Losing young road racer like Malachi Mitchell-Thomas is just like losing a son, says North West 200 boss
North West 200 event director Mervyn Whyte on why he finds it hard defending a dangerous sport... and why he's never mounted a motorbike himself.
Q. How long have you been North West 200 event director?
A. I first started marshalling in 1973 and held various roles, from race secretary, to race treasurer, to assistant clerk of the course. Then, in 2000, I assumed overall responsibility for the running of the event.
Q. Is it true that you've never actually ridden a motorbike yourself?
A. That is true. I've never been on a road bike. It'd scare the life out of me.
Q. What's the best thing about your job?
A. I get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of managing the event. If you didn't, you wouldn't do it. I don't really enjoy watching it; I enjoy the job. On race days, particularly on the Thursday and Saturday, it's probably fair to say that I'm keen to get the racing over without any serious incidents.
It's the biggest outdoor sporting attraction in Ireland. The best thing is working with and meeting people. I have a good management team who support me and there are a lot of volunteers. Without them, it would be difficult to manage the event. My enjoyment is seeing it pass off well. The Saturday night of race day at 6pm, where everything goes well, then that's the highlight of the year. Unfortunately we've had a few incidents over the past few years. That's the dark side of things.
Q. Do you find the sport hard to defend at times?
A. It is hard to defend. Motorbike racing is a dangerous sport with speeds of up to 200mph. It's not like playing draughts or chess. I continually work on safety but you'll never ever make it 100% safe.
It hits home when you have friends who are taken away. I had that situation at the North West with Simon Andrews, a good friend, who was killed in 2014, and in the past with Robert Dunlop. Another good friend, Paul Shoesmith, was killed at the TT last week. I'm going to his funeral tomorrow.
This year's incident with Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who was killed at the North West, and again I was first on the scene. Malachi was alive and spoke to me and held my hand but unfortunately the young lad passed away. It does have an effect, and at times like that you question yourself. You ask yourself where you're going in the future, what you're doing? There's no doubt about it. You fall back...but you get the strength to go on. These guys want to race motorbikes, so you've got to give them all the support you can.
Q. It's often said that the road racing guys are like a family and we've seen how visibly upset you've been after serious accidents. When a fatality like Malachi happens, does it feel like losing a member of the family, a son?
A. Very much so. A tragic loss of life really brings it home to you but these guys want to do it and because they do want to do it you want to give them all the help and support you can. Malachi was a young lad in the prime of his life and I've no doubt that he would have gone on to do great things. I went to the funeral and spent time with his father Kevin. It makes you think. After the newcomers' briefing at the marquee on the Monday, Malachi came over and asked me about the course and Steve Plater (rider liaison officer) took him out around the course itself. I spoke to him a few times throughout the week. He was a lovely lad. Very well mannered, well-spoken guy. I was there after the accident happened. He reached out and grabbed my hand. He said my name. He was in a lot of pain. He was crying out. He passed away within half an hour. As soon as the red flag goes up I go out on to the course. I'd be the first on the scene along with the medical personnel. What happened with Malachi...it makes you think of your own family. None of my sons have ever expressed an interest in road racing and I have to admit I'm relieved. They enjoy watching the sport and they come down and help me out but they're not interested in the motorbikes at all.
Q. As you know, Stephen Thompson suffered horrific injuries at the North West last year - including losing part of his arm - yet still wants to get back on a racing bike. What advice would you give him if he asked?
A. It's really up to the individual. I've known Stephen for many years. He's a good friend. That incident with him and spectator Violet McAfee hit me for six. Something like that brings it home to you. Stephen and Violet have gone through many lows regarding their injuries.
Q. A number of chicanes were introduced last year to improve safety. Guy Martin, for one, was very critical. Considering the accidents of last year and this, have they worked?
A. The chicanes are there to reduce speed and to save lives - and also to ensure the continuity of the event. Guy was critical of Mather's Cross - a chicane which riders come into at 160-170mph, a sweeping bend on the road. There have been a number of incidents there over the years and we've had fatalities there. We'd be wrong to turn a blind eye to that. Chicanes aren't everyone's cup of tea but they're there to save lives. A lot of the top riders want long, fast flowing courses and don't want anything slowing them down. But they're there for a purpose. I make no apology for them.
