North West gearing up for invasion of 80,000 bikers ahead of week's racing
Portrush has shed its winter clothes and now it is time for the cream... the cream of sport, that is.
A drive up to the popular old resort, determined to look its best for its biggest ever influx of visitors over the new few months, tells you this is shaping up to be the hottest summer of sport, not just the north coast, but this entire country, has ever seen.
Passing Royal Portrush golf club, you see the infrastructure for The Open taking shape… the grandstands, the hospitality village, the communications networks that will make Portrush the centre of the sporting universe for a week in July.
You have to pinch yourself to believe that it is real and its here with close to 200,000 tickets sold.
But then they are used to big numbers on the north coast. This week’s dress rehearsal for crowd management has been going for 90 years, after all.
Turn left after the golf club, then right at the famous Metropole corner, along the coast road, and soon you’re into the village that springs up annually between the twin towns of Portrush and Portstewart... the buzzing North West paddock where the world’s bravest road racers and their teams have been arriving all weekend ready to tackle the famous 8.9-mile triangle circuit.
It is clear to see that events like The Open and North West 200 don’t just happen, the former years in the planning, the latter months, and they only happen through the astonishing efforts of the willing band of people working unobtrusively, and mostly unpaid, behind the scenes.
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The logistics behind the North West are mindblowing, even though race chief Mervyn Whyte rattles them off matter of factly in his office at the hub of the Race Control operation.
80,000 spectators expected over the week, with practice tomorrow and Thursday, racing on Thursday night and Saturday and a host of attractions around the towns and in the paddock marquee. That number should rise with a week of favourable weather forecast. Looking after them all, and ensuring the event runs precisely and as safe as it is possible to be with speeds on the road touching 200mph, are a team of 800 volunteers, from marshals and timekeepers, to medics and stewards, programme sellers and hospitality workers.
That it continues to run after 90 years amid rising costs and the most stringent health and safety requirements in sport is a tribute to the Coleraine and District Motor Club organising team, headed up by the remarkable Mervyn and his lieutenants, Fergus Mackay and Gillian Lloyd who are due to inherit the exacting role on Mervyn’s planned retirement after this year’s event.
It is difficult to envisage the North West without its driving force in an association going back to 1973. No doubt he will be around in some capacity, such is his invaluable knowledge of every nut and bolt.
“It’s hard to believe that six weeks ago there was nothing here,” he says, looking around at the grandstands, the hospitality marquee, the gleaming team motorhomes parking up and trade stalls opening up where before and after the event will be just be an expanse of tarmac.
“We actually began our preparations in March,” Mervyn adds. “We carried out our risk assessments on the course and once those were in place, up went two miles of perimeter fencing. 1,100 safety bales then come out of storage and are installed around the course, along with pole and kerb protectors to make the track as safe as possible for the riders.
“We have a vast, hi-tech communications network here in the paddock and 17 dome cameras around the course giving us a 360 degree view of everything that is going on. Those allow us to zoom in on any incidents on or off the track and to respond immediately. We also have five sets of red lights, operated from here, to stop racing, if necessary.
“We have 5,000 seats at five locations, two here at the start-finish, and at Juniper Hill, York and Metropole corners, 90% of those sold out. For the other 75,000, it is a free show which is why we urge fans to buy a programme which is our biggest single source of revenue.
“We also work closely with the police, fire, ambulance and Coastguard services. The event couldn’t happen without all the strands working together with a common purpose and, of course, we also appreciate the goodwill of the residents, farming and business communities around the circuit when practice and racing is taking place.”
And then there are the main men and women — the riders, 100 in all from 18 countries, each made to feel at home with their national flags flying over the grandstand.
After registration this morning, they will gather in the marquee for a Race Control briefing, after which the 19 newcomers will be taken on a bus tour of the course ahead of going out for the first time on Tuesday morning under the expert tutelage of former winners and race legends Phillip McCallen and Steve Plater, plus a man with recent experience of the pitfalls, Ben Wilson who crashed out two years ago.
“The weather forecast is good, which is always a bonus, both for riders and fans,” says Mervyn. “We’ve covered every base in terms of organisation and preparation, so now its time to hand over to the riders.”
The fonaCAB International North West 200, in association with Nicholl Oils, runs until Saturday