Belfast Telegraph

How race chief Bill Kennedy and his team solved a Cat's Eyes conundrum to recreate spirit of Armada

'We thought Armoy was centre of the universe and were proved right when a letter addressed to 'Joey Dunlop, Ireland' arrived'

By Jim Gracey

As long as the note of a racing motorcycle engine is heard around the winding roads of Armoy, we will associate the north Antrim village of just over 1,000 souls with its famed Armada, four young adventurers who came together in a brief window in time to create a racing legend.

Nearly 40 years after they last rode together, the very mention of the Armoy Armada evokes memories of a halcyon time in the sport of motorcycle road racing.

A time when thousands flocked on their summer weekends to thrill at the exploits of the Armada as they took on their equally revered rivals, the Dromara Destroyers, on country roads across the province, from the big races at the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix to long gone circuits such as Carrowdore, Killinchy and Temple.

Road racing legends all, their story is even more remarkable for having hailed from two small rural communities.

In memories clouded by the mists of time, Joey Dunlop is presumed to have led his home town Armada of his brother Jim, their brother-in-law Mervyn Robinson and big, in every sense, pal Frank Kennedy, into battle with the sometimes Destroyers of their hopes... Ray McCullough, Brian Reid, Ian McGregor and Trevor Steele.

The reality is they were individual racers, out to win for themselves, not a team, though they all had each other's backs.

And that golden era we imagine to have spanned maybe a decade or so, lasted only a few years from 1977 through to 1979. That short spell saw the two groups of riders become seared into the psyche of Northern Ireland road racing.

But it all ended badly for the Armada. First Big Frank, a 6ft3, 14-and-a-half stone towering presence, lost his fight for life six months after suffering massive head injuries, from which he never regained consciousness, in a crash at the 1979 North West 200.

He became the third fatality of his then home race's darkest day when our own iconic Tom Herron and Scot Brian Hamilton were also taken.

A year later, another North West crash claimed Mervyn, the mechanical genius of the group, and the Armada was no more.

The dreadful loss of Joey, in a racing accident in Estonia in July 2000, leaves only his brother Jim from the four amigos who put Armoy firmly on the motorcycle racing map where it remains to this day.

Once again next month, Jim will be back where it all began as the memory of his band of brothers is honoured at the Armoy Race of Legends, Jim being an honorary member of the organising Armoy Motorcycle Club.

It would be an assumptive and convenient narrative to portray the Armoy Road Races solely as a tribute event, especially with Frank's brother Bill one of the driving forces as clerk of the compact three-mile course.

Bill does accept: "If there hadn't been an Armoy Armada, we probably wouldn't have the Armoy Road Races and, indeed, our headline Race of Legends is dedicated to them.

"But, in truth, a group of us in the village just wanted to stage a race... to promote and showcase the sport we love at a time when other events were dropping off the calendar and to provide a new and unique stage for our riders who, in turn, have unconditionally and enthusiastically supported us over the last 10 years.

"The idea came from Kathleen Hartin, a real bike racing fanatic from Armoy and whose husband William acts as a road racing marshall around the country.

"It started as wishful thinking among a crowd chatting about getting a race started over a few pints in the local pub one night and grew from there.

"We had no idea what we were taking on. We didn't even have a club at that point.

"Kathleen's starting point was Mervyn Whyte, the clerk of the course up the road at the North West.

"Mervyn told her: 'You need to form a club and see what interest there is, you need to become affiliated to the Motorcycle Union of Ireland. You'll need to see if you can get a road closing order, you'll need the support of the local council and you'll need money.' So no pressure, then.

"Still, they pressed ahead and formed a club. I was out of the country for the first meeting and returned to be told by Kathleen I'd been voted in as chairman!"

Bill was a natural fit with his bike racing, business and local community connections. Now aged 69 and still running a local filling station and Vivo store, he has been four times mayor of Ballymoney and served for 26 years on the former council there.

And, of course, he has been steeped in bike racing since his teens, remaining a passionate supporter even after the tragic loss of his brother Frank that hit the family and him hard.

I'd come to chat to the engaging Bill about the approaching 10th anniversary of the races, running from July 27-28.

But you cannot talk about Armoy without bringing up the Armada, especially with someone so close. Their racing achievements borne of God-given talent are well documented.

But what were they like as young dreamers starting out?

Suddenly Bill is moving up the gears. It is five decades ago yet he speaks of that heady time as though it were yesterday in equal measures of joy and sadness.

Joey, he says, was unique.

"He had so much talent and yet was so down to earth. No airs and graces. Even when he became a world champion and could have stayed in the best hotels wherever he went to race, Joey would still rough it with his mates, sleeping in cars and vans or a tent.

"No one will ever again work at bikes or race them the way he did.

"I remember him first getting into bikes when Mervyn started going out with Joey's sister, Helen, who he later married.

