Belfast Telegraph

'80,000 pairs of eyes were upon me yet I felt so alone the tragic day young Malachi passed away as I held his hand'

North West 200 Race Director Mervyn Whyte MBE on the pride, passion, triumphs and tragedies of his remarkable reign in charge of the great race, worth over £90million to the NI economy

By Jim Gracey

Afternoon coffee in the Lodge Hotel, Coleraine with the ever welcoming, courteous and chatty Mervyn Whyte. We exchange pleasantries, share news of mutual friends and outings planned as we prepare to talk motorcycle racing and the North West 200 in particular, Ireland's biggest attended sporting event and one that has consumed the Limavady man all his adult life.

And it is only a matter of time, as though it were scripted, that we pause to recall the last time we sat down in the same corner of the Lodge reception area in much more harrowing circumstances.

That was the morning after Malachi Mitchell Thomas, the emerging poster boy of the sport, tragically lost his young life in a racing accident on the coast road out of Portrush, aged just 20 at the May 2016 North West.

I had interviewed the bright, handsome lad from Lancashire two nights earlier but my sadness at his loss paled against that of a visibly shaken Whyte who had held young Malachi's hand as he slipped away.

"It hit me hard," he agrees now, looking back on what can now be seen as a defining moment both for the Race Director and the race he has run virtually single-handedly for the past 18 years.

And never was he more alone than on that terrible afternoon when young Malachi was taken. Eighty thousand pairs of eyes upon him and many hundreds of thousands more following the live stream around the world, yet the feeling of isolation he describes was overpowering.

"He was able to whisper a few words. I held his hand and then he lost consciousness. The medics worked on him for 40-45 minutes to revive him until they could do no more," he recalls solemnly.

"I walked up Black Hill and looked to the heavens. I was surrounded by people and at the same time I felt so alone.

"I kept asking myself over and over, 'What do I do here?' I was aware of the big crowds who had come expecting to see a day's racing.

"But the more I thought, the more I realised that I could not in all conscience ask riders to go out again after what had happened. Nor could I have lived with myself if I had allowed racing to resume and another accident had occurred.

"I returned to Race Control and informed the team of my decision to call off the event and not one of them voiced an objection. It was the right thing to do."

And much as he admits he has more than once considered walking away completely, he came to realise in the cold light of day that he couldn't leave the famous old race in the lurch.

With no succession in place, Whyte's departure then could have spelt the end of the massive event as we know it.

Only last month, a scientific Economic Impact Study, conducted by the noted Sheffield Hallam University, concluded the North West to be worth £9.8million to the Northern Ireland economy with £9.10million of that spent in the host Coleraine, Portrush, Portstewart area by over 82,000 visitors the event attracted over Race Week this year.

A business generating that amount of revenue would have a Chief Executive, a board of directors, umpteen department heads and a workforce numbered in hundreds.

For all but Race Week in May, Whyte plans, directs and organises the North West with a full-time staff of two - Operations Manager Fergus Mackay and Event Co-ordinator Gillian Lloyd.

Both are now preparing to step up to the plate when Whyte (67) steps down following the 90th anniversary of the race the year after next in 2019 (or so he says).

It is hard to envisage the North West without him.

And he concedes: "I will probably be around in some shape or form, consultancy or something like that, but the handover has to happen. I made that decision when I realised I couldn't go on forever but that the race had to continue. It is part of the fabric of this area, of this country, with its big road racing following; so many people depending on the event, its value to the tourism industry and to sport and the hundreds of thousands who simply enjoy watching the race.

"Fergus will become the Race Director and Gillian will also take on additional responsibilities. Both are very capable and the event will be in good hands.

"I am looking forward to the next two years knowing we now have a plan in place and, yes, it will be hard to take a step back.

"For all the headaches and heartache down the years, the North West still gives me the buzz I first felt as a boy, going to watch practice with my father at Ballysally. It's been like a drug to me.

"If there is a regret, it's that I have spent more time on the North West than with my family. I am very fortunate they have been so supportive, my wife Hazel especially who helps run the supporters' club and sorts the media passes in Race Week.

