Motorsports academy could become lasting legacy of tragic racer William Dunlop
A Northern Ireland motorsports academy to train and develop young two and four-wheel sports talent could become the legacy of the late William Dunlop.
The proposal is included in an interim report by the NI Motorsport Task Force, set up following the death of Malachi Mitchell Thomas at the North West 200 in 2016 to examine ways of making on and off-road sports safer and to maximise their popularity and value.
William, who tragically lost his life in an accident at the Skerries 100 road races last month, was one of a number of top riders and drivers who made submissions to the panel, headed by MP Ian Paisley, a lifelong motorcycle racing supporter.
In releasing the task force initial findings and recommendations on Ulster Grand Prix race day, in tribute to William, Mr Paisley revealed how the 31-year-old Ballymoney rider had suggested setting up an academy structure, similar to one operating in Scotland.
This would not only educate and develop young bike, car and kart racing enthusiasts in their sporting fields but also focus on nutrition, fitness and safety instruction to prepare them for competition.
An economic impact study commissioned by the task force found that events like the Ulster Grand Prix and North West 200 generate £40m annually for the Northern Ireland economy. Mr Paisley said he believes that figure could rise to as high as £90m by introducing new marketing, development and training strategies across all the motorsport disciplines.
The report noted an estimated 6,000 participants involved across the various sports with crowds of up to 80,000 at the North West 200 underlining their massive popularity and potential.
But unlike other major sports, like football, rugby and gaelic games, there are no specialist training opportunities or facilities for young competitors coming into motor sports.
"This was the point William made," said Mr Paisley, who knew the rider well through their shared interest in motorcycle racing.
"William was always regarded as being quiet and a man of few words.
"But when he spoke to our committee and outlined his vision for the direction the sport needed to take, he was extremely eloquent, impressive and passionate.
"William explained how he counted himself fortunate to come from family with a strong racing pedigree.
"That gave him a foot on the ladder. But essentially, he said, young riders starting out are on their own. There are no funded, all-encompassing support structures to provide training in the various sports and education in areas like nutrition, fitness and, above all, safety.
"That is why one of our main recommendations will be the foundation of an academy for Northern Ireland motorsports."
Mr Paisley said it would be based on the Scottish Motor Sports Academy, set up last year, and which the task force visited as part of their research.
He added: "We see it as vital to the future wellbeing of all branches of motorsports here and to enhancing their economic value to Northern Ireland, currently estimated at £40m but which we believe could reach as much as £90m through an agreed strategy to establish and promote our sports as an economic driver.
"At present economic benefits derived from events like the North West and Ulster Grand Prix in terms of visitor numbers and spending tend to be looked upon as a bonus.
"We visited the Isle of Man to examine how the TT is run and there it is the other way around. The event is seen primarily as an economic driver and supported accordingly by government who recognise the financial value to the island's economy."
But with no administration in place at Stormont, therein lies the obvious stumbling block to implementing any task force recommendation dependent on government funding.
Nevertheless, the North Antrim MP remains optimistic that a Stormont Assembly will be up and running again by the time the task force finalises its report in the middle of next year.
"This is a mid-term update we are releasing today," he said.
"The task force was set up following the tragic loss of Malachi Mitchell Thomas to examine ways to make the sports safer and to improve and develop them.
"We have met with the competitors and sports organisers and the next step is to engage with the industry side, the sponsors, the manufacturers and those in the motor trade.
"Initially, the then Sports Minister, Paul Givan, provided £500,000 funding towards safety measures but much more is needed.
"That is why the Task Force was set up - to identify what needs to be done across the sports and to go back and say 'here is how we do it'.
"Making the sports safer is the prime objective. You will never make high speed sports totally safe but are there ways to reduce risks, through training and education? The academy plan, we believe, is worth considering."
Another recommendation is likely to see specialist training provided for event volunteers, marshals and organisers.
Among the competitors consulted in the first stage of the task force study were road racers Alastair Seeley and Maria Costello, motocross rider Graeme Irwin and racing drivers Colin Turkington and Chris Smiley.
But it is the contribution of William Dunlop that is likely to have the most impact, sadly posthumously.
A tribute in the report acknowledges: "The Chair and members of the Motorsport Task Force wish to recognise the contribution that William Dunlop made not just to road racing but to motorsport in general. The task force members are grateful for the time William spent in providing them with an insight into his sport and how motorsport in Northern Ireland could be developed in the future.
"The Chair and task force members would like to offer their deepest condolences to his partner, Janine, his daughter Ella and the wider Dunlop family on their sad loss."
MP declines to discuss his suspension from Commons and DUP
During the interview, we presented Mr Paisley with a series of questions around the recent controversy which has led to his suspension from the House of Commons and the DUP.
Last month MPs voted to suspend Mr Paisley for 30 sitting days over his failure to declare two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
It led to a recall procedure which could yet see a by-election in Mr Paisley's North Antrim constituency.
The DUP MP apologised in the Commons, but will face a by-election if 10% of his constituents (7,543) sign the petition.
Mr Paisley has also been suspended by the DUP "pending further investigation" into his conduct.
Mr Paisley declined to answer any of our questions relating to his suspensions, saying he would make no comment until the process is complete.