North West 200: Michael Rutter still going wild for NW 200 after all these years
An abiding memory of Michael Rutter is of the night he became the first rider to break the 200mph speed barrier (201 to be precise) at the 2004 North West 200.
There he was, up on stage in The Anchor in Portstewart, belting out Wild Thing on the karaoke, accompanied by TV cameraman Albert Kirk, he of the flowing blond locks and box of magic tricks. They fairly held us spellbound that night.
It’s a mental picture far removed from the one he paints of his life away from the track.
When he isn’t piloting his big BMWs at 200mph, you’re likely to find him at home, mounted more sedately on a motorised lawnmower or even flying model aeroplanes.
“Yes, I’m a bit of a gardener,” he confides in his unmistakeable West Midlands accent that adds to the laid back impression of Rutter. He really is to the point of horizontal.
He sips an English bitter, brewed by his team sponsor, Bathams, as we chat in his motorhome in the North West paddock after his second place finish in Thursday night’s Supertwins race, his 28th time on the rostrum here, on level pegging with local heroes Alastair Seeley and Phillip McCallen.
He looks trim and fit at 45 and plans to go on competing at the top level for a few more years yet.
So what’s the secret of his longevity on the track when, as he freely admits, exercise really isn’t his thing?
“Anyone who knows me will tell you I am not one for strenuous activity. In fact, quite the opposite,” he says. “I don’t do the gym, weights and the like. I try to keep fit doing day to day things, playing golf and working on stuff around the garden.”
Though, clearly not to the extent of employing a manually operated lawnmower. And those model aeroplanes?
“I love them. I used to build them as a kid and now I enjoy flying the remote control versions. It’s great relaxation,” he says.
“I’d love to learn to fly a proper plane, but I’d probably get lost over the Irish Sea somewhere.”
Rutter is one of the enduring characters of the North West paddock.
He has missed just one North West in 25 years, in 1992 when he was on Grand Prix duty, and, notably, the year of Phillip McCallen’s record five wins in one day.
Fans here took to him from the start as the son of North West legend of the 70s, Tony Rutter, nine-time winner, and then in his own right for his winning craft and technique on the track, particularly in the wet.
One of the cleverest riders out there, Rutter’s style looks deceptively effortless. He only makes it look easy. Like a swan gliding elegantly across a lake, there’s a lot of paddling going on underneath.
“People don’t realise how hard it is; they should try it,” he says.
“Yes, I wish I was 10 years younger. Who doesn’t? But age doesn’t make a great deal of difference. I do ride differently to when I was in my 20s and 30s but that comes more from experience than age allowance.”
Retirement is far from his mind and the North West will always be the first date penned into his competitive calendar.
“Days like this keep me coming back,” he told me, with genuine satisfaction at his night’s work on Thursday.
“I really wanted to win that race. I rode the wheels off the bike but Martin Jessopp got home first and fair play to him.
“I was still delighted to be on the podium and would love another on Saturday, preferably the top step. Not so much to do with overtaking Phillip McCallen’s record but for the sheer enjoyment.
“There is no better feeling than belting down that coast road, touching 200mph. Pure exhilaration.
“You get good days and bad days in this sport, and I have learned to appreciate the good ones.
“The first 10 years I came here, everything was brilliant... the weather, the racing; I thought the sun always shone on the North West.
“Then we get the last 10 years dogged by accidents, some fatalities, sadly, bad weather, oil spills, bomb scares, you name it, but we keep going because it is such a great event and Thursday showed that.
“I’ve been lucky with injuries, compared to some, a broken hip and a bit of a bashing about in 1994.
“But I’ve seen the painful side of racing with pals seriously hurt and worse, and the trauma my dad went through after his accident. He nearly died twice and suffered all manner of injuries that took a toll on him for years.”
Doctors thought Tony Rutter’s career had effectively ended with that accident at the Montjuïc circuit in Barcelona in 1985 — although he eventually recovered and continued to ride in the TT until 1991.
Which brought us on to the downside of Thursday’s day in the sun at the North West and the shadow cast by the crash injuries to his friend John McGuinness, six-time North West winner and now denied a chance of adding to his 23 Isle of Man TT wins next month after his spill at Primrose in Superbike practice left him with a broken leg.
“John is a brilliant rider. He doesn’t stick his neck out so something has gone wrong and he has ended up in hospital,” he says.
“He is two days younger than me, so we are close in more ways than one. I hope he makes a full and speedy recovery and is able to resume his riding career.”
So will not so Wild Thing Rutter make our hearts sing in his four races today and should they get ready to crank up the karaoke in The Anchor again tonight?
“I do like a pint,” he smiles, “but that night was a bit OTT by my standards. It’s not every day you break the North West speed record... 201mph. No wonder I got p*ssed!”