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Life as a wife in the fast lane . . .

Manda McCallen (35) has shared the thrills and the spills of the racing circuit with her husband, Portadown racing legend Phillip (44). Ahead of this week's Ulster Grand Prix, she tells Chrissie Russell about the agony of watching him crash at high speed - and why she always cheered him to go faster. She says:

When you become personally involved with someone who races your whole attitude to watching a race changes. You still have that buzz but there's also a sick, nervous feeling there as well.

I always tried not to show it because you have to have confidence in your partner and accept that he knows what he's doing. But it is that sort of sport where accidents happen.

I remember the 1997 Ulster Grand Prix when Phillip had a serious accident. I was watching the race with a stopwatch, waiting for him to come back round and saw the race being flagged up. Within seconds they announced that there'd been an accident involving number nine - that was Phillip.

I just remember standing there and the television cameras turning on me to see my face. I got into the team van and the minister came to see me to say Phillip had had an accident. I just wanted to go over to him but at that time the paramedics were still working with him and wouldn't let me near. I knew that meant it was bad.

They had to maintain life at the side of the track but, once they'd stabilised him, the next worry was, would he be able to get up and walk?

It was a matter of getting into the car, following the ambulance to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital and praying. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach, just an awful fear that we'd had so much good luck and now it had ended. It's impossible to explain - I felt numb but Phillip was all right. He was lucky - there are friends of ours not here anymore because of accidents on bikes.

Phillip had a hugely successful career from 1984 to 1999, which included 11 TT titles, five wins from six starts in the 1992 North West 200 and five wins in one day at the 1996 Ulster Grand Prix.

I can't really say that I found it attractive that Phillip was a motorbike racer because, when I first met him, I didn't really understand how high profile he was. It's actually really embarrassing how we met - I was Miss North West in 1992 and we met at the North West 200. Phillip won five titles that year and each time he was up on the podium we got chatting a bit more and he started getting a wee bit cheeky. Both of us were in relationships at the time but we ended up being good friends and then got together a couple of years later.

Bikes were a totally new thing to me and no one in my family had ever been involved in racing. That first time I went to practice week I found there was a real buzz about it and I ended up getting really involved in the excitement of the day. It sounds awful but, because I wasn't close to anybody involved in the racing, the element of danger didn't really concern me - it was all just good fun.

When Phillip and I got engaged I already knew that racing was a big part of his life but it didn't put me off and we got married in 1996. But one thing I always said was that there was no way we would start a family while he was still racing - it wasn't worth the risk. Phillip was happy with that because at that point he wasn't thinking about kids anyway.

Roles

It's hard to put into perspective how many races I watched Phillip in. All the British rounds meant one every week during the summer months. Then the TT and Ulster Grand Prix and NW200 - it probably amounts to hundreds over the years. I teach so it was good having the summers free to be available to go with Phillip to the race meetings. I had to be involved or we would never have seen each other. A lot of the summer was spent in England so it wasn't a case of just turning up on the day. I tried not to play a major role in the racing side of what was going on; instead I wanted to be there for Phillip, making sure he had his leathers and helmet ready and got something to eat. I'd no desire to get more involved in the mechanics of the actual racing and I think Phillip was quite happy that I wasn't totally into the bikes and pushing him. He preferred to come away and get involved in my life which was a little bit separate. I've been on the bike with him on a few occasions and I've no desire to do that again! I'm just not that much of a bikey person - I like to have somewhere to put my purse!

Even after so many years involved in the sport I still find it very hard to imagine what it's like in the head of a racer. Racing just takes over and it is a bit like an obsession.

Sometimes it felt a bit like there was another wife in the equation.

The season lasted from Easter through to September with a Grand Prix in the Far East in November. The Macau race was quite special and we went to Thailand after it - something I probably would never have had the chance to do if it hadn't been for the racing - so there were some good perks!

But sometimes it felt a bit like our lives weren't our own. I remember the night we got engaged someone ended up joining us at our romantic dinner, wanting to talk about bikes. I don't want it to come across the wrong way because it's really important that fans have that interest and can come up and talk to Phillip, but sometimes we just wanted 'us' time.

A funny thing was that most of my worrying was always done prior to the races - once they set off I would always be shouting and cheering for them to go faster just like everyone else. When Phillip was always getting first or second podium places we started almost expecting him to always be all right and do well but I suppose I always had it in the back of my mind that something could happen and said a little prayer. Watching Phillip race left my nerves frazzled, especially during the TT fortnight when it was just one race after the next. I lost weight and my mum would always say to me, 'you look stressed'.

Phillip had an injury every year but it was the back injury from Thruxton in 1998 that kept coming back. That happened just weeks before the TT and Phillip was extremely upset about being out of the race. Men aren't good patients at the best of times and he found it very difficult having to rest for a few months.

As soon as he got home from hospital his whole focus was on getting better as quickly as possible. He always pushed himself to the limit so it was hard work trying to get him to take it easy. I just tried to give him lots of TLC.

After that I certainly thought 'surely to goodness your body has taken enough now?' and I really was worried about his back. A surgeon told us one of the bones at the bottom of his back had set out of place and if it took another knock he could end up paralysed. Knowing the risks left me really tense at every race - realising that even a small fall could be enough for him to end up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. If that had happened, I don't how Phillip would have coped, especially after always being so active.

I'm not sure why racers do it - it must be an obsession or bug for them that I can't relate to.

I know that if a major accident happened to me I wouldn't want to race again. I'd be counting my lucky stars that I was ok and would look after myself from then on.

I actually don't remember exactly when Phillip stopped racing - which is terrible! - but I think the back injury was a big factor. He was also really influenced by Joey Dunlop's death. They were very close and Phillip always looked up to Joey. I think it made him realise that if something could happen to Joey then it could happen to anyone.

It wasn't because he thought he'd reached the end of how far he could go with the racing but he'd had a lot of injuries and was offered a good deal working with his sponsors Motor Cycle City. A lot of things combined and he started saying it might be the end of the racing.

Withdrawal

Once he started talking like that I encouraged him. I thought it was the right thing to do and I suppose around that time I was starting to get broody. But it was completely Phillip who made the decision to stop, I would never have told him what to do and he wouldn't have let me anyway! A lot of people from the Press and public came up to me at race meetings and said, 'you've made Phillip stop', which really annoyed me because it's something I would never have done even if I'd wanted to. Other team members got behind the decision as well - they all had the racing bug but were concerned and didn't want to see Phillip hurt or injured.

I think there were a few withdrawal symptoms when he stopped and he was a bit difficult to live with but it was worth it! Just knowing he was safe was a big relief. He worked for Motor Cycle City for a while and gained a lot of knowledge from that work. Now, he has his own motorbike shop in Lurgan, which he's really passionate about, and we live at Ahorey, outside Tandragee. The same energy now goes into that as went into racing and the kids take up all our spare time.

Life's just different now, the way it is for everyone once they have children. We were delighted when Katie (5) and Tommy (2) arrived and Phillip's a great dad. Katie's very girly and I can't imagine her wanting to do any high adrenaline sports but Tommy's more of a daredevil. They both have little quad bikes and Tommy's already really into motorbikes and has to get into daddy's shop and sit on the bikes. My mum's always saying, 'he'll want a motorbike when he's older' and Phillip says he'll get him one as soon as he's ready for it. Although he says he wouldn't encourage him to race I think deep down he would like him to, but I have to be honest, at this point I would do everything in my power to discourage him. I couldn't do all that again with my son.

We still go to the North West every year and it's lovely to meet up with everyone involved in the race - it's like a big happy family. Motorbikes are always going to be a part of our lives and I can't imagine life any other way.

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