Belfast Telegraph

'Roads are unforgiving. Beyond your limits is the point of no return. You need to stay in control to stay alive'

Champion road racer Phillip McCallen on high speed thrills and tragic low points... how his mentoring is helping save young riders' lives and why Daniel Day Lewis buys his motorcycles

By Jim Gracey

Surrounded by gleaming motorcycles all day long, you might think Phillip McCallen would hanker back to the days when he was king of the roads. A record five wins in a day at the North West 200, five wins in a day at the Ulster Grand Prix, 11 Isle of Man TT wins and success the world over, wherever he raced.

Fans of his era remember McCallen as a seemingly fearless, daredevil rider who thrilled and entertained every time he roared off the grid but as we will discover, there is more to McCallen than that.

So, how does he reconcile the seismic shift from the globe-trotting, high speed life of a top, sought-after rider to sitting behind a desk in his motorcycle showroom in a Lisburn industrial estate, with those reminders all around and his racing leathers adorning the walls?

Does he miss the buzz and adrenalin rush that is the opiate of the road racing addict?

His initial, drawn-out "n-o-t r-e-a-l-l-y" hints at heady memories of high octane excitement and adventure recrossing his sharp mind.

But he quickly clarifies: "Not at all, in fact. I am a firm believer that if something is over, it is over, and you move on to the next aspect of your life, whatever that may be.

"Even when I was planning for what I would do after motorcycle racing, running a dealership was never on my radar.

"I had trained and worked as an engineer, and was a very good one, before going full-time into bike racing, and that's what I intended to go back to. I was sort of tricked into this by a former sponsor."

And a neat trick it turned out to be with McCallen now employing 20 staff in his 15,000 square feet business with orders for new machines coming in from all over the world and Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis on his repeat customer books.

"Everyone should strive to be the best they can be in their field, be it sport, business, career, whatever pursuit you decide to follow. Not everyone will be successful but you won't find out unless you try," he reasons.

Now 54, he adds: "I am very happy with the turn of events in my life. I have my business and my family. My achievements in motorcycle racing are a matter of record and I do still have an involvement, mentoring the newcomers to the North West 200 and as part of the BBC TV race commentary team.

"Racing gave me a good life and some incredible highs and I see what I do as a way of giving something back."

McCallen has a lot to give. In a sport fraught with ever-present danger, his tutoring and advice to fledging young riders is an undoubted lifesaver.

You cannot talk about road racing without recognising the risks inherent with hurtling between hedges and built-up areas at speeds of up to 200mph.

McCallen genuinely cannot recall the exact number of friends and rivals he has known pay the ultimate price down the years.

"Too many," he says, but two in particular immediately spring to mind as they occurred before his eyes... Sam McClements at Carrowdore and Simon Beck on the Isle of Man.

"Sam was the saddest," he reflects. "He was a friend and we had a cup of coffee just before the race where he lost his life. I saw it happen. Simon Beck crashed in front of me in practice at the TT in 1999 and his death was the final link in a chain of events that told me it was time to retire."

And then there was Joey Dunlop, whom he credits with providing him with the step up in class racing bikes that took him from the chasing pack to pole position and podium top.

"It was a real shock when Joey was killed in that race in Estonia in 2000. We all thought he would just go on and on, indestructible. I raced the biggest names of my generation... legends like Brian Reid, Carl Fogarty, Steven Cull, Ray McCullough, all the big names, but Joey was in a class of his own. When you won a race against Joey, you knew you had achieved something special."

All that knowledge, all that insight (McCallen not only raced bikes, he quickly learned what made them tick, using his engineering background to improve and develop the machines) and his tragic, first-hand experience of where it can all go wrong is now being put to priceless use in the education of the new generations taking on the roads for the first time.

"It's good that events like the North West and Ulster Grand Prix are prioritising the learning experience for newcomers to their courses. We had to learn the hard way," says McCallen, whose medical file reads two fractured skulls, five shoulder breaks, a broken back twice, broken pelvis and broken feet.

