Lifelong bikes fan's second thoughts about road racing after years of tragedy
Trevor Smyth's first North West 200 was overshadowed by the death of racer Donny Robinson, he stuck with the sport as Joey and Robert Dunlop met the same fate ... then Robert's son William died at this year's Skerries 100 and he said: enough
It is May 1999. My dad and I are sitting on the bench sofa in our caravan going through the North West 200 programme on the Friday evening before the races.
We come to the name Donny Robinson and dad says: "I'll score his name out."
"He was killed in practice son."
This was the last that was said, or thought, about Donny that year and, if my memory serves me correctly, I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience at the North West 200.
I haven't missed a year since.
The thing that seems strange is that I just glossed over Donny's death. I suppose you could put that down to the fact I was seven-years-old and I just wanted to see things go fast.
However, there's a theme that runs through road racing - the acceptance and normalisation of death and a strange ambivalence towards it.
It seems apt that I was introduced at the very beginning to the inescapable feature of road racing that I can't ignore any longer.
As a young boy, I was probably attracted to road racing by all the things that are used to promote it: the excitement, the atmosphere, noise, smell and the creation of heroes to look up to.
I couldn't believe my (strange) luck when, in 2003, the final race was cancelled. We were at the start-finish line grandstand and I was hoisted over the fence with my programme and, before the riders rushed off the grid, I went round and got autographs from all the top men - except one, David Jeffries.
Jeffries was the king of road racing, the heir to the throne of Joey Dunlop, who died in 2000 in a minor race in Estonia. Still, it was a pretty good day's work and I was like the cat that got the cream.
I didn't think anymore about it until a couple of weeks later when I heard on the news that David Jeffries had been killed in a practice crash for the Isle of Man TT. Surely that must be some mistake?
He was the master, he'd had three hat-tricks at the event and knew the course like the back of his hand.
It transpired that he'd come across an oil spill left by another rider and, at the speed he was travelling, his skill didn't make the slightest bit of difference.
Jeffries' team continued for the remainder of the event with Adrian Archibald and won the big race, The Senior. You just get on with it, no time for looking back.
Rewind a bit. Sunday, July 2, 2000. The top story on the evening news was, "Motorcycle racer Joey Dunlop has been killed at an event in Tallinn, Estonia". Remember: I was a very young fan at this stage, only eight-years-old. No matter; everybody knew Joey - he was revered by all, a figure that transcended the sport.
Just three weeks previously, he had surprised many at the ripe old age of 48 by winning a hat-trick at the Isle of Man TT, including beating David Jeffries in the Formula One race. We should have seen it coming, it was almost too good to be true.
Joey's death had a strange effect on me. The funeral was broadcast live on the Friday and I remember it as a gloomy, grey day, but maybe that was just my mood. I somehow understood the significance of this and I even had to lie down on the sofa and hide my face as tears filled my eyes. I haven't been as emotional as that before or since that episode, but it seemed to make sense.
The death of a hero.
I could go on about the dichotomy of feeling that road racing brings. Robert Dunlop won his last race at the North West 200 in 2006 with a risky move at the last chicane and this (then) young boy was elated to catch the moment on camera.
Then there was Michael Dunlop's victory in 2008 at the North West 200 following the death of Robert, his father. The atmosphere was unbelievable that day - it was as if the fans were giving him a helping hand, willing him forward.
That day, to me, showed the extreme ability of the human spirit to prevail in unlikely circumstances.
Certain events have led to me questioning my support for road racing, beginning with Dan Kneen's death at the Isle of Man TT this year. He was riding for the biggest team, the same team as David Jeffries in 2003. One of the big guns - a massive shock. I intended to give road racing a wide berth for a while.
Then came William Dunlop's death a few weeks later at the Skerries 100. That was it. My mind shifted to his tearful grandmother in the film Road, who now had to see her grandson die at this game as well as her two sons. He left behind a young daughter, a partner and an unborn child. The magnitude of the hurt caused by this struck me. No sooner had I said, "I'm out, I'm done," than a couple of days later James Cowton was killed at the Southern 100 road races and Ivan Lintin was critically injured and two others got off a bit lighter.
When you consider the very niche nature of road racing, the proportional body-count is incredible - to me, at least. Perhaps, in the past, I've been taken in by the superlatives used to describe the racers. I've heard them compared to the gladiators of the Roman empire.
It makes me uncomfortable to say this, but there are similarities between the sports, notably in a sense of voyeurism of the audience, the sense that it's highly entertaining, watching these men risk their lives for our enjoyment.
Ah, but it's their choice, you say. Maybe so. But I'm not sure I feel right about encouraging it any longer.
We admire these men for walking that tightrope, knowing the great skill and intense concentration that must be maintained - one lapse cannot be risked.
That's the bit that's in the racer's control. But what about that large element left to chance?
There's a macho attitude that is also prevalent in some quarters; that this is the only pure form of the sport, that anything else is lesser. I'm not arguing against the quest for greatness in your field, but what I am saying is that maybe it's not the only way; maybe you'd like to live to fight another day.
I know there will be some diehards who will look at this and immediately start saying I know nothing because I'm not a racer or I'm not actively involved in the running of the sport.
I don't care. I'm writing this as a normal man who is simply trying to understand, from my point of view, trying to make sense of it, if there's any to be had.
I understand those who will defend the sport to the last - it's human nature to defend the tribe against those attacking it. I just know that there has to be others out there who, maybe, see there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. I think you'd have to be wilfully blind to fail to notice this.
This past weekend, the Ulster Grand Prix was held. I completely forgot about it until dad reminded me on Saturday evening. So, with only general interest, I went on to the Northern Ireland sports pages on the internet to see what had happened.
Sure enough, the main headline wasn't anything to do with the racing, but news of another accident: "Rider critically injured at Ulster Grand Prix". That rider, 49-year-old Frenchman Fabrice Miguet, has since succumbed to his injuries. Another one.
Every death is a tragedy, but whereas previously may have been able to accept these things as part of the sport and move on to the next thing, this year there have been a few deaths too many.
Disappointed, but not surprised. Maybe the lack of surprise says it all. I'm not asking anybody "How can you support this?", because every man has their own reasons. No. My question is: "How did I, Trevor, not see this before?"
Maybe you only see what you want to see.