New book recalls Northern Ireland race ace Tom Herron 40 years after his fatal crash
'Tom was just so determined to ride that he had me cut off the plaster from his hand. It was a terrible loss'
It's hard to believe it is 40 years since one of Ireland's greatest racers, Tom Herron, lost his life following an accident on the final lap of the North West 200 Superbike race at Juniper Hill, then a 120mph bend. He was 30 years old and the tragic irony is that he ought not to have been racing at all.
The original poster boy of motorcycle sport here, Herron had attracted a massive crowd as usual to watch him take on the top racers of the day at the 1979 event. But the Co Down man arrived with a hand in plaster after suffering a broken thumb in a Spanish race.
And rather than disappoint his army of fans, he took the decision to ride, asking his pal, Hector Neill, now the successful TAS team owner, to remove the plaster cast with an angle grinder. His braking ability hampered, Tom tragically came to grief on the high speed bend that is now a safer chicane that would have prevented the accident today with Hector also contending, that under safety rules later introduced, his friend would not have been allowed to race with the injury. Hector is also convinced present day rapid response medical emergency teams, and the advent of the Air Ambulance, would have saved Herron's life.
Instead, he died from his injuries later at Coleraine hospital, one of three fatalities on the North West's darkest day. Poignantly, his wife, Andrea, a former racer, was at his side after flying from the Isle of Man to surprise him.
Given Herron's enduring popularity, it surprising his life story has not been told in words and pictures before now with Leslie Moore, editor of Road Racing Ireland Magazine, launching a new publication at this weekend's motorcycle festival in the Eikon Centre, Balmoral Park, Lisburn. It is a must-read for motorcycle fans of all generations.
Leslie explained: "I had thought about doing something on the 20th anniversary of Tom's death, but there wasn't enough material. Mutual friends kept at me to get it done and now I have gathered so much information, I have had to be selective. I was close to Tom and regarded him a pioneer of Irish motorcycling. He set the standards that Joey Dunlop and now Jonathan Rea enjoy. Yes, Tommy Robb and Ralph Bryans went Grand Prix racing, but on works machines. Tom was an out and out privateer having to race at minor circuits for start money to get to the next Grand Prix.
"I was there the day he was killed and after the tragedy I actually went to Juniper Hill and do you know he had 240 feet to slide into either side of the lamp post he hit. Unlucky or what? Joey Dunlop won the race and I saw that as the end of one era and the beginning of the next."
Leslie continued: "I have gathered interviews, tributes from many people that I kept over the years including Barry Sheene, Joey Dunlop, Mike Hailwood, Kenny Roberts, Jon Ekerold and Kork Ballington. I have two abiding memories of Tom, firstly at that 1979 North West when he went into the back of the Suzuki lorry to get ready for racing and when he stepped out the back doors, he was like a gladiator ready for battle, brand new leathers, gloves and boots identical to Barry Sheene. This was the first time I saw a rider in works gear and secondly never had I seen a rider perform a victory lap until Tom did one at Dundrod after a terrific 250cc UGP win in 1977."
Tom Herron was the very essence of what was known as a 'privateer' when he decided to make a break from racing on the home circuits in 1974 to try his luck on what was then known as the Continental Circus.
At home he had won 14 Irish national road races between 1969 and 1974 before Tom, his wife Andrea and a Ford Transit van travelled back and forth across Europe living on a shoestring.
The start money from the international meetings was just about enough to keep the wheels turning, as he tried to get a foot on the ladder and score world championship points in Grand Prix events to guarantee starts at the next rounds of the 250 and 350 championship races.
Born in Leitrim, near Castlewellan in 1948, Tom started mucking about on a Greeves motocross machine before making his road race debut at Tandragee in 1968 on a 250cc Greeves.
His first major success came at the 1970 North West 200 when he won his first international race, beating Tommy Robb after a terrific 350cc battle, both riding Yamahas.
It wasn't all plain sailing as a few weeks later, on his TT debut, he finished 13th in the 250cc Lightweight race, but then crashed heavily at Ballacraine on the opening lap of the Junior 350cc event breaking his hip, putting him out for the season.
Ray McCullough, the popular Irish road racer of the 1970s, recalls a great race with Herron at the Temple 100 saying: "Tom and I were neck and neck and every time we came down to the big jump at Prices Demesne I would take the lead as Tom loved jumping way off the ground while, never that keen on jumping, I took the lower route with the throttle shut off and the back wheel still driving, passing below him back into the lead. He was some operator I can tell you."
In and around this time he met and went on to marry Andrea Williams, no stranger to the racing scene, as she was the sister of Norton factory racer Peter Williams and a road racer herself until a nasty crash at the Mid Antrim 150 when she broke ribs and a collar bone.
Rea Transport and Jim Finlay and other sponsors soon recognised Tom's talent and he started to string together some outstanding race results to become the top privateer on the Grand Prix scene.
Still racing the TT where he won three times when it was a world championship event, and the Ulster Grand Prix, where he was a five-time winner, the Dundrod organisers asked Herron to approach some of his major Grand Prix rivals to consider riding in the UGP. His Irish charm worked and the likes of Alan North, Pekka Nurmi, John Ekerold and Victor Soussan came and they certainly lived up to their billing.
Twin girls Zoe and Kim were born to Tom and Andrea in 1977 and everything was going along nicely with Tom finishing an incredible second in the 1977 world 350cc championship, and in the 1978 British Grand Prix he was voted Rider of the Day for three second places in the TT F1 behind John Cowie.
He was voted the first ever Enkalon Irish Motorcyclist of the Year in 1978 by the general public.
For 1979 Tom had made it - a fully-fledged factory 500cc Grand Prix rider with Texaco Heron Suzuki team-mates Barry Sheene and Steve Parrish.
Prior to the 1979 North West 200, Tom wrote in a Motorcycle News diary: "What can I say! An injury before the North West and the TT was the last thing I needed and now I'm fighting for fitness ahead of the two most important meetings of the year after crashing on the last lap of final practice ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix and I've broken my right thumb at the knuckle."
We all know what transpired.
Hector Neill recently told the Belfast Telegraph: "Tom was so determined to ride he had me cut the plaster from his hand with an angle grinder. This was another terrible loss and it doesn't get any easier knowing Tom would never be allowed to ride today with the injury. Given the medical facilities now and the rapid response a rider suffering the injuries he did would be saved at the track today. Instead vital time was lost as Tom was taken to hospital where he died."
In one of the blackest days for the NW200, accidents claimed the lives of Herron, Scotsman Brian Hamilton and Frank Kennedy, of Armoy Armada fame, succumbing to crash injuries months later.
Speaking 27 years later Andrea recalled: "I never really got over losing Tom. He died in hospital two hours after crashing into a lamp post at Juniper Hill 200 yards from the finish line. No one told me Tom had crashed in Spain and hurt his thumb and I was furious. I hadn't planned to be at the North West, but that morning I wanted to be with him and hired a private plane and flew over.
"He was delighted to see me and when I asked him not to race because of his thumb he refused, saying he owed it to the people who had come to watch him. I was at the hospital before the ambulance and when Tom was brought in I walked in alongside him. I could see he was in a serious condition although he was smiling and talking to me."
Andrea said Kim and Zoe got her through her grief and she remarried in 1982 to Barry Coleman.
Leslie's recollection of the brilliant, talented, fun-loving, hard-working Tom Herron is a welcome addition to the bookshelves of motorcycling fans around the world.