A more mild-mannered man than Mervyn Whyte you could not hope to meet.
In the 20 years I’ve known him as North West 200 race chief, the man who makes this great event tick, I’ve never seen his hackles raised.
So unflappable is Mervyn that it is said by his vast organisational army - volunteers every one - that they’ll only start to panic when they see Mervyn panic and that’s never happened in two decades of the most trying circumstances imaginable... tragic fatalities, freak weather cancellations, bomb scares, oil spills, an agricultural epidemic and now a global pandemic.
For the cruel hand that fate has sometimes dealt him, Mervyn has always held the race, and himself, together.
How ironic then that he should blow a gasket after seeing home, by common consent, the greatest North West spectacle in living memory.
Massive crowds, estimated at 100,000 over the week, record speeds and thrilling racing in perfect weather conditions made for an event “as good as it gets”, declared Whyte in the immediate afterglow.
You never see modest Mervyn centre stage but somehow or other, he was hauled in front of the audience in the hospitality marquee to take a well deserved bow.
Choked with emotion, he told the corporate assembly, who had risen to their feet in acknowledgement of a job well done, that it was nothing short of miraculous how the race had bounced back in such spectacular fashion after three years in covid isolation and doubts, mainly financial, hovering over its future.
Prompted by MC Adrian Logan, he agreed it had been achieved in spite of promised official funding that had not been forthcoming.
And then the dam burst, as Mervyn uncharacteristically let fly at Tourism NI chiefs, in particular, slamming their conspicuous absence at the event and perceived indifference to arguably this country’s biggest unique selling point in terms of tourism and the economy. Yet it barely breaks even, such are the overheads.
One particular comment will have cut home and resonated with race fans who have been known to wonder if the working class roots of their sport and its following are the reason for the mitigation against them when large scale funding is being handed out. Snobbery, in other words.
“If this was a golf club event three miles down the road, they’d be all over it,” Mervyn shot at the Tourism NI absentees. And everyone knew what he meant.
Was he right?
Mervyn’s outburst was the culmination of years of frustration coming to the boil over a lack of meaningful Stormont and Tourism NI funding for an event that brings in thousands of tourists from all around the world, seen by millions on TV in 72 countries and generates an estimated £90million annually for the local economy.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the ripping away, within touching distance, just ahead of the race, of an agreed £800,000 government rescue package to secure the future of the North West and Ulster Grand Prix jewels in the NI road racing crown.
It had been signed off by the Economy and Finance departments at Stormont only to become snagged in red tape at the 11th hour when it reached Tourism NI for disbursement, begging the question: why were the difficulties not flagged up earlier to allow them to be untangled in time for the transfusion to be administered to the North West patient? Bloody bureaucracy.
Race fans would be the first to accept that any sport would be way down the list of priorities for a Stormont in stasis, way behind health, education, jobs, the economy and the Assembly itself.
But in this instance, road racing took its place in the queue, ticked the boxes, met the criteria and worked its way up to the table where that £800,000 was waiting, only to be red flagged on the final lap.
Saturday’s event was a roaring success, fuelled by funding at local level, council and business, but that extra government wad would allow Whyte and his team to do much more. The weekend success story on a shoestring showed an event ripe for expansion. And, of course, the famous old Ulster Grand Prix could also be saved.
Whyte should never have been placed in a position where he felt moved to deliver his broadside on Saturday.
He ought to have fully enjoyed his day in the sun after the trials and tribulations he has endured down the years amid undoubted triumphs, too.
It is said success has many fathers but failure is an orphan and Whyte has been left to carry the can single handedly in the past when things have gone awry.
He would be entitled to consider Saturday’s epic his greatest achievement, enough to see him go out on a high at an energetic 71 when he still has much expertise to offer.
It will cross his mind.
Where that to happen for the sake of short-sighted beancounters who would appear to know the price of everything but the value of nothing, tthe North West and Northern Ireland plc would ultimately be the poorer.