In the first of our edited excerpts from the searingly frank life story of bike ace Michael Dunlop, the Ballymoney man tells how he cradled his dying father Robert after a crash during practice at the North West 200, and why he raced two days later.
Going into the North West 200 in mid-May I was pretty confident I’d put in a performance or two. We all set off that week as competitors. Me, William and my dad. The three of us were in the same race, the 250. People were tipping my dad for the win. Thursday practice came round. For some reason there was a delay and we finally got going around eight o’clock. It was late by our standards. I wasn’t sure we’d get the full session in. As it turned out, we didn’t.
We set off in groups according to ability. William, my dad and Darren Burns — if my memory serves me right — were away first. William broke down at University Corner, so that left the two of them. I was a group or two back. I was going okay on my first lap when I got round Ballysally Roundabout.
I’m getting to grips with the bike and surface, minding my own business, when suddenly I notice the marshals are waving red flags. That’s not good. You just knew something had happened. Sometimes under a red flag you’re told to stop where you are. Other times you can pootle around until you get back to the pits and you can stop there. On this occasion we were waved on but slowly.
Up I come through Islandtasserty, still none the wiser about the flags, through Maddeybenney. Only when I get to Mather’s Cross is there any sign of action. I can see right up in the distance there’s a bike in the road — bits of bike actually. I’m thinking, s**t, something’s gone on here.
As I get closer I see a man lying next to what’s left of his bike. I slow even more, of course, and crawl closer and closer to the scene.
That’s when I notice. That’s when it hits me. The man lying next to the broken bike is my dad. And he is not moving
S**t. S**t. S**t. You’re flying on adrenaline and that’s all your brain can come up with. I screamed to a halt, threw my bike against a bale of hay and ran over to my dad. He was alone. There was no one with him yet. But at least he was alive.
It’s all a bit of a blur. I remember trying to undo his helmet. I could see he was struggling for breath. He was making signs that he was hurt. I grabbed his hand and told him: “I’m here. You’re gonna be okay.” But what the f**k did I know really? I’m no medical man. I hate hospitals.
I looked up the road and saw two bikes screaming their way towards us. It was Dr John Hinds (who was killed in a bike crash at a race meeting in July 2015) and his colleague Dr Fred MacSorley.
You could not wish for better medical attention than those boys will give. I stayed right where I was until the doctors were ready to take over, then I moved back 10 or so feet to give them the space they needed.
It was May 15, 2008. And I was watching my dad die. I just didn’t know it.
Everyone thinks their dad is unbreakable. I knew mine was. He’d tried enough times. The man was Robocop, no question. As bad as he looked on the ground — and there was blood everywhere — I was convinced he’d pull through. He always did. The man was a boomerang. He kept coming back. And he would again, that’s what I kept telling myself. I could see full well how serious it was but you can trick your mind into pretending everything is all right until you are told otherwise. That’s what I did.
It seemed like forever before two ambulances pulled up for my dad and the other fella involved. The doctors climbed in after them. I was not invited nor did I ask to go. I wanted no distractions, I wanted all their concentration to be on helping dad fight the fight.
I’ve fallen off my bike many times and occasionally seriously damaged myself. But none of my injuries hurt me more than standing there helpless watching that man in such obvious pain. I totally forgot where I was. I was numb. This is where the human body is a marvellous thing, because I’m holding it together on the outside but inside I am shocked, I’m scared, I’m completely drained, empty of emotion or energy. I’ve switched off.
Nothing’s coming in or out.
The next thing I remember with certainty is arriving at Coleraine Hospital about 10 minutes away from the track. I got out of a car, still in my leathers. William was just walking through the entrance when I got there. I followed him and a nurse told us that my dad had been taken straight to surgery. She also said my mum had been contacted. “You’d better call my gran as well,” I said. Pure autopilot, that response. “Aye, we’ve done that. Don’t worry yourself.”
She directed us to a small waiting room but I took one look at that tiny, confined space and I thought: “Those four walls are not going to help.” I needed to be outside. William got there before me. He had a couple of his people with him, I was on my own. I stood where I was for a few moments and he did the same.
We didn’t say a thing to each other. What can you say? There were no words. He had that look of emptiness in his eyes, like me. You wonder, looking back, why you didn’t hug or say something, but we were not operating properly. The lights were on but no bugger was home.
When you’re in that vacant place, time has no meaning. I could have been standing there seconds, minutes or hours when the door opened and a doctor came out. As soon as I saw him, I knew what he was going to say. You know by the expression. His mouth was moving and you’re not really hearing what he says, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to say a word because you’ve grasped everything from the face.
