North West 200: Tragedy and triumph in sharp focus
Mark Buckley was your typical motorcycle racer.
Not one of the privileged front row with generous sponsors, the most powerful bikes and money no object.
He scrimped and saved and at one point remortgaged his house to go racing.
That was the picture painted by friends and fellow riders of the 35 year-old family man from Loch Lomond in Scotland, who sadly died from his crash injuries in the third race at Saturday's North West 200.
He lived and died for the sport he loved. And the tragedy, which struck in the Superstock race, brought home that no matter how many precautions you take in road racing, there is always an imponderable.
By all accounts, it was a freak racing accident that claimed his life as his Kawasaki hit the footpath, catapulting him against a wall, as he accelerated out of York Corner at Portstewart. No other riders were involved.
The result is a terrible loss for his close family, who were there, his friends and the sport of motorcycle racing.
It cast a shadow over a day when memories of the North West of old were revived with the kind of thrilling racing, daring, high speed battles and stuff of legend that attracted riders like Mark Buckley |(pictured) to the race in the first place.
And that should be his epitaph.
When Mark Buckley, the racer, is remembered it should be for the part he played down the years in making the North West everyman's race.
And that on the day he was sadly taken, the event he loved to compete in was on its way back to reclaiming its place as this island's biggest and greatest sporting spectacle after a fraught few years, culminating in the aborted nadir of 12 months ago when all the fates appeared to conspire against the North West, in the shape of a bomb threat evacuation, freak rain and an oil spill leaving many thousands of saturated and disappointed fans with just a single race completed.
This year, we had the brave experiment of Thursday night racing for the first time, a success beyond all expectations that boded well for Saturday.
And so it proved, or so we thought, as the sun shone and fantastic racing ensued.
We had epic contests out on course; controversy, too, as you expect, with volatile, highly-charged characters jousting at over 100 miles an hour on the open roads; and all the names you associate with the North West in a procession to the podium.
It seemed the script had been written for a glorious day to come when a Dunlop took the first, William winning the Supersport on a red flag from favourite Alastair Seeley, with whom he was later to clash.
Next up, John McGuinness in the first Superbike race, with Seeley second again.
And then Michael Rutter, a hugely popular winner of the Superstock, equalling Joey Dunlop's 13 North West wins.
Seeley, supposedly nailed on for a five-timer, was edged out again even though he crossed the line first, Rutter taking the laurels on corrected time having started in the second wave of riders.
It provided another big talking point for the fans and Seeley, for one, clearly felt it wasn't right.
But he kept his counsel, offered ‘fair do's' and ‘fair play' to his conquerors in the spirit of the day and gained his just reward as he promptly zipped to victory in the concluding Supersport and North West 200 Superbike race of the day, giving him a hat-trick over the meeting with his Thursday Superstock triumph taken into account.
His knockabout with William Dunlop as they engaged in the racing equivalent of hand to hand combat at speed in the second last race only added to the thrills and debate for the vast crowds.
They left the course to make their way home elated only for the mood to suddenly deflate as news filtered through of Mark Buckley's sad fate. The twin extremes of bike racing brought into sharp focus.
Not for the first time, Race Chief Mervyn Whyte was left to offer condolences when he ought to have been accepting plaudits for a job well done.
But he has nothing to reproach himself for, having worked strenuously to make the course as safe as humanly possible and the event the attraction it deserves to be. Alas, there are no guarantees in motorcycle racing as we again cruelly found out to Mark Buckley's cost.