North West 200 fans kept in pole position
Crowd pleaser: Fans await the start of the Supersport race yesterday
Imagine standing on the concourse at Wembley tomorrow and hearing the announcement: “All supporters are invited to the sponsors' stand at half-time. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey will be signing autographs and posing for pictures and will then be available to answer your questions on the match.”
It just wouldn't happen. Not at Wembley, nor any other major sporting event I can think of, except this one, and even more so in these days of stage-managed, carefully scripted and inevitably sterile interaction between the big stars of sport and their grassroots fan base.
The remoteness is regretful and, for all their millions, the disconnect from years gone by diminishes those high on the pedestal, unable to dismount and engage with their audience. It is their loss more than the fans kept at arm's length.
Bike racing, in general, and the North West 200 especially, has not lost the common touch and thankfully so.
That was brought into sharp focus the moment yesterday's practice ended and the tannoy crackled: “Attention all spectators... Michael Rutter and Conor Cummins will be at the Vauxhall stand for photographs, autographs and questions... everyone invited...”
Now, Rutter (right) and Cummins may not be in the same wage bracket of superstardom as Wilshere and Ramsey.
But among the bike racing fraternity they are revered all the more for putting their bodies and lives on the line every time they leave the grid in the name of speed, thrills and entertainment.
What's more, they are readily accessible and approachable.
If anyone should be cutting themselves off, with just two precious hours for preparation between practice and racing, it is the likes of these two.
But bikers like to be always available. And at the appointed time, a goodly crowd had gathered to greet and be greeted by the amiable Rutter of the Brummie accent and impeccable racing pedigree, his dad Tony having also acquired North West folk hero status a generation before him, and the smiling 6ft-plus Manxman Cummins who makes all his mounts look like mini-motos.
Adrian Logan was the warm-up man with the mic, capturing the mood and introducing the riders with the knockabout irreverence he excels at.
Ought they not be better employed tightening nuts or perusing time sheets, he enquired. Anyone would think they were in Portrush on holiday.
Rutter indeed confirmed there were ‘a thousand things I could be doing to make the bike go faster.'
But, they both made clear, both riders considered their appearance on the stand an obligation, if not a downright duty, to engage with the daytime crowds who had taken time off work, and school by the look of some, in the hope of getting up close and personal with their heroes.
Rutter, 22 years coming to the coast, is an old North West hand. But even he was surprised by the Thursday turnout of several thousand undeterred by last year's washout, telling them: “Even at speed you notice the crowds around the course, so thank you for your support. It's very much appreciated.” A word we were to hear oft repeated.
Rutter added: “I race all over the world but the North West is unique. I know, like all major events these days, it faces funding issues yet every year Mervyn Whyte and his team seem to add another layer. I don't know how they do it. You only have to look around, at the crowds, the colour and the atmosphere and quality racing to realise it would be a travesty if the bar had to be lowered for want of finance.
“That's another reason we do these things for the sponsors. Without them there would be no racing, for us or the fans.”
Cummins, a relative newcomer compared to Rutter, concurred: “Riders really feel appreciated here. I've been coming since 2006 and every year the welcome gets warmer. Other circuits are more cut and thrust. Here we get a chance to relax a bit and mix with the fans and each other.
“That's a unique selling point and it’s great in this weather. I feel as if I should be sitting in my sunglasses, sipping a Bacardi. It's so laid back it’s hard to believe we've got to go back out and race.”
These weren't two visiting pop stars. Their credentials as serious racing men are beyond question. No-one forces them to do anything which made their engagement with the fans a genuine statement of appreciation, that word again, on both sides.
Posters signed and selfies posed for, they made their way back to their team trailers to get suited and booted.
“Who's going to win?” Rutter was asked.
“Whoever's got the biggest set going into the last chicane,” he replied, and he didn't mean pistons.
And there the similarities with the Wembley half-time talk ends.
Belfast Telegraph Digital