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Let's hope the Ulster Grand Prix remains on track for more memories


Fond memories: David Jeffries (V&M R1 Yamaha) follows in the wheel tracks
of Joey Dunlop on the Honda RC45 at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1999

Fond memories: David Jeffries (V&M R1 Yamaha) follows in the wheel tracks of Joey Dunlop on the Honda RC45 at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1999

On top: Peter Hickman celebrates after setting a new world record lap speed of 136.415mph in last year’s Superbike race

On top: Peter Hickman celebrates after setting a new world record lap speed of 136.415mph in last year’s Superbike race

Mervyn Robinson after winning the 500cc race in 1975

Mervyn Robinson after winning the 500cc race in 1975

Philip McCallen

Philip McCallen

Fond memories: David Jeffries (V&M R1 Yamaha) follows in the wheel tracks of Joey Dunlop on the Honda RC45 at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1999

Easter Monday generally signals the start of the motorcycle racing season but while there is great doubt as to whether we will hear an engine note this side of autumn, there is one certainty - the famous old Ulster Grand Prix is fighting for survival. Ironically, its chances of salvation may be found in the present emergency putting all sport on hold.

The Ulster would not have run at Dundrod in its usual August slot this year, regardless of the cruel coronavirus pandemic.

As we revealed last week, the Dundrod and District Motorcycle Club Ltd - the organisers of the UGP - are facing a winding up order when the courts re-open, with outstanding debts in the region of £300,000.

It is the inevitable culmination of years of weather-related woes leaving the Dundrod club in a perilous financial position. Something had to give.

However, it is quite possible the event, in effect, has been given a stay of execution with another year now for a rescue package to be put in place and new race organisers and sponsors brought on board. It won't be easy in the harsh economic climate forecast post-coronavirus.

But where there is life, there is hope and in motorcycle racing, there remains a vast reservoir of goodwill and fond memories of an event that holds a special place in the sporting history of this country.

Its honours list down the years is a who's who of iconic racing names, from Geoff Duke to Hailwood, Agostini, Brian Reid, the Dunlops, McCallen and its present day custodian of the world's fastest road racer accolade Peter Hickman, who last year clocked up an astonishing 136.415mph outright lap record.

My own personal memories came flooding back as I penned what I hoped would not be a requiem for the race as news broke last week of the impending court case.

It was a time when you had to pre-purchase a car parking ticket for my father's favoured spot, the Leathemstown Bridge area, denoted by a Blue L badge displayed on our car windscreen.

It seemed a long way from our Portglenone home in those days, and it was up at the crack of dawn around 6am on race day to pack the flasks, precautionary wet gear and sandwiches before we set off.

We were off to the 'big one', the Ulster Grand Prix, to witness riders and machines I had just heard and read about like Hailwood, Read, Hartle, Minter, Bryans and Robb on their MV Agusta, Gilera, Honda and Suzuki mounts.

Back then you had to follow a certain route to get to the Blue L car park, via Antrim, Crumlin, Glenavy and then the Hannahstown Road, branching off onto a narrow road towards Stoneyford and then a left that brought you out at the crossroad just above where the Ballymac Hotel is now.

Leathemstown was a fast, sweeping right-hand bend in those days leading to the left-right S-bend over the bridge and away up the hill towards the Deer's Leap.

This was the year of the return of the 500cc four-cylinder Gileras, managed by Geoff Duke, with John Hartle, Phil Read and Derek Minter the riders challenging the MV Agusta of Mike Hailwood.

Jim Redman did a 250/350cc Honda double on the day and Hugh Anderson took the 125cc honours, but it is the 500s I remember best.

Poking my head through a vantage point in the hedge I had made between barbed wire and the ditch just about where the riders peeled into the left at Leathemstown Bridge, it was real close-up action. The sound of the machines roaring away from the start was spine tingling, then the charge into view as they braked, changed down and peeled into the corner right before my eyes. It was magical.

The sound of the multi-cylinder foreign bikes and the British singles was like thunder approaching as the pack rumbled through and sped away in a cacophony of noise that reverberated around the circuit.

Gladiators in black leathers and pudding-basin helmets defied gravity with the angle of lean on thin-treaded tyres, toes of boots worn away as the race went on - I think it was around 15 laps in those days. Simply breathtaking.

Stunned and mesmerised at what I saw (actually the first lap was a blur), my hero Hailwood won and lapped Dundrod at over 100mph for the first time to break the Gilera challenge with Hartle second and Minter third while Read crashed out. I was hooked.