"I've been involved with the North West in one role or another since 1973 when I helped out as a marshall at Station Corner. In that time we have seen the race grow from costing £5,000 to run in 1973 to the £900,000 it takes now.

"We have overcome adversities... the Troubles, when few from outside Northern Ireland wanted to come; the Foot and Mouth agricultural epidemic in 2001 which forced a cancellation many felt would finish us; we've lost racing to oil spills, a bomb scare, and, sadly, the fatalities that are an ever present danger in a high-speed sport.

"We constantly work to improve and enhance safety but you can never eliminate all the risks associated with speeds up to 200mph. Riders know and accept this but they still race and we work to try and make it as safe as it possibly can be."

It is a source of deep personal anguish that Whyte has witnessed the loss of five riders in his tenure; his good friend Robert Dunlop, English rider Simon Andrews, Scot Mark Buckley, Tyrone rider Mark Young and young Malachi.

"That has been the hardest aspect and I struggle with it," Whyte gravely admits. "Each one knocked me for six. Robert, in particular, was a personal friend who helped me immensely, always on hand to offer advice from an experienced rider's perspective on ways to improve the course and the racing for the competitors.

"Over the years, you get to know the riders and their families coming year after year. You form friendships and when the worst happens, it is hard to deal with. Road racing attracts a lot of criticism in some quarters, I think because it is so popular some people see it as a means to get a reaction to a headline or soundbite. Other high-risk sports have their losses, too, but don't seem to attract the same media spotlight.

"For all that, road racing people remain the salt of the earth. They band together in the best of times and worst of times and the stoicism you see from those most affected is humbling.

"Simon Andrews' dad, Stuart, still comes over every year to help us on the grid."

Listening to him talk passionately about the North West and its people, you form the distinct impression that a sense of obligation has kept him going all these years.

But Whyte goes further: "I'd say the North West became an obsession for me. But at the same time the event is bigger than any one individual."

In truth, no man should have to shoulder the responsibility for lives and livelihoods borne by Whyte as the North West became bigger and bigger. In many ways, he became a martyr to his own success and leadership in breathing life back into an event many feared would never recover from the Foot and Mouth cancellation of 2001.

"We were under serious pressure," he admits. "People were asking would we ever go again. We had a duty to the farming community around the track, whose goodwill we depend on, not to flood an agricultural area with vast numbers if there was a risk of importing the disease and spreading the epidemic.

"Again it was the right thing to do and in some ways it was a blessing in disguise. We looked at what we were doing and how we could improve and quickly realised the North West could no longer just be about racing. We had to become an event.

"That was when the Race Week Festival as we now know it was born. Hospitality on a bigger scale came in with the big marquee in the paddock. We installed 5,000 grandstand seats, erected big screens for fans to follow the action all around the course and tarmacked the paddock area to make it much better for the teams and spectators.

"We later introduced Thursday night racing which has been a big success and every night during Race Week sees family events going on all around the Triangle area, all of them bringing in visitors and revenue."

And therein lies a source of irritation and frustration for the normally hard to annoy Whyte.

"We receive great support from our Causeway Coast and Glens Council who commissioned the survey which calculated the value of the North West... over £9million, that's some contribution and we would like to see it recognised with greater funding from central government.

"It irks us to see one-off events like the cycling and the golf attract huge amounts of financial support, way beyond what we receive. We don't begrudge any event their funding but feel the North West should be looked at in terms of the numbers and cash benefits we are bringing in, year after year.

"In a perfect world, we would be charging those 80,000 spectators admission but how do you do that with them spread around 8.9 miles of mainly country roads? Our revenue therefore comes from our grandstands, programme sales and sponsorship and we are just about breaking even. But we get on with the job."

Whyte does so from a work ethic and set of values instilled at an early age by his Limavady farm upbringing.

