Guy Martin: 'Lying in a Belfast hospital bed I decided I'd step away from motorcycle racing'
Flamboyant road racer and television personality Guy Martin tells Jim Gracey why he gave up the sport, his days racing in Northern Ireland and his sorrow at the recent death of William Dunlop
TV and bike racing folk hero Guy Martin vividly recalls his Road to Damascus moment that persuaded him it was time to step away from his high speed, daredevil career, dicing with death on the world's fastest road racing circuits.
He was lying in a Royal Victoria hospital bed, his body battered and broken after a 130mph crash at the Dundrod 150 race during Ulster Grand Prix week in 2015.
His injuries included a broken back, ribs and hand.
It wasn't the first time he had woken in a hospital bed, seriously injured after a racing spill.
His dramatic brush with death in a 170mph fireball crash at the 2010 Isle of Man TT ironically and painfully shot him to cinematic fame as the central figure in the iconic racing documentary, TT: Closer To The Edge.
Prior to that, he had begun endearing himself to Sunday night TV audiences with quirky, folksy series like The Boat That Guy Built, leading on to hits like Building Britain and Speed, based around his fascination with engineering and restoration projects, finding out how things work, and, of course, going fast.
It had always been felt he would eventually choose the safer, more lucrative TV career path over the danger-filled and financially unrewarding sport of motorcycle road racing.
But free spirit Guy was always the most unlikely celebrity, as unchanged today from when he first arrived on the Northern Ireland road racing scene in 2004 as a complete unknown from his native Lincolnshire where he still holds down his day job as a lorry mechanic.
For him, it was always racing first and the rest in his slipstream. Until that fateful day at Dundrod.
"I'd landed in hospital before but this time was different," Guy, 37 next month, relates in his distinctive machine-gun patter. "The Isle of Man crash was the more spectacular with the bike exploding in flames. I suffered bruising to both lungs and broke a vertebrae.
"But Dundrod was the worst. I don't remember anything about the crash after headbutting the ground at 130mph, then skidding into a dirt field and catapulting off a few things.
"I might have come around at the trackside, because the marshals told people I was spouting the usual gibberish. I properly woke up in hospital. Then it was all the usual questions - where are you sore? Does this hurt?
"I was in the Royal Victoria in Belfast and I've never been more impressed by a hospital than I was by that place, all the staff were great. I broke five vertebrae. They had to rod my spine because I broke my sternum, too. I had five broken ribs and two metacarpals in my right hand which had to be plated.
"I remember thinking 'what's happened... where have the last 12 years of my life gone?' I'd given everything to racing and put off other things I wanted to do."
So he walked, albeit with the aid of crutches, and remarkably was back at work on his lorries within weeks. "There's no better physio than working on trucks," Guy (right) reasons.
And then, surprisingly, for a man addicted to life in the fast lane, he confides: "I should have packed it in sooner, maybe two or three years earlier, but I was with a great Northern Ireland team, wonderful people and riding good bikes."
But he overstayed and it ended badly as he parted company with the highly successful Moneymore-based racing team, run by renowned father and son Hector and Philip Neill. Patriarch Hector and the rider he regarded as an adopted son fell out, still a source of regret to Guy as he relates: "I accepted an offer from another team when Hector thought I was staying with them.
"He wouldn't talk to me, wouldn't even look at me, he took it so badly. It was upsetting for me, too. I loved Hector. He is a wonderful man and I still have a lot of respect for him. I had the best times with his team and they were the reason I carried on longer than I should."
We are catching up to supposedly discuss his latest book, We Need To Weaken The Mixture, a typical Guy Martin rip-roaring Boys Own adventure in which he:
n Restores a 1983 Williams F1 car and then races Jenson Button in it
n Helps build a First World War tank
n Rides with Vladimir Putin's favourite biker gang, the Night Wolves
n Stands on top of one of Chernobyl's nuclear reactors
n Helps save his local pub from closure
n Oh, and became a dad.
But a mutual love of road racing and a rider/reporter relationship, stretching back to his debut here, takes us down a different track entirely.
He tells how he was writing the final chapter of his book when he heard the tragic news of the loss in a July racing accident at Skerries of William Dunlop, a former team-mate with the Neills.
"A smashing lad," he recalls, fondly. "He loved riding bikes and on his day, when everything clicked, he was brilliant.
"I did feel there was a lot of external pressure on him to keep racing because he was a Dunlop. I always thought he had a similar attitude to me; he wasn't that bothered about the results, he just loved his riding. I was a team-mate with him for a year, and he could be a lazy so and so, but there was more to him than motorbikes.