Q. Is there one accident that affected you more than others, made you question whether to go on doing what you do?
A. Simon Andrews. I'd got to know Simon and his parents and they're really nice people. His father Stuart comes to the North West 200 to help me every year. Simon's funeral was a celebration of his life, a joyous occasion. And Robert Dunlop, with whom I'd worked for many years. We had a close relationship.
Q. It seems that 1979 was the lowest point for the North West, with three deaths including the legendary Tom Herron (also Frank Kennedy and Brian Hamilton). What are your memories of that?
A. I've good memories of Tom. I spoke to him the day before the actual race. At that stage he was a very high-profile rider whom we'd managed to get to the North West. It was an extremely sad time and it brought a dark cloud over the event. Shortly after Tom's fatality we introduced a chicane at Juniper Hill to slow the riders down.
Q. The worst part of your job must be meeting the loved ones of someone who's had a dreadful accident?
A. There's no doubt about it. You attend the funerals. It's always a difficult time. It makes you ask yourself what you're doing there. But the families give you a lot of inspiration to continue doing what you're doing. They say 'Mervyn, don't give up'. I have around 250 text messages, emails and letters since this year's North West saying don't give up, keep the head up, keep this event going. It gives you a bit of heart. If you didn't get that you definitely would consider letting someone else manage the whole thing.
Q. Some people might try to do your job with more detachment, but you're very attached. Which do you think is the best approach?
A. I have built up a relationship with these guys, I have an affinity with them, they're part of my life. Some people say I should detach myself, but it's not as easy as that. I don't agree that I shouldn't go to a crash scene. I want to be there, to support the medical personnel. I actually feel obliged to be there. I brought these guys to the event and it's my job to be there for them.
Q. The death of John Hinds affected a lot of people in the road racing community. How well did you know him, and how big a loss was he to the sport?
A. John was a friend and his death was a major loss. He was a big part of the North West 200 for many years and a big part of all the motorcycling events in Ireland. He had massive experience but he was very much a people's person as well. He was very much a guy like myself who got involved with the riders. His experience and medical knowledge were second to none. I worked closely with John when he attended to Stephen Thompson and Violet McAfee.
Q. John Hinds was pushing for an air ambulance. Do you feel the measures are in place for a satisfactory rapid response to serious accidents at the North West and other venues?
A. It's going to happen. We had the air ambulance at the North West this year and used it to take a young rider to hospital. It's the North West's charity of choice.
Q. Phillip McCallen believes he got out at the right time, but some people think Robert Dunlop stayed on a bike just too long at 47, although his age wasn't a factor in what happened to him (the bike seized at 150mph in practice for the NW200). What's your view on the optimum time to quit?
A. It's entirely up to the individual. They know their own mind. But my personal opinion is that once somebody retires from the sport they're probably best staying out. They've had their day.
Q. What did you do before you got involved with the North West?
A. I started out as a lab technician with DuPont in 1969 and then held various supervisory roles within the company. I took early retirement in 2002, going into the NW200 on a full-time basis.
Q. How long are you going to keep doing this job... and have you identified a potential successor?
A. I don't know. I was hoping for a really good day when everything went well, according to plan, when you exit on a high, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe next year... which will be my 45th year of being involved in the North West... it'll be time to ask that question. But there'd always be someone else to slot in and take over.
Q. Motorbikes aren't your only passion... you like football as well. Who do you support?
A. I enjoy watching football and I support Manchester United. My youngest lad Peter, who is on crutches at the minute, is annoyed because we should actually be at the Euros in France now. We had tickets for the first two games but he was called to get a knee operation done and it didn't work out.
Q. Your wife Hazel was a bit of a hero... working at this year's NW200 then going into hospital for a hip operation. How's she doing?
A. Her hip had been getting worse for two years. My big concern was that the operation didn't happen prior to the North West, which was probably a bit unfair of me and it didn't go down too well... but after 40 years she's used to it! She went into hospital four weeks ago, a few days after the North West, and she's recovering well.
Q. Can you tell us about your home life.
A. I've been married to Hazel (63), a retired school secretary, for 40 years. We live in Limavady but we also have a house in Portstewart.
We have three children - BMW salesman Ryan (37), Rachael (33), who works in HR, and Peter (30), a personal trainer - and a nine-month-old grandson, Callum.
Q. What has been your career highlight?
A. Getting the MBE for Services to Sport and Motorcycling in Northern Ireland from the Queen in 2010. The whole family went across and spent a couple of days in London.