Ahead of what should have been Race Week on north coast, a look at showpiece’s highs and lows
The north coast roads are eerily quiet this weekend, and rightly so amid the necessary pandemic regulations.
Where the big bikes, their riders, teams and tens of thousands of fans would have begun gathering for the start of what would have been 2020 North West 200 Race Week, a tribute banner, thanking all NHS workers for their efforts in the current crisis, has been laid across the track at the start-finish line on the Portstewart-Portrush road.
Instead of the road racing thrills and drama that have made the Triangle course world famous over its 90-year history, there are only our memories this weekend and fortunately we have a treasure trove.
Where to begin? My own association with Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting event, as a spectator and later reporter and photographer, goes back over 50 years to 1967 and my first adventure alongside my father.
Three things immediately entranced me — the huge crowds, seeing Fred Stevens complete a 350/500cc double on the green Italian Hanna Paton machines, and witnessing the crash of Rob Fitton in the 500cc class at Juniper Hill, flying through the air like a windmill.
In the immediate aftermath, another rider taking evasive action steered his machine into a storm drain on the exit from Juniper but didn’t fall off, riding it like a trials rider with both feet off the pegs until he found a safe place to rejoin the circuit halfway up Quarry Hill.
My appetite had been whetted by photographs my late father had taken in the 1950s and early ’60s of competitors approaching Black Hill looking back down towards Dhu Varren with just two massive houses on the right-hand side of the road. How times have changed.
I was at Black Hill in 1968 when 1965 50cc world champion Ralph Bryans appeared with a 250cc six-cylinder Honda that screamed around the circuit like a banshee.
But he didn’t win. Holding a healthy lead in the 250cc race, his bank of carburettors slid off going towards Coleraine and he had to hold them on with his hand until he got back to the pits in Portstewart. Once locked back on, he set off in hot pursuit, shattering the lap record with a speed of 109.23mph on his final lap to finish fourth.
In the 500cc race that same day, up to 10 riders diced for the lead with John ‘Mooneyes’ Cooper eventually winning on a Matchless from the Hanna Paton of Billie Nelson and the Norton of Rod Gould.
Kel Carruthers, Rob Fitton, Ron Chandler, John Hartle, Peter Williams and Jack Findlay, all ‘Continental Circus’ Grand Prix riders, were amongst the breathtaking action with Chandler crashing out at Black Hill on the final lap after clipping a slower rider. This is a contender for the greatest North West 200 race I have ever witnessed around the Triangle.
The event was cancelled in 1972 due to the Troubles, returning the following year with forced changes to the circuit — most notably no more racing along Portstewart promenade to Milburn Corner, Coleraine.
Instead, the circuit made a sharp left at York Corner in Portstewart and went all the way along the Cromore Road, rejoining the old circuit at Shell Hill Bridge. A new start and pit area, roughly where it is today, was added, plus a new wave of riders arrived on the scene.
I was at Black Hill, my father’s favourite part of the course, in 1974 when John Williams became the first rider to score three wins in a day at the North West. He could have made it four but for our own Ray McCullough, who won the 250cc race ahead of him.
A year later and the Metropole section was reintroduced to the circuit having turned left at Glenvale since 1968, rejoining the track at Church. I was on the embankment at Metropole and witnessed the ‘Green Meanies’ — 500 and 750cc works Kawasakis — in the hands of Mick Grant and Barry Ditchburn with the new lap record set at 122.62mph by the former on his way to a double success.
A roundabout was built at Ballysally in 1976 and on the approach from Shell Hill it was taken in the opposite direction to normal everyday traffic.
In horrendously wet conditions, I was hunkered somewhere around the cliff top at Black Hill as a small British firm, Sparton, caused a stir with a 500cc one-two by Martin Sharpe and Armoy’s Frank Kennedy.
Kennedy led going into the final lap despite a persistent misfire that forced him to slow dramatically, allowing the Englishman to race through and win from a delighted Kennedy, who was just happy to have nursed his machine home.
That same year, Ray McCullough took the 350cc race honours before suffering a huge crash in the 250cc event when his machine aqua-planed on the wet road close to Carnalridge School.
McCullough slid on his back some 300 yards down the middle of the road totally unscathed. In the 350cc race, one William Joseph Dunlop made his first NW200 podium appearance in third place.
