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There’s nothing quite like the North West 200 as a road racing spectacle, says former course chief Billy Nutt

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Back on the grid: Alastair Seeley (34) takes off from the grid back in 2019. Credit: Stephen Davison

Back on the grid: Alastair Seeley (34) takes off from the grid back in 2019. Credit: Stephen Davison

Glenn Irwin (1) and Peter Hickman (60) during the Superstock race in 2019. Credit: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

Glenn Irwin (1) and Peter Hickman (60) during the Superstock race in 2019. Credit: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

Billy Nutt

Billy Nutt

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Back on the grid: Alastair Seeley (34) takes off from the grid back in 2019. Credit: Stephen Davison

Three years after the chequered flag fell on the last race at the North West 200, Northern Ireland’s premier motorcycling showpiece will deliver a high-octane shot in the arm to the sport after two seasons thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cookstown 100 was the only national meeting that took place in 2020 and 2021, and although the Armoy ‘Race of Legends’ also went ahead last summer, every other Irish road race — plus the iconic Isle of Man TT — was cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions.

However, bikes are back in 2022 and the Cookstown and Tandragee 100 meetings last month have whetted the appetite for the return of the North West, which is the first major road race to take place since the Macau Grand Prix in November 2019.

The paddock in Portrush — the beating heart of Irish motorcycling’s jewel in the crown — is already beginning to fill up as the world’s top road racers and their teams make an eagerly anticipated comeback to big-time road racing.

And with the debt-hit Ulster Grand Prix cancelled for the third successive year after a government funding package of £800,000 earmarked for Ulster motorcycling fell through in March, the North West takes on even greater significance.

Crowds in excess of 80,000 attend the event, generating a massive £12m boost for the local economy, and the unique appeal of the historic race has been sorely missed these past few years.

One man who knows more than most about the North West 200’s status as one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated sporting occasions is former long-serving Clerk of the Course Billy Nutt, who stepped down from the role in 2000 and handed the baton to current race chief Mervyn Whyte.

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“It just has a different buzz altogether, compared even to the Ulster Grand Prix,” said Nutt.

“The North West has something special, just like the TT. It’s such a unique course because you’ve got three big straights and the speed is incredible. There was such a buzz about the place during race week.

“We had guys like Steve Parrish turning up and driving around the course in his Rolls Royce, and then you had Tony Rutter arriving in his wee transit van with a few bikes and going out and beating the whole lot of them — except Raymond McCullough!

“The racing was always absolutely brilliant and the location really sets the North West apart with its setting on the Coast Road,” added Nutt.

“There’s a holiday feel to the event and you’ve got all the restaurants, bars and nightclubs; and in my day, everybody came to party.

“Saturday was the serious business of race day but then on Saturday night it was party time and once everyone got sobered up, they went home happy on the Sunday.”

Road racing legend Phillip McCallen’s name is synonymous with the North West, where ‘Supermac’ famously won a record five races in a day in 1992.

The Portadown man is an 11-time winner at the event and is now part of BBC NI’s broadcast team at the race, which marked its 90th anniversary in 2019.

“I think it’s brilliant to see the race back and I don’t think people can believe it’s actually happening again,” McCallen said.

“I think everybody is excited and we just pray that the weather will be reasonable next week. The riders are excited for it and just want to get back out there, and so are the fans because it’s a huge social occasion as well.

“I don’t believe the fact that the race didn’t happen over these past few years will make any difference to the riders, because the top boys have been racing every week in the British Superbike Championship or elsewhere.

“They’re all dialled in already and it won’t be a problem to them. Those first few laps on Tuesday will just be a case of getting a feel for the place and after that it’ll be as if they were never away,” he added.

“Some of the guys further down the order, who don’t have the benefit of racing as frequently as the leading names, might need a few more laps to adjust but overall it’s not going to be an issue.

“Our own riders who do the Irish roads have been to Cookstown and Tandragee, so they’ll be dialled in as well and they’ll be up to speed in no time.

“Everything’s all set and like everyone else, I can’t wait to get up to the north coast again next week because it’s just such a fantastic event.”

Roads close for the opening practice sessions on Tuesday from 9.15am to 3.15pm and again at the same time on Thursday for final qualifying.

The first three races for the Supersport, Superstock and Supertwin classes will be held on Thursday evening, when roads will be closed between 5pm and 9pm.

Roads close next Saturday from 9.15am for the main five-race programme and will reopen no later than 7pm.

The headline Superbike races top the bill, when Carrickfergus man Glenn Irwin will be seeking to extend his unbeaten run in the class after winning the last four races on Ducati and Kawasaki machinery.

Irwin lines up for the Honda Racing UK team this time alongside 23-time Isle of Man TT winner John McGuinness, who returns to the Honda fold as he gears up for a milestone 100th start at the TT in June.


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