John Burrows says tragic young prospect Malachi Mitchell-Thomas won’t be far from his thoughts as the anniversary of his death at the North West 200 looms tomorrow.
The 20-year-old from Chorley in Lancashire was killed after a crash in the Supertwin race on May 14 last year, resulting in the abandonment of the event on a dark day for the sport in Northern Ireland.
Mitchell-Thomas had captured the imagination of the race-going public after a whirlwind start to his debut Irish road racing season in Burrows’ Cookstown-backed BE Racing Team, winning races at the Mid Antrim 150 and Cookstown 100 National meetings at his first attempt.
However, it was at the North West where the young talent really underpinned his status as a racer on the rise, following up a fifth place in the first Supertwin race with a sensational ride to fourth in Saturday’s Supersport 600 event as a newcomer.
It was a mark of Mitchell-Thomas’s unquestionable ability, but tragically hours later he was dead following a crash in Portrush at the Dhu Varren section of the seaside course, where Ryan Farquhar sustained critical injuries in an accident less than 48 hours earlier.
The charismatic racer’s death stunned the Co Tyrone-based team and left his father Kevin distraught.
One year on, Burrows says memories of that fateful day have come flooding back.
“We got through practice okay but then on Thursday night whenever the lads were sitting on the grid it brought everything back to me,” Burrows said.
“I was quite excited while the race was going on because Derek (Sheils) was having a strong ride on the Superstock bike, but I was glad to get that first race out of the way.
“After that, it seemed like we could move on a bit but it has been difficult enough coming back here to the North West 200 paddock because the anniversary of Mal’s death is approaching and as a family, we are thinking about that tragedy.
“But we can’t let that get in the way of what we are here to do. Whether we come back next year or the following year, the reminder is always going to be there.
“I think getting that first race over with on Thursday night has helped me emotionally because it was the first race at the North West for the team since Malachi went out in that ill-fated Supertwin race a year ago.”
Burrows revealed that Malachi’s father Kevin has suffered another personal loss as he was preparing to make the trip to Northern Ireland to attend the North West this weekend, with his father passing away in the early hours of yesterday morning.
“Mal’s father Kevin is due to arrive over today (Friday) but he received some bad news after his father sadly passed away in the early hours of this morning,” he said.
“It’s more heartbreak for Kevin but at the same time, he still wants to come over to the North West to be here for the anniversary of Mal’s death.
“We keep in touch a lot and Kevin came over to be with us for the Tandragee 100 and stayed at our house before going to the Cookstown meeting. He went back home to see his dad in hospital before returning to Northern Ireland, when he came with me to Athboy to watch my son Jack racing go-karts,” added Burrows.
“I left him back to the airport last Monday so he could be with his dad and now he’s on his way here for the North West. We’ve still got close links with Kevin and we’ll probably be lifelong friends now, bonded by what we all went through last year.”
Mitchell-Thomas had the world at his feet before his untimely death and Burrows is adamant the English rider would have gone on to scale great heights.
“Where would Mal be today? That is a good question and of course I wish Mal was here as part of our team today. In the past Dan Kneen came to ride for me in 2014 and then he jumped ship to one of the bigger teams in the paddock when he joined Padgetts Racing,” he said.
“Unfortunately for Dan, the results didn’t come for him and that was something that Kevin and Mal had both noted and chatted to me about.
“They realised that moving to one of the bigger teams didn’t necessarily guarantee results and we actually talked about our plans at the North West last year. They were committed to staying with the team for 2017, but whether that would have materialised or not is another matter because Mal was beginning to make a name for himself and he may have got tempting offers from elsewhere.
“If fate hadn’t intervened, I think the best thing for Mal’s career would have been to stay with us for another season and continue improving. That certainly is the route he wanted to go down at the time,” said Burrows.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that Malachi Mitchell-Thomas would have gone on to be a future star at the Isle of Man TT but, sadly, we’ll never know just how good he could have been.”