NW200 still gets veteran boss Hector all revved up
Enigmatic Tyco BMW team owner Hector Neill's unbridled passion for pure road racing is virtually incomparable.
His love affair with the International North West 200 - which gets under way next week - and Isle of Man TT started back in the '60s, even though, on that first trip to the Isle of Man, he never actually set eyes on a bike - getting caught up in the pub atmosphere in Douglas before a hazy trip home the following day.
Since the halcyon days of the '70s under the Hector Neill Racing banner, which morphed into TAS Racing in various guises with official efforts for Suzuki and now BMW, wins have come thick and fast on the north coast. But despite the success, the Hillsborough businessman's fervour for the event has yet to wane.
Ironically, as he often recalls, it was a paddock jobsworth who refused him admittance on the gate at the North West 200 who prompted a phone call to his son Philip. He told him: "I want us to build a bike for the North West 200, Isle of Man TT and Ulster Grand Prix."
"Philip thought I was mad," explained Hector, who took time out from his regular Friday 'golf and curry night' at Rockmount Golf Club to talk bikes and the North West 200.
"After that I was Mr Neill," laughed Hector (right, with Joey Dunlop), who on the wrong side of pension age is still working on cars at his Temple Auto Salvage workshop.
The stories roll off the tongue like novels, but regardless of the outcome, fun and laughter fill the air for a man whose only passion in life is having fun.
"I remember going to the NW200 as a spectator with 14 of us crammed into a hotel room geared for four and Ronnie (Bootsy) Donnan asked me would I be a mechanic for him.
"I was waiting for him to come round and there was no sign of him. He eventually came back and said, 'I sucked a sheep in up the coast road!' The craic was mighty. But that's just one of many stories," said Hector, whose opening foray into sponsorship was with Norman Dunn in the 1970s.
"The memories I have from back then were of a real happy time. Norman was never going to win us a North West, so we pulled a move to run him on my 360 Greeves in the grass track on the Friday night. He went on to win it, but more importantly, £10 prize money, which bought a few drinks later that night."
When you emerge from humble beginnings, those around you can often underestimate your authenticity, but what a job Hector and his son Philip (right with his father and Guy Martin) have done since they returned to racing in 1999, having built the R71 Yamaha that would at least get them past that irritable marshal on the paddock gate!
"It's all very corporate now and I accept that. But when we started off you pitched a tent in the paddock and pulled in beside a picnic table to use as a workbench," said Hector, who next week will have 11-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson and five-time NW200 winner Ryan Farquhar on his bikes.
"Hutchy is some rider and deserves a lot of credit for coming back after such serious injuries. He's riding superbly well and after all he's achieved it would be nice to take him to his first 1000cc win at the North West. There would be a wee bit of celebrating after that one," said Hector.
"Ryan is a straight talker. He's a man's man and fit for his age," he said of the 40-year-old national road racing record holder, who last rode for him 10 years ago. "The last time it didn't work out and it's unfortunate what happened, but I like Ryan, he calls a spade a spade and I think he can do a decent job on the Superbike for us."
Passion is one thing, but the desire to find the best part of a seven-figure budget every year, to run in the British championship and the international road races, must take its toll.
"Philip looks after most of that now and I can enjoy it a bit more and go and play golf," said Hector.
"Once you start doing it, it becomes a way of life. I was just bitten by it big time. The whole racing year was geared around the TT. Saving up here and scraping money there to see how many tyres we could afford. It's a lot different nowadays, but we have a good team around us and strong support from BMW."
Next week, Hector will take up residence at the Royal Court Hotel in Portrush, a place he says is now as much part of the NW200 for him as the racing itself.
"In the old days you had to drive up and down to work, but now I stay up for the week and love driving down to the paddock. The scenery from my room in the Royal Court is fantastic. I bring my guitar and play a few wee Irish songs before I go to bed," he added.
The TT has brought about many successful years for Hector and his riders, but his local event has a special place in his heart. "I love the TT, but the North West is a more relaxing week for me. We will put on a good show in the paddock for the fans and our sponsors.
"Then it's up to Hutchy and Ryan on track. But we will have a great week regardless," he said before heading off for a few more holes of golf ahead of the NW200 Golf Day at Royal Portrush next Wednesday.