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North West 200: Special experience will stay with riders forever, writes Philip McCallen

By Phillip McCallen

There used to be a little newsagents shop at Church Corner in Portrush, right on the North West 200 track, and it was there, on a Sunday morning back in 1992, that I realised that our great sport of motorcycle road racing had experienced a sea change as sudden and dramatic as any you'll see on the Atlantic coast.

The previous day, I'd won five races at the North West, a record for a single day that still stands, and, of course, I couldn't wait to get down to the paper shop to see what the sports pages would say.

Imagine my shock when I found myself not only on the back pages but the front and middle pages as well!

It was a ritual for all the riders to pick up the papers and cut out any articles or pictures we featured in to send to our sponsors. To keep them all happy, I'd sometimes have to buy 10 copies of each paper I was in. I'll never forget the embarrassment that morning of walking out with the biggest bundle ever.

The newsagent and the other customers could see I was buying all the papers with my picture on the front and I was sure they all thought I'd a head the size of Ramore Head.

It took me a few days to get over that but then a sense of pride set in.

Road racing had always been big and the North West was the biggest crowd-puller of them all. But, as riders, we tended to be tucked away on the inside sports pages, behind the ball sports.

Now the mainstream news and sports media have woken up to the appeal and entertainment value of road racing and, in particular, the North West... 23 years on, the sport and the event enjoys wall to wall coverage and, thanks to the internet, now goes right around the world.

It is richly deserved recognition. I may be biased but there is no greater thrill than seeing Superbike riders dicing on their hi-tech machines at 200mph on a public road.

Looking back, it would be nice to think I played some part in helping to raise the profile of road racing as a spectacle but the North West also has its own unique selling point... location, location, location.

The atmosphere at all our bike meetings is great but this is the one where whole families pitch up together, some to watch the racing, some for the entertainment laid on and some just to enjoy the scenery and a break away.

For riders, the experience of racing at the North West will stay with them long after they've hung up their leathers and I should know. I enjoyed 11 wins in total and the most podiums at the event, 27, and can still relive every race in my head.

These days I travel round the course at a more sedate pace as part of the BBC commentary team and, with another great North West competitor, Steve Plater, as a mentor to the newcomers each year.

We have 30 first timers this year which is brilliant. Yesterday, we gave them a 45-minute safety briefing in the hospitality marquee followed by a coach tour of the course, talking them through the corners, pointing out potential hazards and generally reinforcing the safety issue from 20 years of experience.

You have to remember these riders are mostly used to short circuits and a top speed of maybe 150mph, which is fast by any standards. But this week they'll be hurtling towards 200mph on roads - that's a different level of focus.

It's a far cry from my first North West in 1988 when we just turned up and rode our boots off with no more than local knowledge of the course to aid us. Steve and I are on hand throughout the event to respond to any issues the newcomers need to raise and the importance Mervyn Whyte and his organising team place on ensuring they go out fully prepared is another example of how the North West has evolved into a totally professional, leave nothing to chance set-up.

Today, those new kids on the block get their chance to quite literally put all they've learned into practice alongside the big names and North West veterans.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you what we learned from this first session of North West 2015.

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