Metropole was the vantage point for 1977 and the fantastic 350cc battle between McCullough and Tony Rutter that ended in the only ever dead heat declared at the NW200.
I missed Tom Herron’s first win around the Triangle in 1970, but was at Metropole in 1978 when he scored a 250/750cc double and made history by setting an absolute lap record of 127.63mph on the Finlay-Kangol 750cc Yamaha in the second Superbike race, the fastest lap of any circuit in the UK at the time.
The 1979 Golden Jubilee event turned into a real nightmare, one of the blackest days in North West 200 history.
Herron, now campaigning a factory Texaco Heron Suzuki, crashed heavily at Juniper Hill (there was no chicane in those days) on the final lap of the final race and died later that evening in hospital.
On a day of disasters, Frank Kennedy, Warren Willing and Kevin Stowe were involved in a massive crash close to the entrance to Coleraine University in the Jubilee Match Race that opened the day’s racing.
Willing and Stowe survived, but Kennedy lay in a coma for almost six months before passing away.
Scottish rider Brian Hamilton died after crashing at Black Hill, Mick Grant broke his pelvis in a crash at York Corner and I went home from the event in a state of shock.
It took a day or two to sink in that Joey Dunlop had completed a Superbike double on his Rea Racing Yamaha, the first of 13 wins, only bettered by his brother Robert on 15 and Alastair Seeley now on 24.
University Corner was introduced in 1980, eliminating the famous Shell Hill Bridge section of the course, and I was at Ballysally Roundabout which afforded a great view of the riders and machines coming up the Link Road, onto and around the roundabout and accelerating away towards Mathers Cross.
It was fantastic to witness Steven Cull win the 250cc race on a Cotton that day and who will ever forget his treble in 1988? He fell off at York in the final Superbike race on the last lap with a healthy lead over Joey Dunlop, but picked up his 500cc Honda and set off after the F1 Honda in what seemed a lost cause. However, in a sensational twist, he caught and passed his rival at Juniper Chicane for a remarkable win.
A proud moment for me came in 1985 when, after 11 years of trying, Roger Marshall from Lincolnshire — a good friend of mine — won his first North West 200 race.
Through the ’90s and right up to the present day, I have been photographing and reporting on the North West 200 and witnessed many great races and got to know some great riders and officials along the way.
I was there through the start of the sponsorship era — Morans, Dacia Cars, Bohill and Eglinton Hotels, Traks, Coleraine Plant Hire (Alan and Norman Hutchinson), the Coca Cola decade, Alastair Kennedy and Junction One, Relentless and Vauxhall to name a few.
Along with this came more professionalism, hospitality and top-drawer television and media coverage sending the North West 200 to a worldwide audience, much of it down to the vision and hands-on leadership of race chief and Mr North West, Mervyn Whyte.
However, 2008 will live with me for the rest of my days. I was sitting in the press room on my own watching the BBC live feed of the start of a Thursday evening practice session and the helicopter was following Robert Dunlop on Roy Hanna’s 250cc Honda when all of a sudden the machine threw him over the handlebars as he shut off for Mathers Cross, only to be collected by the following rider, who also crashed.
I knew straight away it was a very serious incident and, as we later learned, the then North West 200 record race winner died that evening in hospital. I was shocked to the core. I had seen the crash unfold and had a fair idea the news was not going to be good.
Yet less than 48 hours later, his sons, William and Michael, were on the grid for the 250cc race and in one of the most emotional races I have ever witnessed, Michael dramatically won after a great dice with Christian Elkin and John McGuinness with William an early retirement. Packed grandstands were a mixture of euphoria and tears as a tearful Michael was carried to the podium shoulder high.
In that moment, Michael transformed the event from a requiem to his father to a celebration of Robert’s racing life.
Other fantastic races I’ve been privileged to witness include:
The final 125cc race around the Triangle came in 2010 and fittingly Paul Robinson won the race 30 years after his father Mervyn lost his life in an accident at Mathers Cross.
I could go on and on… the North West 200 has produced so many dramatic, close and spectacular races over the years.
It’s impossible to mention all the magic moments I have witnessed around a circuit that has seen enormous changes made by the promoting Coleraine and District Motor Club who moved with the times, with competitor and spectator safety always at the forefront of the majority of circuit alterations.
Hopefully this year’s postponement and probable cancellation is just a blip and we are back full throttle come 2021.