He went back inside and I just stood there like a statue. What else was I going to do? My dad, my best friend, my hero had gone.
The next day, Friday, was open house. It was also open casket. Dad was there, in his box, in the upstairs room. Mourners came in their droves to pay their respects. This is when my mum showed that she was the strongest of us all, because William took himself out to the garage for the entire time and I disappeared out into the fields. The wilderness surrounding our house matched my mood.
I’d tried to be a man and help mum out but I saw too many faces walk through that front door that I knew full well hated my dad and they hated us. A***holes, the lot of them. Making no bones about loathing us, then coming to our home and pretending to be sorry? Two-faced people make my blood boil and I would not stay in the same building as them.
Not then. Not on that day of days. It sticks in the craw, it really does. When you’re grieving you’re expected to let any Tom, Dick or Harry into your house, but I couldn’t stomach it so I left. Don’t get me wrong, 99% of the people who came in were genuinely great people who loved my dad.
Maybe I should have stayed. But I think — no, I know — I would have said a word or two to some of those folk and it would have upset my mum.
Come Saturday I had my decision. But I wasn’t the only person who’d made one. I remember getting to the circuit and the organisers saying they didn’t want us to race. The stewards had had a meeting and they’d decided we were mentally unfit to be in control of a vehicle. The clerk of the course came over and tried to talk to us like we were wee boys.
I wasn’t having it. “Are you kidding me? My dad died on this circuit. He holds the record for the most wins around this s**thole. You asked my mother if you should cancel out of respect and she gave you permission to go ahead. I’ll be racing today and that’s the end of it.” Or words to that effect. I don’t think he was my biggest fan before and he definitely wasn’t after. But the boy stood firm. We were not racing on his watch, that was the end of it. I wanted to lamp him, I really did. I was that emotional I could have done. But what I didn’t know was that the matter was being taken out of his hands.
So while I’m arguing the toss with the course jobsworth, Norman and Armand (Michael’s bike owners) are pushing everybody out the road and getting that Honda on to the grid. Obviously everyone around us is coming over, offering their condolences, just letting us know they’re thinking of dad and the family. And that puts the stewards in a tricky position. They’d already banned us but they knew if they got heavy-handed and tried to take our bikes off the grid, there’d be a mutiny.
Finally the klaxon goes and I get on the bike and put my helmet on. The silence is deafening. It’s beautiful. The bulls**t around me just disappears. It was as if somebody had just lifted all the weight off my shoulders. It was like being given a shot of general anaesthetic. Everything faded away. All the drama was over. Now I just wanted to get on to the warm-up.
Off we go. I’m suddenly aware of being on a bike. It’s the first time I’ve known where I was, really, in 48 hours. The words I imagined my dad saying to me about getting back on the bike never sounded more true. I needed to race, I realised that now. It’s the one thing I can be in control of. I couldn’t control my dad’s life or his death. I couldn’t control the media or anyone who came to visit our house. But I could point that bike where I wanted it and I could make it sing.
When I get back round to the grid, Ronnie comes over. “Michael,” he says, “William is out. He broke down again on the warm-up lap.” Ah, s**t. The boy’s gutted. I know that without speaking to him because I know how I would feel in his position. We’re there to honour our dad. How can you do that if you don’t race?
We’re meant to do this together. It felt like I was caught with my pants down. But it’s too late to fix anything. William leaves and, bang, we start. I’m nineteen years old, I’m raring to go, but somehow I’m only second off the line. Power down, the back wheel skids. For the first 10 yards my right leg trails the ground, just in case. It’s over in a second, the uncertainty. First gear, second, third, fourth while I’m still in Millbank Avenue. Tucking down for the right-hander, then left again at Primrose Hill. At least that’s what it looks like.
The truth is, I have almost no recollection. You can find the race online or on DVD. That’s the only way I know what happened. I remember nothing until the last lap. Zero. Zip. Nada. I’m just sitting there, coasting. I’ve never raced like it before. I’m on autopilot. I don’t think I even noticed going through Mather’s Cross. If I did, I can’t recall. My dad was in my head, in my heart. That’s how I remembered him. Not lying by the side of the road. What I do know is, I won. I was doing it for him. Everything I ever did in my life was done for him.
I’ve watched myself on the BBC climb off the bike and I just stare, like a zombie. There’s nothing in my head. Just pain, I think. That’s what the tears say to me. I climb off the bike and drop down, hiding behind it like I’m praying. My legs don’t have the energy to keep me up. My heart doesn’t have the strength to hear all the well-wishers tell me what I already know: that my dad would be so proud. At some point my visor comes down and the floodgates open. No one can see it but you know it’s there.