Belfast Telegraph

'I wanted to keep racing, but I just couldn't have fallen off a bike again'

In a new series on our sporting legends and their feats of yesteryear, motorcycle racing hero Brian Reid looks back on his rough and ready route to the top as a double World champion

Our Sporting Lives and Times with Jim Gracey

What a week for the Reid family. Wednesday, June 3, 1992... jockey John Reid, from Dromore, Co Down, rides Dr Devious to victory in the Epsom Derby. A week later, on Wednesday, June 10, cousin Brian Reid, a double World motorcycle racing champion, rides his Yamaha to victory in the Isle of Man Junior TT.

The remarkable feat, by that era's first cousins of Northern Ireland sport, in every sense, made headlines then. It would be a sensation now in today's multi-media world.

But to two men with their spiralling sporting futures quite literally in their hands, at the reins and on the throttle, it was the norm.

That is if you consider normal for jockey John, now aged 62, an astonishing 1,937 UK winners, first past the post in 40 top class Group One races and a 1988 Arc De Triomphe success on Tony Bin.

Or for Brian, many hundreds of motorcycle race wins on roads and circuits worldwide, hero worship at the North West 200, Ulster Grand Prix and Isle of Man TT, earning him the nickname 'Speedy Reidy' and, most famously, those Formula Two World title wins on the roads in 1985 and '86.

They thought their races would run and run. But the end came in painfully similar circumstances and, in Brian's case, tragic.

A bad fall from his mount in a 1999 race first put retirement on John's radar. But he recovered from his injuries and saddled up again for another two years before bowing out to become President of the Jockeys' Association in 2001.

Much worse befell Brian. Riding at the 1994 Temple 100, his bike hit the wreckage from a crash that claimed the life of the rider in front of him, Ian King.

Looking the picture of health now, 23 years on, we sip coffee in the kitchen of his secluded country home in the hills between Dromore and Banbridge, as Brian (60) recalls the aftermath of that dark day that ensured he would never race again.

"I broke a femur, elbow, both wrists and a shoulder. I was in a wheelchair for three months and in such poor shape, I couldn't even clean my teeth by myself," he says. "In 20 years of racing bikes and occasionally coming off them, I'd never suffered a knock like that.

"I wanted to race again, I could have raced again, but I couldn't have fallen off again. I'd a good career so at least I had a wealth of memories to ease me into retirement."

Long-term partner Lynn, sitting alongside, winces at the memory.

Lynn succumbed late to the motorcycle racing bug, meeting Brian at her first event at Kirkistown, going along with a friend as a reluctant spectator.

"I wasn't enamoured," confesses Lynn. By the bikes, or Brian?

The answer is in a lasting relationship over three decades during which Lynn grew to love bikes as well, steadfastly supporting Brian and now their son Simon (21), currently leading the Irish Short Circuit Championship. Simon also runs a Barista in Newry while another son, Mark, is a personal trainer and self defence instructor.

After what happened to Brian, did the couple have any qualms about Simon following in his tyre tracks?

Lynn nods in agreement as Brian relates: "When Simon announced he was going to race bikes, I asked him, 'Are you sure?' I explained how difficult a sport it was and he already knew the dangers. But, like myself back in the day, he has the passion and we are supporting him in the same way my mother and father, who had their reservations, supported me once the decision was made.

"Of course we are nervous but he showed he has talent by winning the Ulster Schools and Irish Motocross Championships and he has converted that to tarmac racing."

Brian's decision to hurtle between the hedges at 100mph-plus would have been more of a surprise to the late Winnie and Drew Reid, who shared cousin John's interest in a different kind of horsepower, in the showjumping arena.

"My uncle, Ian McGregor, got me into bikes," explains Brian.

McGregor was one of road racing's famed Dromara Destroyers of the '70s and '80s, alongside Raymond McCullough and Trevor Steele, and it was a dream come true for Reid to graduate into their ranks as he grew up to make his own name in the sport.

He recalls: "I was only three or four when I began watching Ian. I really looked up to him and he took me everywhere, to the North West, Dundrod and wherever he was testing. He found me my first bike, a Triumph Tiger Cub, at age nine for £10.

"I was hooked. I couldn't wait to become a racer in my own right and I always remember my first race at St Angelo airfield in Fermanagh in 1976 followed by my first road race in the Killinchy 150 at Dundrod on a 250 Yamaha."

Surprisingly, for a future World champion, it was four years before Reid recorded his first road race win on a 125 Morbidelli at Carrowdore.

"Looking back, it was a very competitive time. I was up against Joey Dunlop, of course, and other top men like Courtney Junk, Con Law and Steven Cull," Reid recalls. "Compared to Joey, especially, I was a rank amateur with just a car and trailer to transport my 250 Yamaha, no team, not even a mechanic. That's how it was for most of the riders in those days.

"Joey was the only one who had proper support, from Honda. He could always get his bikes funded and I realised if I was ever going to get anywhere in this game, I needed to do a bit of winning."

And win he did, though it remained a rocky road, his first attempt at the famed Isle of Man course ending in a spill at Cruickshanks Corner in the 1978 Manx Grand Prix Newcomers race.

