If you were to conduct a word association test on the North West 200, I am sure the most popular response would be Dunlop. When people think of the North West, even non-racing people, the name Dunlop immediately springs to mind.
t was thus in my racing heyday when Joey and Robert were lords of their local manor, and the family name endures today, a generation later, with Robert’s two sons, Michael and William, keeping the dynasty to the fore.
It wouldn’t be a North West without a Dunlop on the rostrum and I am sure this year will be no different with Michael standing the best chance after older brother William’s frustrations in bringing a team and bikes together. To be a Dunlop is to be a racing icon.
I can imagine young, up and coming riders today looking up to the Dunlop brothers as I did to their dad and uncle, starting out in the ‘80s.
I’d raced at the front with Joey and Robert a few times before my first serious chance to test myself against them at Tandragee in 1988. For the first time, Joey and I were on equally matched bikes, Honda 250s, and I came out on top. Looking back, that was the moment I knew I could be something in this game. Multiple champions like Brian Reid and Steven Cull were in the field that day and I thought: “Wow, did I really beat these guys?”
I went on to beat Joey at the North West and remember thinking: “Am I supposed to do this?”
Joey was the big hero up here and I was worried what his thousands of fans would think of this young whipper-snapper, up from Co Armagh.
I was afraid I would be Mr Unpopular, but by then I had the racing buzz and winning was all that mattered.
I have to admit my relationship with Robert was strained at times as we were fighting for the same wins a lot of the time. But it was a racing rivalry that never extended beyond the track and I was deeply saddened by his loss.
Likewise with Joey. He and I got on well, and he helped me get my factory deal with Honda when I fell out with Kawasaki. I never forget that, especially this week, 25 years on from my record five wins in a day here.
In this sport, when you get the right combination of rider, bike and team, the possibilities are limitless. It is the dream ticket and Michael looks to be nearing that state of perfection with his new Suzuki.
To be third fastest in Superbike practice yesterday on a new machine, quite literally just out of the crate, is some achievement, given the adjustments and changes he and his team will have been making.
William has a longer way to go to get back up there.
Deals didn’t happen for him the way they were supposed to in the lead up to the season. He ended up putting his own team together with bikes handed on by MarTrain’s Tim Martin as he wound down his team. William’s 600 then blew up in practice on Tuesday but, as a Dunlop, he will keep working to get it right.
His performances in practice yesterday were creditable in the circumstances but Michael is the one who looks capable of teasing a podium place, at least, out of that new Suzuki to keep the Dunlop name as synonymous as ever with their home race at the North West.