Ulster Grand Prix rider Melissa Kennedy's struggle after death of pal Malachi Mitchell Thomas
One of only four female racers in this year's Ulster Grand Prix has spoken of her heartbreak at the death of friend and fellow racer Malachi Mitchell Thomas earlier this year.
Melissa Kennedy, a slightly-built 25-year-old from Enniskillen, who would look more at home in a ballet performance than on the Dundrod racetrack, revealed that following her close pal's death she struggled with whether or not to keep racing.
"It was such a huge shock when Malachi was killed. We were good friends and his death left me reeling and questioning why I was doing this," she said yesterday, following her qualifying lap in the pouring rain for tonight's and Saturday's races on the Dundrod circuit.
"In the end, I realised that Malachi would be the first one to tell me to put my helmet on and get on with it - so that is what I have done."
Melissa said that her first race meeting after the death of the 20-year-old at this year's North West 200 was the toughest.
"I was racing at Kells and he was very much in my thoughts. We all know the dangers of road racing, but when you put that lid down at the starting grid all you can think about is the first corner, you have to blank everything else out."
Melissa has been racing since she was 14 - her father, Trevor, bought her first bike - and says the adrenalin rush from being on the track is addictive and, probably, in her blood.
"My brother Wayne used to race and I went along to watch him, then dad bought me my bike and I just got hooked. There is nothing like the feeling of coming down a road at over 100 miles per hour and being in control."
Melissa is hoping it will be third time lucky for her at the Ulster Grand Prix, following problems with her bike during the previous two years.
"I'll be riding in honour of Malachi, as I know this is what he would want me to do. There is no way he would want me to give up," she said.
Asked how she fits into the fast-paced, adrenalin-fuelled world surrounded by men, the happy-go-lucky retail manager laughs and says: "It is definitely harder for a woman in this sport, particularly when it comes to things like getting sponsorship and recognition. But there's no reason why we can't compete along with the men.
"Most people are surprised when I tell them I am a road racer, but I have a lot of determination and I love the buzz of the sport."
But one person who won't be watching Melissa hurtle round the track is her mother. "My mum won't watch me race," admitted Melissa. "She comes along and stays behind the scenes and even my brother isn't that keen on me racing, but he sends a text before I go to wish me luck."