McWilliams savouring a starring role at NW200 aged 54
Jeremy McWilliams, truly a rider for the ages, relaxes pre-race in his team’s North West paddock workshop and tries to explain why he is still ‘giving 100 per cent’ in one of the most thrilling, but dangerous, sports on earth at the age of 54.
His commitment is all the more astonishing when you ask him about his career injury history, and he matter of factly rattles them off. So many he can’t count them on the fingers of both hands, simply because one of those fingers is missing from a long ago racing accident.
“Ankle, femur, collarbone, ribs, hands, multiple breaks, normal stuff,” the Glengormley man says, ticking them off with a remaining finger.
Normal for cage fighting, horse riding, mountaineering and, of course, motorcycle racing, that is.
“Nothing too serious, long lasting or life changing thankfully,” he adds cheerily. “But I do feel them when it’s cold and damp and wet.”
Aches, pains, plaster casts and crutches go with the territory of the motorcycle racer. But McWilliams is 54, not 24, the average age of the young riders he is again taking on at another North West 200 with no concessions asked nor given.
Those injuries occurred over a 20-year career on MotoGP circuits, the Premier League of motorcycle racing and presumed a much less hazardous environment in comparison to his surroundings this week.
So why, knowing the risks and ever-present dangers more than most, and with a rewarding career in research and development for bike makers KTM, is he putting life and limb on the line to joust with rivals half his age at speeds over 100mph between the north coast hedgerows, having only taken up road racing at the age of 48?
“For fun,” he replies, though clearly there is a more serious side as his superb second place in Thursday night’s 650cc Supertwins race showed.
He goes again today for Ryan Farquhar’s KMR Kawasaki team in the main Race Day event, explaining: “I do it, too, because I am among friends in Ryan’s team. I’m abroad a lot with my KTM commitments, running race schools and coaching young riders. It’s a hectic schedule so this is down time for me.
“North West week gives me a chance to catch up with people and have a bit of craic. On Wednesday I played golf at Royal Portrush in aid of the Air Ambulance. In a year’s time, Rory (McIlroy) and Tiger (Woods) and co will be treading those links. Where else would I get a chance to do that?”
You get the feeling life outside the work bubble had become a little too tame after two decades of high-speed thrills in racing leathers when his friend Farquhar tempted him out of the semi-retirement bubble of Classic racing to tackle the daunting North West for the first time in 2012.
He finished second to his team boss and the buzz was immediate.
“Second to Ryan? I had to come back the next year and put it right, didn’t I?” he says. And he did, posting the first of two wins and a clutch of podium places here over the past six years.
“It does play havoc with my work schedule, and luckily my employers are understanding.
“And I don’t think I would be doing it for any team other than Ryan’s. We’re a close-knit bunch. I have good friends on board, Peter McCrum and John Rainey, our mechanics. And it’s great to have Ryan’s expertise from his vast experience of racing, both as a rider and now as a team manager. If anything needs done, he is on it.
“It helps that we all know what makes one another tick.
“I can be hard to work with, I know. I’m demanding and have very little patience, but those guys soon put me back in my place.”
McWilliams is accompanied in the North West paddock by wife Jill and sons Jack (23) and Zak (20), neither of whom showed any desire to follow their dad onto the track.
He races on with their blessing, though, as Jill explains.
“We had a family sit down talk when Jeremy first started to think seriously about taking up Ryan’s offer to race on the roads,” she says.
“Jeremy is the type who, if he wants to do something, he will. But we still had the discussion and we support him.
“I like to think he is at an age now where he will be more sensible. It’s also comforting to know he has good, well prepared bikes and that he is working with machines and people he can trust.”
So what of the physical and mental adjustment from MotoGP circuits to the roads and the demands those place on a 54-year-old frame, still as lean as in his racing heyday?
Riding in the 500cc and 250cc classes, until Scott Redding’s win at the 2008 125cc British Grand Prix he was the only rider from the British Isles to win a race or pole in a MotoGP World Championship class in the 2000s.
“I did actually compete in a road race once before my North West debut in 2012,” he relates.
“I went to Macau in the Far East in 1993 to ride alongside Steve Hislop and the late Robert Dunlop and David Jefferies on the famous road circuit there.
“I managed a win on a 500 Yamaha and it opened my eyes to road racing. I decided there and then that racing between Armco barriers wasn’t going to be my thing, plus I was making my living in MotoGP, and Macau is really just an end of season party.”
The North West may offer him a similar social release but the racing side he takes seriously, out of pride in his own professionalism and also a sense of obligation to Farquhar after ambitious attempts to attract top name riders Ian Hutchinson and John McGuinness fell through in the way of motorcycle racing deals which are never cut and dried.
“Ryan has worked hard to put his team together and we owe it to him to go out and get the best results we can for him,” attests McWilliams.
“I’ve shown with my wins and podiums up here that I can do that without taking undue risks. I tend to race within a margin, giving 100 per cent but never pushing the boundary beyond that. At 105 per cent, that is where it can all go wrong.
“Fitness-wise, I don’t have any problems with the short, sharp style of Supertwin racing. I’ve never gone to the gym, I cycle a lot, maintain a reasonably healthy diet and I enjoy a pint of Guinness.
“At my age, I am racing mostly from memory.
“I hadn’t trained leading up to one of my Classic races at Philip Island in Australia, up against the likes of Peter Hickman, Lee Johnston and Colin Edwards. I thought I was going to get smoked but I won it.
“So it works for me but maybe not everyone. That’s why I haven’t put a time scale on how long I will carry on. I’d say if I am not enjoying it anymore and not doing myself justice, that will be the time to go.”
Whenever it happens, McWilliams is guaranteed to be kept busy.
He is at every World Superbike round on the continent representing KTM and looking after their Supersport 300 team.
He runs racing schools and academies, mentors young riders and believes the sport is in a healthy state for the future with no fewer than five young Northern Ireland riders competing in the British Talent Cup.
Glenn Irwin, on pole for the Superbikes today and a spectacular winner last year, is the immediate future, he believes.
“Glenn is a real talent. We have known that since he came into one of our teams as a wild card in 2012 and excelled,” he says.
“He is a smashing lad too, with a big future ahead of him.
“Further back, it is good to see lads like Cameron Davidson, Sammy Laffin, Jonathan Campbell and Scott Swann on the way up in their teens.”
Those young riders he name checks are winning their race against time too, as McWilliams observes: “There’s more pressure now. If you haven’t made it by your early 20s, you are too old.”
And, without a hint of irony, he adds: “It wasn’t like that in my day.”