Sporting lives and times: My dad died as I waited trackside, aged 5, for him to ride by but I still followed him into road racing, says Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson on how he fell in love with the sport that claimed the life of his father, Mervyn, an Armoy Armada legend, and his pain at the loss of cousin William Dunlop
up in the north Antrim hotbed of road racing, they believe the sport is in the DNA - and Paul Robinson ticks every box.
Mum Helen is a Dunlop, sister of Joey and Robert, so it was almost pre-ordained he would don leathers as soon as he was old enough.
And yet, it would have been perfectly understandable if he'd never wanted to see or hear a racing motorcycle after the harrowing experience of losing his dad, legend Mervyn, of Armoy Armada fame, in a 1980 North West 200 tragedy.
Paul was trackside, aged just five, on that fateful day and, almost 40 years on, his memories remain vivid.
Poignantly, he relates: "I don't have many memories of the Armoy Armada as I was too young, but that particular day I recall spectating with my granny on the inside of the last corner that was then a fast left hander that led onto the straight to Millbank past the start and finish.
"Where the finish line is now was part of the paddock and I was a five-year old watching my father going around and then he didn't appear. I didn't think the worst or anything like that at the time and it wasn't until later, when I was sat eating my dinner at a neighbour's, that my mother came and told me what had actually happened. I was devastated. It was a difficult time and I would still go to his grave regularly to this day."
So it is all the more remarkable that Paul went on to follow his father into road racing, proudly laying his laurels on that Ballymoney grave after winning the North West 125 race, the last in that category at the event.
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It was a promise he had posthumously made to his dad - to win a race at the North West - and he went on to repeat Mervyn's 1975 500cc Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod in 2017, "a very emotional day", he affirms.
Now aged 44 and retired from racing at the end of last year, Paul remains involved, providing a Moto3 bike for young English rider Sam Grief at next week's Armoy Road Races which are dedicated to another Armoy Armada hero, big Frank Kennedy who lost his fight for life months after a North West accident a year before his pal Mervyn was taken.
With Joey also gone, only his brother Jim Dunlop remains of the fabled four-man Armada who thrilled road racing fans around the country in the '70s.
Paul was also close to his cousin William Dunlop and reveals: "William and me had been talking about him riding my bike this year, but as we all know that never happened; his death hit me very hard."
So much tragedy and yet the sport of road racing and his home Armoy event in particular remain close to his heart.
It wasn't the career path he envisaged after the loss of his dad, he admits. "I never went to a race for a while after that and played a lot of football," he reflected. "Prior to then, I would have been taken to the Ulster and the North West but then Joey took me to Silverstone to meet my hero Freddie Spencer. I never had any interest in road bikes or anything like that, the only thing I remember is my father buying me a wee scrambler for either my birthday or at Christmas, the only connection with bikes I had at the time."
Rolling on a few years and Paul found himself drawn to racing, as he explains: "Robert Dunlop was riding John Kennedy's 125cc Honda and had crashed during a European round at Monza. When he came home he said we'd get the wee bike together again and take it to Nutts Corner where he would give me a go.
"I actually rode round and round until I was dizzy and loved it. This was in 1992 and I made my racing debut at a club meeting at Aghadowey to see how I would go. I think I was sixth or seventh in a 'B' race on a half wet, half dry track on a miserable day.
Robert persuaded John to supply me with the bike for 1993 and that was me hooked until I retired at the end of last year, 25 years in the saddle."
Paul's career took him to the British125cc Championship scene and he finished second and third in 2000 and 2001.
"Kenny Tibble and Leon Camier won the title those two years, but it bugs me even to this day the fact that I could have won the 2001 championship, but the Sunflower meeting here at home clashed with the Mallory Park British round and my sponsors thought it would be better if I rode at the home meeting and I lost the title by only a few points."
Paul made his road race debut at the 1998 Mid Antrim 150, recalling: "At that time the championships were a mix of short circuit and roads, the 125cc equivalent of the Regal 600 series and you were sort of forced to do the roads to stand a chance of winning a championship, and I managed this in 2000.
"The short circuits were in decline at the time with 125s and 400s out together, which I thought was dangerous, so I started doing all the road races, where you could pick up sponsorship and prize money."
The Armoy Armada in their day won single-day 50-mile championships held at Carrowdore. In 1978, Joey won the 250 and 350cc championship races and Frank Kennedy the 500. Mervyn had won the 500cc title a year earlier and then, when the season long championships came into being, Mervyn won the 500cc Irish road race championship in 1979.
Immensely proud to follow in his father's tyre tracks, Paul is emphatic: "The best race I ever won was that 2017 Ulster which my dad had won in 1975.
"It was a quality field. Christian Elkin was really sharp and we put 5mph on the lap record. I had told a few people that I was going to do whatever it took to win that race.
"More so as I had decided halfway through that year that 2018 would be my last in the saddle and I was going to do all the short circuits and the roads in one final fling. Then I nearly walked away after William's accident at Skerries.
"I was in the running for my first Irish road race title and was half way to Faugheen to compete there but turned and headed home, just not happy to be going racing. I also practised a few weeks later at Armoy, but told the boys I would not be racing."
However, results worked in Paul's favour and at Killalane he was crowned 2018 Irish Road Race Champion, equalling another feat of his father.
"In the end I had a great 25 years' racing," he said. "Winning International road races, 15 National road races, 98 Irish short circuit wins, 28 Ulster short circuits, seven Irish short circuit titles and British Championship races, I made a lot of friends and lost a lot of friends.
"I still hear many stories around the paddock of my father and the Armoy Armada's racing exploits and it makes me proud that they did so much for this wee village. They are remembered in the Race of Legends in Armoy and the Armoy Club know what the Armada was about.
"The club members work their butts off and they are there for the riders rather than themselves. The races create a unique atmosphere in the village with the noise of racing bikes on the surrounding roads again, just as there was more than 40 years ago with Joey, my dad, Frank and Jim out testing their bikes."
ARMOY ROAD RACES TAKE PLACE NEXT FRIDAY AND SATURDAY, JULY 26-27