"We are trying to pass on 10 years' knowledge in a few hours; lining up corners, avoiding manhole covers and other potential traps that can throw a rider off. But above all, we hammer home to them - be sensible, be careful."

All the things McCallen wasn't, some who watched him blaze his relentless trail to the top might say. And they would be wrong.

For McCallen now provides a rare insight into the mentality of the successful road racer and how he lived to tell the tale while so many of his contemporaries perished.

"Road racing is all about control, on every level," he contends. "Riders have this inbuilt desire to win, to go faster than the next guy and to gain every edge. But it has to be controlled. You always look to push yourself and your bike to the max but you need to realise what that limit is. It's a special skill on the roads and finding it is a problem.

"The more you push, the bigger the risk and if you go beyond that limit, well, it really is the point of no return.

"That's the part you can control if you keep your wits about you but other factors then come into the equation in road racing... other riders, mechanical failure, hedges, lampposts, garden walls... on tracks, at least you have a run-off area if you part company with your bike. Roads are less forgiving."

Co Armagh-born McCallen still lives in his first marital home of 22 years in Tandragee with wife Manda, daughter Katie (15) and son Tommy (12). He and Manda actually met on the day he posted his famous five wins on the north coast. Manda was on the grid to officially congratulate him in her role as the reigning Miss North West 200. McCallen considered himself Mr North West that day, so it was inevitable they would ride off into the sunset together.

A modest trophy cabinet apart, there is little about McCallen's home to suggest he was once the fastest man on two wheels around the most celebrated race tracks in the world.

His treasure trove of memorabilia, photographic reminders and racing gear reside in packing cases. The collection of leathers mounted in his showroom are there because his customers expect to see them.

He neither trades on his name nor dwells on his successful past, getting on in business, as he did in his racing career, on the back of his bikes. And business is good with a steady stream of interested buyers through the showroom doors as we chatted in the traditionally slow first retail week of January.

Did you know, McCallen imparts, that Kawasaki is now the biggest selling model in Northern Ireland, thanks largely to the brand recognition from Jonathan's Rea's triple World Superbike success on the Japanese machines?

But to understand the McCallen psyche, his work ethic and desire to occupy the top step, it is necessary to delve into his background.

Brought up with his two brothers on a small family farm between Portadown and Tandragee, he was just nine-years-old when he lost his dad Eric to Multiple Sclerosis. As mum Betty, now in her 80s, worked hard to keep the farm going, the boys did their bit by taking on part-time jobs to sell her meat and dairy produce in an uncle's general store in Laurelvale.

"I delivered milk, bagged potatoes, plucked turkeys and the experience stood to me. I cannot remember a time in my young life when I wasn't out working to earn a few extra pounds," he relates with pride.

Another summer job, at the world-famous McGready rose growers, changed the course of his life completely. Using his savings to buy a racing bicycle, he was soon winning races against his pals, fixing their bikes 'for a small fee' and joining a local cycle club, competing against adult riders when he was just 12.

"Then the worst happened," he says. "When I was about 15, someone let me try a 50cc Suzuki. I thought this was great. I don't have to pedal, I can go much faster and get bigger thrills. So I bought one of my own with my milk money and promptly got caught by the police, out on the road while under-age. My mum went mad at me.

"But I just loved the buzz of riding motorcycles fast. Mark Farmer and Woolsey Coulter were schoolmates and we used to race one another. They went on to start proper racing careers while I went to work.

"I was always interested in engineering and design and was offered an apprenticeship by a local firm, servicing the food industry. Soon I was designing and installing kitchen and chilling equipment, stainless steel and extractor work for all the big food companies like Ulster Meats, Dennys and Moy Park. It gave me a great insight into how business and companies work. I realised I needed more qualifications to get to the top of my game and went back to night Tech for four years to get them.

"I was still a bit wild on my bike, by now a 1000cc Suzuki, and after a few scrapes I knew it was going to end badly if I didn't find an outlet to satisfy my need for speed.