The accompanying August rains never deterred me from going to the 'Prix' and of course at that time I was oblivious to the behind-the-scenes disputes, financial difficulties and the battles to keep the event afloat, then as now. I just wanted to watch the racing.

Magic moments of the '60s and '70s I witnessed included Dick Creith coming from behind in the wet in 1965 to win the 500cc race, becoming the first Irishman to win the premier class at Dundrod, and Ray McCullough's epic 250cc win (also on a very wet day) in 1971 from Jarno Saarinen after Phil Read (later to retire from the race) tried to slow McCullough down by waving at him and saying afterward: "I didn't know who he was. He had no interest in the World Championship for which I was fighting and I just wanted him to leave the points chase to the contenders."

I marvelled at the late Mervyn Robinson winning the 500cc race on a 352cc Yamaha in 1975 and later the 1977 Tom Herron, Ray McCullough, Jon Ekerold and Alan North battles were incredible to watch.

The Troubles years had a massive effect on the UGP and 1971 was the last year the event was granted World Championship status. It didn't take place in 1972 with a substitute short circuit ran at Bishopscourt. The world stars stopped coming, but the event survived and my involvement changed as I took up the pen.

I then worked in British Enkalon in Antrim, was involved with Enkalon Motorcycle Club from day one in 1976 and began contributing photographs and editorial for magazines and newspapers.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the Enkalon Club ran a free night for visiting UGP riders in firstly Halls Hotel in Antrim, the Pig 'n' Chicken in Templepatrick and then in Ken Kay's establishment, Barnetts Inn, between Templepatrick and Glengormley.

I remember meeting Dave Potter, on his Dundrod debut, at one of those nights and asking him what it was like going down the Flying Kilo at 180mph. He said: "The telegraph poles are like a fine-toothed comb at that speed."

We had the likes of Potter, Jeff Sayle, Graeme McGregor, Ron Haslam, Charlie Williams, Derek Huxley and many, many more. In fact, I have a visitors' book that my late father-in-law, Frankie Corrigan, filled with signatures of the competitors who attended those evenings.

In 1984, Dromara Destroyer Brian Reid won the opening F2 race and with it the World Championship only to crash out of the next race at Flow Bog, breaking a leg.

Who will ever forget Neil Robinson's sensational demolition job of a world-class TT F1 field in 1986? He was majestic that day.

It was 1987, during Wednesday practice, that Joey Dunlop high-sided from his Rothmans F1 Honda exiting Quarry Bend after hitting a 'river' running across the track, he and the bike sliding all the way down the road almost to Dawson's Bend, coming to a halt by a gate right where photographer Trevor Armstrong and I were spectating.

Joey was unhurt and quickly on his feet and heading for the paddock, the session red-flagged as the pair of us got the valuable piece of Honda machinery gathered up and pushed back to the paddock behind him. Joey won a hat-trick of F1 races at Dundrod in 1983, '84 and '85 and won more UGP races than anybody else (24).

I also vividly remember the 1990 13-lap Joey versus brother Robert, Honda versus Norton, F1 Cup battle when the former won, the year after his big Brands Hatch crash, not needing a fuel stop while Robert needed a splash and dash on the thirsty Norton.

I must, too, recognise our sport can have horrible days, the deaths of John Williams (1978) and German visitor Klaus Klein (1986) being the lowest points in UGP history in my opinion.

For the latter, Trevor and I were huddled in a hedge between Tornagrough and the Hairpin trying to shelter from atrocious, unrelenting rain was another low. We thought the race would not start, but it did - with horrifying consequences.

The tragic death of seven-year-old spectator Christopher McConnell-Hewitt after the sidecar outfit of Stephen Galligan and passenger son Aaron veered off the course on a straight bit of road at the start of the Flying Kilo in 1997 was another hammer blow. Unfortunately, there were other dark days as well.

Phillip McCallen's five wins in a day in 1996 was one record I never thought I would see equalled, but Peter Hickman did so last year and even took it a bit further by winning both Thursday races to go seven UGP wins from seven starts and set an astonishing 136.415mph outright lap record, over 36mph faster than Hailwood's 100mph lap 57 years ago.

I witnessed some great moments and in my eyes all the riders were heroes, but there were and always will be the stand-outs like Hislop, Fogarty, Crosby (remember his wheelies), Gardner, Laycock, Cull, Leach, Woodley, Anstey, Jefferies, Martin, Farquhar, Robert, Michael and William Dunlop, Hutchinson and Harrison to name but a sprinkling.

Are we at the end of the road for the UGP? I, for one, sincerely hope not.

Belfast Telegraph