"It's such a shame because he'd not that long had a kid and had another on the way that's now been born. Perhaps he was a victim of his surname. He was a Dunlop and Dunlops keep racing."
Guy speaks with a sadness he admits would have been undetectable at his racing peak in the typical rider's permanent state of denial of the unthinkable, quite literally because they never think it will happen to them, otherwise they wouldn't do it.
In that film, Closer To The Edge, Guy famously answers for every racer who ever went to the line when challenged on why they blaze on, even as the body count mounts up. "No-one forces us to do it," he shrugs.
He admits now his attitude to news of fatalities has shifted. "I used to think, matter of factly, 'that's another one gone' and got on with things. After a while you became immune. I was so immersed in my racing, that kind of stuff was like water off a duck's back. Now I think a lot more deeply about it."
Is that because he, like William, became a dad in the last year? Baby daughter Dot, a year old next month, and partner Sharon are now his focus in the way racing once was.
"Priorities change, yes," he admits, although he stresses: "I didn't quit racing because of the fatalities or even the injuries I received. I just got fed up and wanted to do other things that had been on hold. I'd never be disrespectful to road racing. The sport was good to me. I just felt I had to move on."
Extreme cycle racing now provides his sporting kicks while his latest TV project is building a supercharged Ford Transit van to try to break the lap record for a commercial vehicle at Germany's famous Nürburgring. But he still keeps a watching brief on his old friends and rivals, wondering during the course of our conversation if William's brother Michael will mount a racing machine again? Or indeed, if road racing in Northern Ireland will survive in its present form. His hunch is that it will, though maybe with fewer meetings due to rising insurance costs.
He tells how he watched Michael Dunlop on TV, racing at this year's Isle of Man TT in June and noted a change from the rider he first knew.
"I like Michael Dunlop," he says. "A much more forceful personality than William, we had our run-ins in our early racing days. Some people may have felt he was reckless but watching him at the TT, he showed a maturity that those people didn't think he had in him. He is a committed rider and I have nothing but respect for him.
"I sent him a text when William died saying if he ever wanted a chat over a cup of tea, I'd be there, and I meant it."
In most of the rest of the UK and Ireland, Guy is regarded as a TV personality who used to race bikes. Here, he is remembered by legions of road racing fans as the rider who ended up on telly.
He will be missed for his quirky character and racing skills at places like the North West, Dundrod, Armoy and Cookstown although he still intends riding his Classic BSA at a future Tandragee 100.
He has fond memories of our circuits and racing people, even the North West, where he famously and publicly clashed on live TV with race chief Mervyn Whyte, the most inoffensive man in the sport.
It happened at his last North West two years ago when Guy famously kicked off at Mervyn in front of a rolling BBC camera with a rant about his dislike of chicanes, the safety feature designed to slow down riders at danger spots.
"I understand why they are there but I don't like chicanes. They are not what road racing is about. Other riders might feel the same way but keep quiet as they don't want to put their start money at risk. I wasn't being paid to turn up so I said what I thought," he says.
"I was being honest and Mervyn understood that. We made up in no time and he is another guy I have a lot of time for. He runs a tight ship at the North West, he more than anyone has made the event the huge success it is."
And, finally, on the last lap, we get round to the book, his fourth.
What does the title mean? "I can't stop biting off more than I can chew," he explains. "Maybe I am wearing everything out, but I believe the body is a fantastic thing and it will repair itself and I will go again. If it's running too rich, I don't stop what I am doing, just weaken the mixture and carry on."
With so many plates spinning in the air, TV, cycle racing, fixing lorries, writing books, being a dad, how does he find the time? "You just have to make time," he insists. "I fit a lot into my days. I get home from work at six or seven. When I'm busy I set my alarm for three, get out of bed at quarter past three. I have a cup of tea and read a magazine and take the dogs for a walk up the lane. Go through my text messages and reply to anything that needs it, then get my biking gear on ready to cycle to work.
"If I have to be at the truck yard to start at five I need to be on my bike at 23 minutes past four. That gives me time to change into my boots and overalls and have a cup of tea before I start. The pedal to work is the best chewing gum for the brain.
"I tell myself, right, this is what's happening - you're doing this at work, so we need to do this, this and this..."
The need for speed, being paramount.
We Need To Weaken The Mixture, by Guy Martin. Published by Virgin Books, priced £20