North West 200: Chief Whyte laps it up as Biketown roars into life once again
Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish highland village of stage and screen, mysteriously appears only once every hundred years.
Here on our own north coast, a small town emerges every 12 months.
Over the past few weeks, the North West 200 paddock has been taking shape on the road between Portrush and Portstewart.
By last night, its 1,500 inhabitants had taken up residence, ready to welcome up to 80,000 visitors between now and Saturday’s main Race Day.
It is, quite literally, a town within the three host towns of the north coast triangle with Coleraine forming the inland point, a place to eat, drink and sleep motorcycle racing with all mod cons and creature comforts installed.
Today, Biketown will spark into life with the rumble of the big engines signalling action stations for the 100 riders, their accompanying teams and entourages, supported by an army of 800 volunteers, fanning out of their temporary homes onto the grid and around the 8.9-mile circuit as the first practice of Race Week gets under way, with roads closed to normal traffic from 9.30am until 3 in the afternoon.
There are few grumbles at the once-a-year inconvenience to householders and businesses around the track, given the huge economic benefits to the area from the visitor influx, an officially estimated £9.8m over the week.
And the man who oversees it all, Mr Cool race chief Mervyn Whyte, maintained his usual air of unflappable calm amid a day of hectic activity yesterday, akin to 1,500 guests checking into a hotel at the one time.
A tangible buzz of anticipation and excitement accompanied the controlled chaos as Whyte observed from his 45 years experience of the race: “It will all settle down, if that’s the right expression, when the first bikes go off the grid for Tuesday’s practice. The waiting will be over and the event will be under way.”
Whyte is the figurehead for the race and that volunteer army comprising marshals, first aiders, race officials, timekeepers, scrutineers, ticket and programme sellers and a team of meeters and greeters for the 500 paying guests who will fill the paddock hospitality marquee on Thursday race night and Saturday race day.
He also keeps a watching brief on everything North West associated from food, drink and merchandise franchising to the daily festival activities and night-time entertainment, to ensure standards are maintained.
It’s an education and foretaste of North Wests to come for his race lieutenants, Fergus Mackay and Gillian Lloyd, being groomed for a joint succession when Whyte (67) brings down his own chequered flag after next year’s 90th anniversary event.
He says he has been too busy for any realisation that this is the start of his penultimate year as commander in chief, though he is expected to continue in some form of consultancy role.
Busy is an understatement, his workload increased by an unfortunate and untimely injury to wife Hazel, currently laid up in Coleraine hospital with a broken hip after an accidental fall.
Hazel would normally be a key trooper in that volunteer army, organising and distributing passes to all and sundry.
“We miss her, of course,” agrees Mervyn. “All that knowledge, experience and personal contact with people built up over the years. It’s a huge vacuum to fill but it’s more important Hazel makes a full recovery.
“I am fortunate to have such a good team behind me, all contributing in their own invaluable way, from Fergus and Gillian and the event management team to the Coleraine club organising committee and all those volunteers who give up their time and personal commitments to help the event run smoothly and make it the success that it is.”
With a global TV audience looking in, another must on Whyte’s to-do list is a daily check on the localised Met Office report. The better the weather, the better the racing and the bigger the crowds to showcase the event and the area at its brilliant best.
“The forecast for Tuesday practice is changeable, but favourable for the rest of the week,” he reports.
Under Whyte’s 18-year leadership, the North West has established a worldwide reputation for event excellence, its attractions extending beyond the core selling point of motorcycle racing on a grand scale.
So much so that a team from the world-renowned Macau Grand Prix in the Far East have arrived on the north coast to observe how the North West is run and how their event can be improved as a result.
And, in a hint of things to come for Whyte in his future ‘retirement’, as Biketown is dismantled for another year, its civic father will be en route to Bermuda to advise time trial race organisers there on safety and event management.
But for now, his focus is on delivering a first practice that will be both safe and a spectacle. In the town that will host next year’s Open, in golfing parlance, this is moving day at the North West.