But his star was in the ascendancy and by 1981, Reid finally earned himself a deal, with support from the late Mick Mooney of Irish Racing Motorcycles who provided him with a 350 Yamaha.

A year later, Reid created history as the first rider to win three Irish road racing championships in the same year, taking the 250, 350 and 500cc titles. And soon it was decision time… his home-based engineering business or a full-time career racing bikes?

"I had to make a choice and my passion took over," he explains simply.

That choice was Reid's and motorcycle racing's gain. To this day he is revered by fans of the sport, old and new, and always visible to them at the North West, Dundrod and Isle of Man where he is feted.

A man who quite literally left skin in the game also remains a staunch supporter of road racing in the face of increasingly vociferous opposition when fatalities, sadly, occur.

"Racing started the minute the second bike was built and it will never stop," he contends. "Racers have an inbuilt desire to go faster than the next guy, to get the best out of their machines and to win races. You can never make it completely safe but everyone involved knows and accepts the risks."

Reid, himself, was never known as a risk taker, relying more on his expertise on the bike, yet he experienced his share of spills as well as thrills, the worst being his career-ending accident and the high point his first World Championship win in 1985, by then with factory Yamaha support.

"I had raced in Barcelona and won in the last but one round. I was leading the World Championship but had to wait six weeks for the next and final round which was the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod," he reflects.

"Because it was my home round, everyone was making me favourite so there was a great deal of expectation. That made the wait even more nerve-wracking. I had so much time to think about it. If all went well, I would be World champion, if not…

"Thankfully it did go well and I got across the line for the greatest feeling of my racing career."

That victory, followed by a second World title a year later, has become legend in motorcycle racing conversation.

A year ago, he was being talked about as our only living, double World champion until he was joined on the pantheon by young Jonathan Rea and soon the lad from Ballyclare will earn his own place in history with a third successive World Superbike title virtually secured.

Listening to Reid talk about Rea, there is a genuine admiration and huge amount of goodwill towards the younger rider soon to overtake him. And with good reason. If that 1985 World title win was Reid's greatest moment, Rea provided his proudest.

He explains: "I was watching on TV as Jonathan went out for the race to win his first World title in Spain two years ago and couldn't believe he was wearing my racing helmet.

"I'd given it to Stephen Watson, of the BBC, to take to Spain but thought it was to be a prop or for display.

"Then Jonathan wins the race, takes off the helmet and tells the TV cameras he is wearing it in tribute to me. I was overwhelmed. What a thoughtful thing to do at a time like that."

It was a surprise but it shouldn't have been to a man who knew Rea was destined for the top from an early age, as he reveals: "My son Simon was on the Red Bull Rookies programme with Jonathan and it was clear he was not only an exceptional motorcycle racing talent.

"Simon came back once from a trip to Spain to tell us how Jonathan had ordered a meal for them all in a restaurant - in Spanish. They were only about 14 or 15 and I remember thinking here is a lad preparing himself for bigger things and so he has proved. I wish him well."

Reid lives comfortably these days in his old family home, spending his time in retirement restoring old racing bikes. His current project is the late, great Tom Herron's TZ 350 Yamaha.

"I came across it by sheer accident," he smiles. "It was barn find. I traced the history back and was overjoyed to discover it was Tom's."

There is certain poignancy in his voice too as Reid discloses that he was close to the racing accident that claimed his friend's life at the North West in 1979, aged just 30.

For all his success, Reid, nor any of his contemporaries, made a fortune from the dangers they faced.

Yet, as he walks through the paddocks today, with their £100,000 all mod-con motorhomes, five-figure wages for the top men, hi-tech support and even masseuses, Reid does not begrudge today's generation their money or comforts.

"Anyone who makes a good living from motorcycle racing deserves everything they get. It can be a tough, unforgiving career choice," insists Reid, who rates Michael Dunlop the greatest of today's road racers while advising we should keep an eye on up and coming English rider Peter Hickman, the hero of this year's Ulster Grand Prix.

"I look at these guys now and how well they are treated, compared to my era," Reid adds.

"We were rough and ready. Even when we were going to win World Championships, we travelled in our vans with the bikes in the back. It was all part of the fun of racing.

"Michael's uncle Joey had this old Mini with a removable front passenger seat he used to take out and replace with a plank which he slept on. I didn't mind travelling in vans but I didn't like sleeping in them. But that was Joey, unique and down to earth for all his success.

"Once he set out by fishing boat to the Isle of Man but didn't get out of Portavogie harbour where it sank - with one of my bikes on board. Joey and his brother Robert were rescued but the bikes were on the bottom.

"So good luck to the lads today with all their comforts. There is just one thing I don't get... how some of them can turn up just a few minutes before a race and throw a leg over a bike that has already been prepared for them. I always liked to see the bike I was going to ride, all the way from the van to the grid."

Only once, it didn't happen.

"The bikes were packed into the van outside our house the night before we were due to race at Aghadowey," he says. "Next morning, the van was gone. The police later called to say the van had been found crashed and the bikes were wrecked.

"A Dutch mechanic we had at the time had taken the van, got drunk and smashed it up. He didn't stick around. He just left a note to say sorry and scarpered."

To this day, he remains one of the rare head starts Speedy Reidy never caught up with.

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