, Coast Road bank, we were saturated. To this day I recall the title of the BBC highlights programme — Raining Champions.

For teenage lads from Lurgan, in the darkest days of the Troubles, it was pure escapism, an annual rollercoaster ride of excitement nothing on offer in Barry’s could match.

Then harsh reality hit home that this was also a highly dangerous sport we were following.

The 1979 North West remains the darkest day in its history, Black Saturday they called it, after crashes claimed the lives of Tom Herron,

Brian Hamilton and Frank Kennedy.

I remember the sombre mood in Portrush that night and the stark, contrasting sight of tearful fans taking down smiling pictures of Tom Herron adorning newspaper billboards advertising coverage of the event.

It was a salutary experience and yet our appetite for the North West never diminished.

If anything, it served to increase our admiration of the riders and the risks they take.

Oil spills, bomb scares, fair weather and foul, washouts, cancellations, even a foot and mouth disease outbreak, and, sadly, fatalities.

The North West has stoically survived all the fates have thrown at the event in recent times and, like its loyal following, it keeps coming back.

On the days, and there are many, when the sun and fortunes smile upon it, there is no more thrilling spectacle than a great day’s racing at the North West, and for the majority of fans, a free show, for you cannot install

turnstiles on every hole in the hedge along an 8.9-mile course.

That is one thing that hasn’t changed in 40 years as the North West has evolved into the huge, hi-tech, high-speed production it has become, beamed by television and the internet around the world.

Another is the close relationship between the riders and their fans who mingle before and after races like in no other sport you could name.

For many, it is no longer a day out or weekend away but a whole week’s entertainment... more than just a bike race, it has been a rite of passage for generations and long may it continue.

How glad am I that my dear, old, departed neighbour, in her wisdom, put me on the right track.

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