Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Grand Prix: a race through time and history

In the 1950s, I travelled to Ligoniel on the circuit and watched the legendary Geoff Duke win his first Ulster and stamp his style on my young mind forever...

By Jimmy Walker

The history of the Ulster Grand Prix is inextricably linked with the dramatic and at times violent background involved in the story of the Northern Ireland State.

There were times when this world famous motorcycle race ran into the same sort of turbulence as that faced by the people of the province. After all, the Ulster was launched in 1922 against a background of the worst riots in Belfast in living memory. With hindsight one has to wonder how the idea of a motorcycle race at that time got off the ground at all.

But, thanks to the genius and persistence of men like the legendary inventor Harry Ferguson who, with his friends, had the ear of those in power in the fledgling Northern Ireland Government, roads were closed and the race made its debut in October 1922.

The story is told that Ferguson and some friends were standing in a ditch watching a car race which has since been totally forgotten and they had an idea - why not stage a major motorcycle event? It would show the world the other side of the coin in Ulster. Haven't we heard that point of view for many years!

The Ulster must have been a success for it continued every year and reached a high peak when attracting a truly international line-up in 1939.

However, even then, there was a disruptive background for a few months later young men of the province were setting off to the Second World War, including the remarkable roadracer, Walter Rusk, who later died in the conflict.

After seven years the Ulster bounced back and continued to scale the heights when organised by the Ulster Motorcycle Club and involving such great men with tremendous charisma - although that word wasn't used at the time - like Artie Bell from Belfast and a member of the all-conquering Norton team.

The Ulster was granted world championship status in 1949 and there seemed no end to its success but, in 1969, came that sombre week when the Ulster was staged in August at a time when what we now call the 'Troubles' flared into the violence which we became accustomed to in the 1970s.

There is a rich and tempestuous story to be told in the history of this great race and you can understand why I awaited with pent-up excitement for a book called 'Days of Thunder, the History of the Ulster Grand Prix' by Alastair McCook (Gill & Macmillan, £19.99).

Sadly, my anticipation was ill-advised. For, although the book is an excellent one and I would recommend it as a Christmas present, it deals solely with a snapshot view of the races themselves and tells nothing - or at least very little - of the actual background and the men involved which I think makes a fascinating story and a social comment on our times.

Apart from Harry Ferguson, the race had other giants like Billy McMaster, the doyen of motoring journalists who was responsible for helping the race recover from hard times on numerous occasions.

Billy, who was a great keeper of anecdotes, told me he first became involved with the race watching the riders travel up Belfast's Crumlin Road to the course while he watched from his home in Jaffa Street. After that he was hooked.

Malcolm Wilson was another stalwart of the promoting Ulster Club and for years he was the embodiment of the Ulster Grand Prix before his death in 1963. His son Denis is now a leading racing legislator in the province. Then we had the inimitable pair of Norman Scott and Harrie Palmer whose tales alone would fill about six books.

Des Jardin was the man who began the Ulster Grand Prix Supporters Club in 1963 when the race looked to be down and out. I remember Des telling me that when he spoke up at a special meeting and told everyone that he would form a club to lift enough money from enthusiasts to keep the race going, he was barked at by Percy Johnston, a leading official, and told: "Who are you? Nobody has seen you before. Sit down, you don't know what you're talking about!"

Jardin, however, was not to be denied and, in his single-minded way, he raised huge amounts of money for 40 years.

As far as I'm concerned my association began when I visited the race in 1950 - and I was yet to be a teenager! I travelled to Ligoniel on the circuit and watched the legendary Geoff Duke win his first Ulster and stamp his style on my young mind forever.

In later years riders like Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Ray McCullough and, of course, the great Joey Dunlop, fill the pages of reports on the race, most of which were written by fellow journalists Dermot James, Harold Crooks and myself.

And let's not forget the late, inimitable Billy Morrow who reported on the 'Ulster' for the Belfast Telegraph and who coined the immortal phrase "come to the Ulster Grand Prix and be insulted!" Billy had little time for the officialdom which reared its ugly head in earlier days before I came along.

A stalwart of the 1920s was the former Belfast Telegraph editor Tom Moles who was a member of the original organising committee.

I feel very much a part of the Ulster Grand Prix for it has been, in many ways, my life. It's a pity, therefore, that the definitive book has yet to be written.

In the meantime let's just settle for an enjoyable read which gives us plenty to reflect on by McCook and is liberally sprinkled with quotes from the riders at the time and with many historic photographs.

There are also pages of results which are indispensable to the motorcycle historian as well as the fans.

I hope the book is a success and it is certainly worth reading for those who only know of the Ulster through the achievements of the riders. Perhaps another day we will be able to peruse the fascinating undercurrent of politics and people which made the Ulster Grand Prix the success which it now is.

Days of Thunder: The History of the Ulster Grand Prix by Alastair McCook, published by Gill & Macmillan, £19.99


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