Belfast Telegraph

Thrills and spills of North West 200: One of the finest road-racing circuits in the world on our doorstep

Paul Lindsay, who grew up watching Joey and Robert Dunlop duelling it out over the 8.9 miles of the North West 200, explains its enduring appeal

Northern Ireland is well-known for its castles, glacial valleys and mountains, but this week, on the north coast, we can add gladiators to that list as the Vauxhall International North West 200 fires into action on the famous 8.9-mile triangle taking in Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine.

Originally a 200-mile test for competitors, the event is steeped in history and has become an annual pilgrimage for those living across Ireland - north and south - with tens of thousands also filling ferry terminals and airport departure lounges on this now-famous week in May.

The rugged and picturesque coastline has made Portrush and Portstewart a favourite with families for many a year and with a mile-long peninsula and panoramic views that extend into the Atlantic Ocean, there's something for everyone, with the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Distillery always top of the "to do" list for those travelling from Continental Europe and the rest of the UK.

The International North West 200 event itself has grown from a one-day showpiece into a week-long festival and I'm certain that those men and women who organised this jewel in Northern Ireland's crown back in the 1930s could never have dreamt how big it would one day become.

Pure road-racing in Northern Ireland, at places like Cookstown, Tandragee and, more recently, Armoy, attracts up to 10,000 purists on any given weekend throughout spring and summer.

But the appeal of the North West 200 festival on the north coast is such that it will see close to 100,000 people make at least one visit to the famous Triangle this week.

Everyone has their own special memories of the North West 200 - whether a regular road-racing aficionado or just a weekend warrior in May.

Today it's all about a packed grid and bustling Press room for me, but my memories as a fan are all about standing on the sidelines at Black Hill - my favoured vantage point - watching Joey and Robert Dunlop make perennial history.

The famous brothers, who are sadly no longer with us, recorded 28 wins between them during many years competing at the North West 200 and the legacy they have left is being kept well and truly alive by Robert's sons, William and Michael.

The townland of Ballymoney seems to have something in its productive genes that creates super-fast road-racing competitors and, while the Dunlop siblings are very much chalk and cheese off-track, both have a predisposition for success, as we saw last year when they shared the Superbike victories.

Motorsport and motorcycling in general are ingrained in Northern Ireland's heritage and, while we have those who will always campaign against the event and its high-octane thrills, I challenge anyone to stand at one of the many vantage-points around the circuit tomorrow and not feel the hairs stand on the back of their neck and arms as the bikes hurtle past at mind-boggling speeds and lean angles.

So what else does the North West 200 have to offer? While we don't advocate gambling, every child should experience the slot machines and atmosphere that surrounds Barry's Amusements in Portrush during the festival.

The seaside resort is our very own Blackpool, with candyfloss, the ever-present smell of fish suppers and overcooked burgers wafting from the various establishments and private gardens.

In recent years, Northern Irish riders have dominated the north coast event, with Tyco BMW employee Alastair Seeley the pick of the bunch.

The 35-year-old double British champion currently sits on 13 wins at the NW200, just two shy of Robert Dunlop's all-time record of 15.

The quirky little Carrickfergus man started his victory crusade at the North West 200 back in 2008, when he won the Superstock race, ironically outsmarting his current team TAS Racing, whose riders Bruce Anstey and Cameron Donald had to settle for the minor podium positions after Seeley mugged them at the Juniper Hill chicane.

Seeley is not alone when it comes to local talent, with the aforementioned Dunlop brothers, William and Michael, set to lock horns again this season on BMW and Yamaha machinery.

Then we have the real joker of the pack - Lee Johnston.

The Maguiresbridge lad came away from the 2014 event with a double in the smaller Supertwin class.

But with top-quality machinery in his East Coast Racing stable this time around, he could well give the big favourites a run for their money in the Superbike class.

That's the joy of the North West: you pick your favourite for the day from the official programme, wait with anticipation as you hear the pack from a few miles away and, once they arrive, it is a real scramble to get the numbers scribbled on the programme - all while trying to wave it in support to give them that all-important bit of fan-related impetus.

By the time you read this, most of the race-week festival will have been completed.

But the all-important race day action is tomorrow, so all you need to do is set the alarm nice and early - roads close at 9.30am - pack plenty of layers, so you're prepared for the inclement Northern Ireland weather, a sturdy pair of shoes and bag full of enthusiasm.

It's a free event, but don't forget to purchase an official programme - it's the main source of income and will guarantee another year of unrivalled action on the north coast.

I'll see you at the races…

Paul Lindsay is the Belfast Telegraph's motorcycling correspondent. Tomorrow: The Big Read - Jim Gracey at the North West 200, in Sport

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph