All the lads knew the risks, but Lee said: it doesn’t matter if I cork it as long as I’m on my bike
Exclusive: The family of motorcycle ace Lee Vernon, who was killed in a crash at the Dundrod 150, tell Jane Hardy about the man who lived for his sport
It was a day that should have been triumphant for the Vernon family — but turned to tragedy in the blink of an eye.
Lee Vernon’s father had travelled from his home in Stoke-on-Trent to the recent Ulster Grand Prix to show support for the talented young biker who was rising steadily through the dangerous sport.
The 24-year-old was competing in the Dundrod 150 races on August 9, being held in advance of the main meeting on August 11. He crashed on the fourth lap of the Superbike event at the Rock Bends section of the circuit, suffering horrific injuries which he died from in hospital the next day.
Speaking in public for the first time since Lee’s death, his father Rob told the Belfast Telegraph of the moment he realised the motor mechanic had been killed in competition.
As the 51-year-old explained, Lee was aiming to get to the next level in road racing.
“He was hoping to get into the top 15 in the Superbikes races on Saturday. We were all looking forward to it,” he said.
Although the painful memories of Thursday afternoon remain “a blur”, Rob, who was talking as the family waited for Lee's body to arrive home, said he was positioned opposite the Joey Dunlop stand at the Dundrod track, in the pits.
“I was a mile-and-a-half away from Lee, who was at Rock Bends. I saw the red flag come up and it was heart-stopping. It always is. Lee was one of four riders, then three came back and I knew within a few minutes something had happened,” he said.
Rob and other members of Lee’s entourage, including his best friend Laura Abbey (31) raced to where the young man had come off his bike at high speed.
He had multiple injuries and his father said he knew that Lee would not survive.
“Officially, Lee passed on Friday at the Royal Victoria Hospital, but in my mind he went by the side of the road. They told me on Thursday evening at the hospital that he had no brain activity, but said he wouldn't have felt a thing.”
Racing bikes is an unforgiving sport, and Rob, who used to race himself, said he never forgets the danger. “I thought about the risks for Lee all the time, but especially this year for some reason,” he said.
Yet the thrills were what brought Lee, a mechanic with Harley Davidson, back to the Ulster Grand Prix, where he had been competing since 2006. The family made a lot of friends here, and Michael Dunlop dedicated his win on Sunday to the rising star.
Lee’s father said: “We didn’t talk about the risks. All the lads know the risk but Lee would joke about it, saying ‘It doesn’t matter if I cork it, as long as I’m on my bike when it happens’.”
The only ray of positivity in this sad story is the warmth of the support given here to Lee’s family and friends in the hours following the accident.
Rob said: “I can’t thank everybody enough. Dr John, the circuit doctor, was brilliant, and the staff at the hospital.
“Even the girl at the Stena Line check-in when we went back was great.
“Words can’t say what that meant.”
Laura Abbey agreed, saying the staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital had been superb, “and the police family liaison guy is still fantastic”.
On this outing Lee was wearing leathers bought for him by the father of Portadown rider Wayne Hamilton, who died last summer at the Junior Manx Grand Prix.
Rob said: “We've lost friends and Wayne's death affected me badly.
“Lee changed the colour of the sombrero on his helmet to orange as a tribute, because Wayne had ginger hair. It was the first time he'd worn those leathers.”
The next day, Lee's stepmother Donna (41) flew over to support her husband.
She said: “I just wanted to be with my husband, even though there was nothing I could do. I would have swum over if I could.”
Donna had brought Lee up from the age of five and said her memories were all good.
Laura Abbey, the chef in his entourage, added: “He had piercing blue eyes and was a very special person.
“When competing, his favourite food was chocolate Hobnobs and I'd buy him a packet that he'd eat before each race.”
Poignantly, the Vernons are about to welcome another little boy into the family, Lee’s sister Hannah McDonald’s new baby.
But although Lee Vernon lived fast and died far too young, like others who paid the ultimate price for excelling in this high-speed sport, he was doing what he loved best.
His friend Kevin Strowger said Lee was with him “all the way” when he reached the podium in the 250cc event on the Friday.
Laura added: “Lee died way too young but he was taking part in the sport he loved.”
As the family prepare for Lee's funeral this Friday, when his body will be transported in a motorbike sidecar, Donna Vernon summed up their feelings: “Lee's spirit goes on, but he's home now. And he couldn’t have died in a better place, where people are so passionate about the sport he loved.” |
This tragedy of Lee Vernon’s death reminds us of the continuing debate over the legitimacy of this dangerous sport which causes serious accidents every year and has led to over 20 deaths in Northern Ireland since 1979.
While there are calls for increased safety measures, the strongest messages of support come from those who best understand the danger.
Louise Dunlop, widow of Robert Dunlop and sister-in-law of Joey Dunlop, who died in 2002 riding in Estonia, said she didn't try to stop her husband. “I made a decision — if he wants to do this, fine, because it makes him happy.”
Road race deaths:
- North West 200:
1979 — Brian Hulton, Tom Herron and Frank Kennedy
1980 — Mervyn Robinson
1982 — John Newbold
1986 — Pat McLoughlin
1999 — Donny Robinson
2008 — Robert Dunlop
2009 — Mark Young
2012 — Mark Buckley
- Ulster Grand Prix:
1995 — Martin Murphy
1997 — Steven Galligan
1999 — Owen McNally
2002 — Gary Jess
2004 — Andy Wallace
2012 — Lee Vernon
2007 — John Donnan
2008 — Martin Finnegan