Belfast Telegraph

North West 200 still going strong with a bitter-sweet fightback

By Jim Gracey

What doesn't defeat you makes you stronger. That was proved with the most magnificent North West 200, in pure road racing terms, in many a year.

If you weren't there, watch tonight's BBC highlights programme, in particular the most incredible, no holds barred, Superbike duel between brothers William and Michael Dunlop, who, remember, lost their father on this track, and beg to differ.

Thanks to riders like the Dunlops, here is an event that rolls with the punches, picks itself up off the floor and delivers spectacularly over and over again for its huge and unwavering fan base, probably the most loyal in sport here, given the trials of their patience this decade.

Race chief Mervyn Whyte recognised that when he said: “It is overwhelming the way the crowds turn out to support us year on year, this time especially after they went home sick, frustrated and fed up after the day long deluge stopped racing last year.

“Yet there they were, back again in even greater numbers, 20 deep in places along the coast road, and for their loyalty, we thank them.”

For all his trials and tribulations, and there have been many down the years, Whyte and his team must be doing something right to command such faith from supporters and riders alike. And they are with fresh innovations every year.

No other major international sporting event in this country has been visited by such adversity as has afflicted the North West 200 in recent times.

First there was the complete cancellation caused by the agricultural Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

Then we had rain and more rain, bomb scares and oil spills, leading up to last year's absolute washout.

The unthinkable, too, with the ever present occupational hazard of road racing — accidents and fatalities; Robert Dunlop, Mark Young and Mark Buckley paying the ultimate price for their love of speed sport over the last six years after nine years without loss.

We mourn them just as we respected them and their choices in life, the same as we salute those who, knowing the risks, carry on regardless.

Boy did they give us a Saturday to remember, following on from a brilliant night of racing on Thursday, and, yet, for all the high octane thrills, not a soul left the track without a thought and a prayer for the wellbeing of stricken Simon Andrews, seriously injured in a 160mph fall from his machine in the last but one race and French visitor Franck Petricola, badly hurt as he, too, came off in Tuesday practice. God be with them.

The North West, and every other road racing event, only goes on because the riders go on and vast numbers continue to turn out to support them. It is an elixir. In the case of Simon Andrews, three previous major injury crashes could not dissuade him from mounting up again.

Race organisers may try to cover every base from a safety perspective, and they do. But they cannot legislate for what happens when human or mechanical error intervenes at speeds up to 180mph.

There is no point trying to disguise the attraction of road racing — the risk involved in making big bikes go faster in a high speed game of chess with rival competitors is a big part of it for riders and spectators alike.

We saw it as race favourite Alastair Seeley and coming boy Lee Johnston careered off at the Metropole corner, coming into Portrush, dicing elbow to elbow for the Superstock victory and their ‘mishap', as they called it, allowing New Zealander Bruce Anstey in for the win.

We saw it in the heartstopping Superbike battle that followed between the Dunlop brothers, William refusing to blink under up close and personal pressure from younger sibling Michael, to take the win.

Michael, as he confirmed later to the corporate marquee audience, was on a wind-up for the TV cameras when he warned his big bro not to try that again.

We saw it as the pride of Maguiresbridge, Lee Johnston, limped back from his opening race spill to claim the third race, his second Supertwin success of the week, having announced his arrival as a North West winner after eight years trying on Thursday night.

And we saw it as every rider left standing, knowing what had occurred, went straight back out for the concluding Superbike race after poor Simon Andrews had been airlifted to hospital and debris from his blazing BMW bike cleared from the track.

Michael Dunlop redressed the balance with brother William by powering to the win and, having been awarded the Superstock race by virtue of leading when Simon Andrews came to grief, he was named Man of the Meeting, lifting the trophy named in memory of his late father, the great Robert.

That bridging of the generation gap and handing down of the legacy confirmed, above all else, that in spite of the knocks and knockers, the prognosis for the future wellbeing of the North West 200 remains positive.

We can but wish the same for Simon Andrews and Franck Petricola.

Belfast Telegraph

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