Belfast Telegraph

Shock as North West 200 chief Mervyn Whyte reveals he may quit

 

By Jim Gracey

Respected North West 200 race director Mervyn Whyte may be about to bring down the chequered flag on his role as head of the annual north coast motorcycle racing spectacular — ironically after a thrilling weekend event acclaimed as the most successful of his 17-year reign.

Over 80,000 fans around the circuit, and many millions more watching globally on television, enjoyed a hugely entertaining and incident-free Saturday Race Day, expertly managed by Whyte and his Race Control team after a three-hour rain delay threatened to put another damper on the occasion that has appeared jinxed over the past decade.

Now Whyte (67) is preparing to go on holiday with supportive wife Hazel to ponder his future as the public face of the event he has served for 44 years, signing up as a volunteer marshall in 1973 and succeeding Billy Nutt as Clerk of the Course in 2000 before stepping into the new role of Race Director as the North West moved with the times onto a business footing.

As only praise rained down on him yesterday, Limavady man Whyte revealed: “I always said I wanted to go out on a high and how do you better the racing we saw last Thursday night and especially Saturday?

“The Saturday racing was incredible in the conditions, the best I have been associated with in my time at the helm. In truth, I have been considering for a while when would be the time to go. I’ve just turned 67 so it has to happen sometime.

“I’ve given a lot of time to the North West and the last 17 years I have lived and breathed the event. It has been all consuming and there have been times in the last difficult decade when I asked myself why I was doing this job, did I really need it, particularly when tragedy struck? Last year’s loss of young Malachi Mitchell Thomas affected me very badly.

“But I couldn’t leave the North West in the lurch and won’t make a rash decision this time.”

Whyte added: "I am going to go on holiday, take stock of what is good for the race and for me and then come back and let people know what I have decided."

The big problem for the North West is that there is no succession in place. If Whyte decides his personal race has run its course, it may well be that he will be prevailed upon to make a phased departure, taking on a general manager type role for several years to oversee, instruct and guide a new race chief.

Whyte's steady hand guiding the North West through good times and bad has made him one of the best known and admired figures in Northern Ireland sport and it is impossible to envisage the race without him.

But, as he acknowledges, the march of time decrees he has to hand over the reins sometime and the planning for that needs to begin.

No other sporting event manager in this country has endured the tribulations visited upon Whyte over a troubled last decade from race disruption caused by the foot and mouth outbreak, bomb scares, oil spills, freak weather and, worst of all, five rider fatalities since 2008 - Robert Dunlop, Mark Young, Mark Buckley, Simon Andrews and Malachi Mitchell-Thomas.

He has also waged a war of attrition with government for funding to improve safety and the general running of the event. After a fantastic day's racing on Saturday, he is entitled to bask in the warm afterglow of a job well done by him and his team.

By keeping the riders off the track, assured by updates that the rain would pass, and by changing the race running order so the big Superbikes, going last, would have the benefit of better conditions, one of the most exciting finales ever seen at the North West ensued. The last lap, in particular, of Glenn Irwin's closing race victory, denying Alastair Seeley a fourth win of the day, will pass into folklore.

As will Whyte for his efforts and it is hoped a complete break is his last resort, having done so much to keep the 88-year-old race running in adversity only to bow out with its appeal and reputation restored to new heights.

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