"A man called Hugh O'Kane came into the village at that time to start a car sales business. Hugh had a beautiful 350 AGS7R which the boys all wanted to try out and Hugh was happy to let them. Hugh is still here and has a fantastic collection of old bikes.

"The boys then got their own bikes and wanted to go racing. But to get a racing licence, you needed signed parental consent if you were under 21.

"Our folks weren't in favour and wouldn't sign for Frank and we knew Mervyn's people felt the same so we couldn't understand how he managed to get his licence. We found out later his sister, Elizabeth, signed for him.

"As much as Joey was unique, Mervyn was a mechanical genius. He had the intelligence to see how something could work and the hands to make it happen. He could design and build a motorcycle frame as good as any coming out of a factory.

"As a racer he was brilliant, as good as Joey at times. I remember him once beating Michael Rutter's dad Tony, a top man in his day, at the Ulster Grand Prix.

"But Mervyn had injuries which curtailed him and he never had the money or resources to do the TT where he could have been outstanding."

Bill then turns to his older by a year brother, Frank, who was just 31 when he lost his life at that ill-fated North West.

"A real character," smiles Bill. "His problem, for a road racer, was his build and like Mervyn, he didn't have the money or opportunities to go further though he was due to make his TT debut a month after his accident."

Bill recalls the day vividly. "Frank came off on the first lap at University and would have survived only his helmet came off and he suffered serious head injuries. Tom Herron narrowly missed hitting Frank's bike but another accident in a later race claimed him.

"Conditions were perfect but a set of freak circumstances made it a horrendous day.

"I was actually at the scene where Brian Hamilton suffered his fatal accident and helped get him into the ambulance.

"They couldn't get one to Frank as there were no red flags in those days and the race hadn't been stopped. Two nurses carried him, a giant of a man, across fields to get him assistance at Shell Hill bridge. They were later given bravery awards by the Queen.

"I had raced a bit, not at the same level as the boys, but I packed it in after that. It would have finished my mother to have lost another son. But I never fell out of love with the sport; never stopped going."

And suddenly, the mood brightens again as happier memories flood back.

"Those were exciting times," he reflects. "We were in the midst of the Troubles. People didn't venture too far from home and big outdoor gatherings were limited. Yet the deeds of the Armada and the Destroyers caught the imagination and thousands turned out wherever they raced.

"They fuelled the rivalry through the papers, always thinking up lines to give newspapermen like the Tele's Jimmy Walker when they phoned for information about the weekend's races.

"Joey, Mervyn, Frank and Jim all lived within a mile radius of one another. They would be in and out of each other's garages looking to pick up any advantage. They rode hard against each other but they made sure they all got to the grid if ever a part or some mechanical work was needed.

"With those guys around, we could believe Armoy was the centre of the universe and one day we were proved right.

"My father was a postman and this day he showed me a letter he was on his way to deliver. It was addressed to Joey Dunlop, Ireland, and it had come from Czechosolvakia."

Something of the spirit and camaraderie of that age has been recreated by the now established Armoy club in their annual races.

Bill Kennedy believes: "The village setting, its place in road racing history, the special atmosphere and the sense of a wee club succeeding against the odds from a standing start sets us apart.

"From day one, we've always attracted the best riders from home and abroad, 130 this year, and having the Dunlops, Michael and William, as staunch supporters is especially pleasing and appropriate. Michael holds our lap record at 110mph.

"And we have fans coming back year after year from all around the world.

"Getting the race onto the grid in the first place was the biggest problem. To say the authorities weren't keen to see another road race would be an understatement.

"We were looking to raise £60,000 start up costs amid the worst recession in 50 years and thankfully sponsors who showed faith in us from the outset have stayed on board as running costs have more than doubled."

And then, having covered every base (they thought), a final, seemingly insurmountable snag to getting the show on the road. Cat's Eyes.

Those twinkling little glass baubles that light the way for us at night and keep us safely on the right side of the line would be hazardous in high speed racing.

They aren't an issue at any other road race here as none are run on A class roads, dotted with the things.

But the Armoy race uses a section of the A44, heading to Ballycastle, and both the Roads Service and police were adamant: no solution, no racing.

It sent Kennedy and his team on a search that turned up a special kind of cat's eye device, flat level with the road surface and emitting light from stored solar energy.

Installed at a cost of £16,000, borne by the Armoy club, this time the green light was given.

Joy was short lived as the very first running of the races in 2009 resulted in the event's only fatality over the 10 years when 75 year old avid local racing fan, Hill McCook, died when he was struck by a bike that had lost its rider. Hill had been watching from a vantage point he had picked out months earlier in anticipation.

"It was a big blow," Bill Kennedy admits. "But the family came to us and said that Hill had gained so much enjoyment from watching road racing down the years and had been so excited by the prospect of a race coming to Armoy that he wouldn't have wanted it stopped - and they remain big supporters.

"So you see, it isn't all about the Armoy Armada. It is for and about people like Hill McCook, too."

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