"I kept reading in the local paper about Mark and Woolsey winning races and thought, 'I used to beat those boys. Maybe I should take up racing?' The problem was weekend working as I needed the overtime but I struck a deal with my boss to get Saturdays off and work Sundays and that's how I got started, with a 125.

"My first race was at Aghadowey in 1983 and I got lost on the way there and missed practice, but still qualified for the final, my first time on a track."

He crashed out in the wet in that final but his impressive riding for a rookie still got him noticed by, of all people, Joey Dunlop's renowned manager, the late Davy Wood, who by coincidence was the Embassy cigarette rep who supplied the McCallen's shop in Laurelvale.

"Davy took me under his wing, helping and advising with sponsorships and dealing with race organisers until I became established and felt confident enough to strike out on my own," he recalls.

"I invested some of my own money, borrowed some and secured bikes from Matt Lavery and John Wilson, a 250, and Bobby Campbell, a 350, to add to my 125. My brothers, Noel and Ronald, were my team.

"By 1988, I was starting the season with strong, competitive bikes capable of challenging the likes of Brian Reid, Steven Cull and Joey. It was a big year for me as I scored wins over them all to take seven Ulster and Irish titles on the roads and short circuits."

The following year was not so good but, yet again, fate intervened, as he explains: "I had a particularly disastrous North West, all sorts of problems with my bikes. On the way home, by sheer chance, I called into Joey's Bar in Ballymoney and Joey was there, out of action after a crash at Donington. We got chatting, both feeling sorry for ourselves, then Joey perked up and said, 'You know what? You should be riding my bikes. I'm not going to be on them for a while'.

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing and right enough Joey phoned his Honda team the next day and, amazingly, they took me on."

McCallen and Honda were made for each other. He not only kept their bikes to the forefront of every major race, as Joey had done; his engineering experience also came into play on the development and testing side, even playing a leading role in the production of the famous Fireblade.

But as the wins mounted up, so, too, did the injuries and conscious of those boundaries he spoke of, he set one final target, admitting to himself: "It's a dangerous game. I can't do this forever."

Looking back, he explains: "I'd won those five North Wests in a day and five Dundrod races in a day. I also had four TT wins in a week on the Isle of Man, which was then a record.

"I thought it would be nice and neat to bow out with five at the TT as well. I managed four in '96 but ran out of petrol, three in '97 and crashed, broke my back in '98 and in '99 I crashed at Donington before the TT and wasn't fit to ride.

"Four goes and no five wins. I'd also seen poor Simon Beck lose his life. Looking at it altogether, I took it as a sign the five wins target wasn't supposed to happen, so I stopped trying and retired."

McCallen had expected to go back into engineering, being, in his own words, a better engineer than a racer.

But, he maintains, his then sponsor, the massive Motor Cycle City UK dealership, 'tricked' him into becoming a general manager of their London operation, overseeing 120 counter staff and 130 mechanics.

It was the grounding for the start of his own dealership, from small beginnings in Lurgan to his present two-storey showroom on Lisburn's Lissue industrial estate.

He has grown the business to the extent that his last order, for a custom built bike, came in from Mongolia.

But even McCallen was surprised the day Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis, a big bike fan and visitor to the North West 200, walked into his showroom. The actor was taken on a pillion ride around the Dundrod circuit, left with a KTM and returned to buy another.

Bikes have been his life and his living, so it's no surprise that McCallen is the go-to voice the radio chat shows turn to in support of road racing, his passion for the sport and reasoned arguments always guaranteed to demolish the half-hearted murmurings of unconvincing and uninformed opponents.

"Road racing is a way of life for vast numbers of people in Northern Ireland. Look at the crowds our events attract and their value to the economy - the North West alone has been shown to generate nearly £10m annually. New riders are coming into the sport all the time; no one is forcing anyone to do it. They are attracted by the thrills and excitement as I was. There is danger present in so many other sports and pursuits but road racing seems to get singled out because its popularity will always get someone a headline or a soundbite if they come out against it," he adds.

"Instead of criticising, why don't they join with us in trying to make it safer?"

Belfast Telegraph


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