"My mother and father worked hard all their lives and my two brothers and I followed suit," he says. "It obviously agreed with them as both lived to fine old ages. My mother was 97 when she passed away last December and my father 12 years earlier. They were religious people, and when we were young we were never allowed to watch television on Sundays but it was a happy home and the example they set, of hard work and family paramount, has stood to me."

Farming life was still not for the young Whyte, however, who left school to find a job as a lab technician at the big Dupont plastics plant in Derry, rising to become a supervisor and lab manager and even spending time working at the US company headquarters in Kentucky.

By then he had also been recruited onto the North West army of volunteers by his predecessor as Clerk of the Course (his title before Race Director), fellow Limavady man Billy Nutt.

"By sheer coincidence, not long after Billy stepped down, Dupont were offering severance packages. The North West was firmly embedded in my DNA and I seized the chance to work on the race full-time."

The scale of the event he inherited bears no resemble to the behemoth it has become today and yet the more things change the more they stay the same with the event still dependent on the goodwill of those who live and work around the course and the efforts of an 800 volunteer army on Race Week, including 220 safety-trained marshalls, all reporting to a 15-strong management team, also volunteers, from the Coleraine club which first launched the race in 1929.

Safety, safety, safety - the word keeps cropping up and Whyte relates how the issue dominates his waking hours.

"We are constantly reviewing our measures and carrying out risk assessments all around the course," he says. "We have more meetings about safety than any other aspect. I shudder when I look at old photographs, even from the '70s, of spectators sitting on kerbstones with their feet on the course as the bikes fly past. Now we employ miles of fencing, hundreds of bales and marshalls to keep them and the riders as safe as it's possible to be."

Sometimes that even means protecting people from themselves for, as the event has grown, so have speeds, now topping 200mph.

We remember an astonishing live TV rant by top rider turned telly presenter Guy Martin, declaring he wouldn't be back at the North West as the chicanes, put in to reduce those speeds at critical points, were cramping his style.

But, of course, he did return, made his peace with Whyte and got back on his bike.

Joey Dunlop, revered by Whyte, and all who follow road racing here, was another who never warmed to the idea of an artificial impediment slowing him down.

"Joey didn't like the chicanes and consequently the North West was never his favourite race, even though it was his home race," says Whyte.

"But he was always there for us. I remember going to his house one winter's night to see if he would help out with some memorabilia for an Injured Riders' auction. He was tinkering with a bike in his garage and pointed up to a loft, telling me to see what I could find up there.

"I lifted a pair of leathers and a helmet and he said take them. He later told me they were his first set of racing leathers and they raised £3,000, a lot of money now but that was 1998."

Of today's crop of riders, Whyte rates Glenn Irwin, a thrilling winner of this year's North West Superbike race, as the next big Northern Ireland name in the sport.

He believes Alastair Seeley's record of 21 North West wins may never be beaten and is filled with admiration for the Dunlop brothers, Michael and William, for the top riders they have become in their own right, following the terrible loss of their dad Robert in a practice night accident in 2007.

Whyte also remembers the friction that followed as both boys took to the grid to race on the Saturday after their father's Thursday night accident.

"We did not want them to race," he says. "But I saw how determined they were and informed the stewards we would not be able to stop them. William retired early but I have to admit I could not watch Michael on the big screen as he rode flat out to win the race. He was not going to be beaten that day."

His favourite North West memory is of Philip McCallen's five wins in one day in 1992, the man who is now assisting him in schooling race newcomers to the ways of the course.

"It was a fantastic achievement and there was a car on offer as a prize to anyone who won all six races on the day but Philip crashed out at York Corner. He is still going on about not getting that car."

The proudest moment of all, though, for this most devoted of family men came with the award of his 2009 MBE for services to motorcycle sport, and, in particular, the day of the investiture at the Palace, accompanied by wife Hazel, sons Ryan and Peter and daughter Rachel.

"The invite is normally confined to two but we were able to go as a family. That meant as much to me as the award itself," he says.

Quality time with family is naturally high on his list of retirement priorities in two years' time.

He also sees himself spending time pottering about in his garden.

After a life in the fast lane, that would be quite a sight to behold.

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