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North West 200: No task is too great for Mervyn Whyte, the driving force behind showpiece event

By Jim Gracey

Weatherman, accountant, crisis manager, organiser extraordinaire and coffee maker. In keeping with the north coast micro-climate, one minute his friend, the next his enemy, North West 200 race chief Mervyn Whyte is a man for all seasons.

That becomes obvious with every knock on the door of his Portakabin office just opposite the starting grid in the North West paddock on the Portrush-Portstewart coast road.

Every caller has a query or a problem which Mervyn deftly fields as he pours us coffees and studies the latest report from the Met Office in London.

He allows himself a cautious smile as he notes yesterday’s glorious weather for opening practice is expertly predicted to be followed by more overcast skies for tomorrow’s second day of practice and night racing.

“There’s a chance of rain,” he notes, “but no more than 0.3 millimetres. It would only become a problem over 40 millimetres. Then you get surface water on the course and that’s a real hazard for the riders.”

With today’s advanced bike and tyre technology, the big machines can run quite comfortably at up to 200mph in the wet. But when that notorious micro-climate causes the course to be drenched by both sun and rain, creating patches of wet and dry, Whyte and his riders need to be forewarned. Like oil and water, wet tyres on dry roads, and vice versa, do not mix.

That is why Whyte’s renowned attention to detail extends to buying in the most up to date, accurate forecasts from the London Weather Centre oracle.

“It’s too early for them to provide a definitive for Saturday but indications are more of the same. There’s a possibility of showers, not heavy, but we’re hoping racing will be completed before they move in. Either way, we are equipped to deal with all eventualities.”

There have been many of those down the years to test Whyte... bomb scares, oil spills, freak weather conditions and, sadly, fatalities, the raw reality of the risks that accompany a high speed sport.

And those are the reasons, for all his multi-job descriptions,  why safety and accident prevention are top of the list.

And why he is constantly in the ear of government to provide more funding in pursuit of his ideal of an incident-free North West.

“You cannot legislate for everything that can happen at high speeds on public roads but we can work on prevention, on minimising the outcome if things go wrong and on fast reaction,” he reasons.

It costs £800,000 to put the North West show on the road and, when outgoings have been paid from sponsorship money, local council and Tourism NI assistance, the event barely breaks even and, in the case of curtailed racing over a couple of recent years, suffered a loss.

“We’re non-profit-making, so any additional funding would only go towards improving the event for riders and spectators and making it as safe as humanly possible,” he points out.

And when you consider the North West is estimated to be worth £4.5m in revenue to the local area, and £10.3m to the wider economy in terms of its 800m worldwide TV audience, that is hardly a big ask.

Elsewhere in these pages, Whyte calls for parity of esteem for the North West, a fixture on the sporting and tourism calendar here for over 80 years, compared to the financial largesse lavished by government on intermittent events like the Irish Open and Open golf tournaments, soon to visit Portstewart and Portrush, and the Giro d’Italia cycle showpiece, all of them rotational.

Again he makes a valid point while emphasising he is not begrudging those events their funding — he’d just like to see the ever-present North West equally rewarded.

His event is far and away the biggest attended in Ireland, attracting up to 85,000 fans from home and abroad over race week and over 50,000 on race day.

And it doesn’t just happen. Remarkably, Whyte’s management team consists of just three full-timers, operations manager Fergus McKay and event co-ordinator Gillian Lloyd

being the other two.

The fact it comes together seamlessly at the start of Race Week each year is a credit to their organisational skills and harnessing of their 800-strong volunteer army. Of those 300 are marshals, hundreds more fulfil various roles around the 8.9-mile track and in the paddock area, including the medical teams — 18 ambulances, 54 paramedics and six doctors. It speaks volumes for the event that so many are prepared to give up their time, unpaid, to keep the wheels turning.

Another reflection on the event is that the police presence is minimal for such vast crowds, traffic control being their primary function.

Over 1,100 safety bales line the track, 135 kerb protectors have been added since last year — as has 1.25 miles of new fencing — and 13 cameras are located at key points, all linked back to Race Control in the paddock, the nerve centre and communications hub of the North West.

“We start work on the next year’s event in September each year with a nine-month run-in,” Whyte reveals. And like the football referee deemed to have done a good job when the crowd don’t notice he’s there, Whyte considers a successful North West one where he stays below the radar.

“We don’t expect people to come here and admire our work,” he insists. “We just want them to come and enjoy themselves, either at the racing or the wide range of entertainment we provide around Race Week.

“And, 4,500 grandstand seats apart, it is a free show, so if they want to show their appreciation and support for the event, buy a programme. It’s not only a great event guide, it is also our biggest single source of revenue.”

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