Belfast Telegraph

NW200: 'I used to be the wee lad peeking over the fence and all of a sudden I was winning the big one' says Glenn Irwin

 

By Ivan Little

Road racer Glenn Irwin can still hear the cheers of the North West 200 faithful as he took the chequered flag in this year's Superbike race, but behind the visor, the Carrickfergus father-of-one carries the memory of the day, aged just six, he nearly died in a car accident that killed his best friend.

Hundreds of mobile phone cameras clicked as Glenn Irwin, the new superstar superhero of the superbikes, roared to his first-ever win at the North West 200 road races earlier this month, but another photograph of the Carrick-born man from 21 years ago is testament to an altogether more tragic time in his life.

For the picture shows a six-year-old Glenn recovering after a freak road accident that killed his best friend and his pal's mother, two people who were very much in his thoughts as he triumphed in the North Coast races he used to watch as a boy.

Glenn was lucky to escape in 1996 when a tree crashed down on their car as his neighbour Donna Wallace drove him and her son Steven to a motorbike event in Ballymena.

Glenn's father Alan, a champion racer himself, was one of the first on the scene of the tragedy.

His son, who was in the back seat, needed 43 stiches and 30 screws and plates in his head, and was in hospital for weeks. While he was there, thieves stole his 50cc scrambler bike from the Irwins' home.

The newspaper article in the Belfast Telegraph carried an appeal from Glenn's family for the bike's return, prompting the thieves to leave it back - even though they had resprayed it.

It was Glenn's first exposure to publicity, and last year he posted a scan of the article on his Facebook page to illustrate just how dramatically his life has changed.

He says he remembers the accident clearly, but he doesn't want to talk about it in too much detail out of respect for the victims.

Glenn is much happier to speak about his NW200 victory, which was a dream come true.

He says: "The feeling of leading the race was amazing enough - never mind going on to win it.

"Coming into the first slow corner on lap one, the crowd were already going crazy. I thought: 'They're cheering for me'. Which was class.

"And when I realised that, at the end of the lap, no one had got past me I knew I was doing something right.

"I also realised that I'd built a good pace, because if you are slow you will get passed quite easily."

English rider Ian Hutchinson and fellow Carrick man Alastair Seeley, who went on to win three races, did get by Glenn several times as he took it easy at chicanes, but that didn't make him doubt himself.

"I felt stronger than them everywhere, apart from that one little area," says Glenn, whose 1000cc Be Wiser PBM Ducati proved more competitive than some pundits and punters had predicted.

The 27-year-old speedster made his debut at the North West two years ago on a 600cc machine, but skipped the 2016 event to concentrate on his British Superbike commitments.

He adds: "Winning at the North West really was magnificent. The races have always been part of my life - especially when my father was competing. I was always the wee lad peeking over the fence watching and, all of a sudden, there I was winning the main superbike race, the big one."

Alan never won at the NW200, and seeing his son on the podium was something really special for him.

"He was over the Moon," says Glenn, who lists his motorcycling heroes as Valentino Rossi and fellow Ulstermen Joey Dunlop and Jonathan Rea.

"Dad came to me in parc ferme (the paddock) and I could see how happy he was," he recalls.

"He told me I had done something that he had never achieved.

"But bad luck was the only thing that stopped him winning at the NW200. His former mechanics were rooting for me.

"I discovered afterwards that one of them had his fingers crossed so tight during my race that they were bruised afterwards."

The celebrations for Glenn weren't restricted to the males of the species, however.

Glenn's mother was spotted dancing in the hospitality tent after the race and her son lost count of the number of autographs he signed in the four hours before he left the circuit. "My only regret was that I couldn't oblige more of the fans. Without them there wouldn't be professional racing here," says level-headed and modest Glenn, who couldn't rest on his laurels after his NW200 win.

For he was in Edinburgh the next day to test bikes for his upcoming British Superbike races in a few weeks' time.

And on his return home Glenn was straight back to his crucial fitness regime in Belfast with his trainer Patrick Ryan, who he says understands what a racer needs to do to keep in shape and to prevent injuries.

Not that that is always possible in motorcycling where accidents - and sadly deaths - are par for the hazardous course.

Glenn counts himself fortunate, however, that he has had "nothing too major" happen to him in the spills during his career.

"I've broken ankles and fingers and my collar bone but nothing bad - nothing that a rugby player or a footballer wouldn't have had," he says.

Glenn, though, isn't gung-ho about the self-evident risks.

"If you just put the dangers out of your mind you would be a raving lunatic," he says.

"The guys who are competing at the North West, for example, are, in the main, extremely skilled and dedicated athletes.

"John McGuinness, who was injured, was unlucky. Something went wrong with his bike and it wouldn't have mattered if it had been Valentino Rossi, nobody could have saved that crash.

"And that's life. It can happen in Formula One, or with an airplane that can develop a fault.

"To me, road racing deserves and requires an awful lot of respect. The people who can go fast are the ones who can respect the danger, see their way into the track and realise that to be competitive they have to go fast in dangerous areas, but just fast enough and not over the limits.

"People say we're mad. And when I watch footage from onboard cameras on machines before a race, I find it hard to sleep. But as soon as you get on the bike, everything seems to get a lot wider - especially on country roads at the North West.

"And when you watch as a spectator, it's frighteningly fast, because your vision is working in a different way and you're seeing the bikes whizzing by.

"But when you're actually on a bike, you are not concentrating on a hedge, but rather on an open road - and that's cool.

"Obviously, it's dangerous, but you're in the zone and you become used to it."

Alan always encouraged, but never forced, Glenn and his two brothers to follow in his tyre-tracks, but looking back it's clear they were destined to become racers.

Graeme Irwin is a professional motocross rider, who was busy winning races in England during the North West weekend, and Andrew is cutting his teeth in road racing like Glenn, who says their successes are all a credit to their father, who didn't force them to ride competitively.

Glenn adds: "Santa was very good to us every year. We were all given motocross bikes from a young age and, while we were all quite good, dad always told us the most important thing was to enjoy ourselves.

"I know a lot of youngsters come under pressure from what I would call motocross fathers, who give their sons a telling-off if they have a bad race. But that wasn't the way it was with us."

Glenn says his ambition is to become a world superbike champion, though he says he hopes he can always come back to the NW200.

He adds: "You have to be hungry in this game to succeed. And you have to be selfish to a degree as well, because of all the commitment that is needed."

However, Glenn's devotion to road racing doesn't stop him engaging in another sporting passion: football.

Until a couple of seasons ago he played as a full-back or winger in the Amateur League with a team from Whitehead and he still enjoys regular seven-a-side games.

"It's good training and great craic," says Hillsborough-based Glenn, who's a big fan of Man United.

Paddy McNair, who used to be at Old Trafford before joining Sunderland, is a close friend, and another Northern Ireland international, Stuart Dallas, sent Glenn a "well-done" message after his North West win.

Glenn, who has a young son, Freddie - named after his grandfather - with his partner Laura Magee, hit the headlines last year when he took part in a protest against exploratory oil drilling at Woodburn Forest in Carrickfergus, not far from the home where he grew up.

The rider, who used to play along with his friends in the forest, says he has no regrets, especially as the drilling operation was halted.

And he adds: "I know people were saying that motorbikes burn fuel, but that happens every day in life, whereas drilling for oil is a different story from having cars or bikes on the road.

"I wouldn't say I was an activist, but for me there were more cons than pros for local people, including my parents, and that's why I lent the protest my support."

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