TAS Racing founder Hector Neill on building an empire from scratch
'Every Christmas Eve, I place a holly wreath on young Norman's grave... he could have been our greatest'
Hector Neill, by his own admission, grew up in the poorest house in the poorest street in one of the poorest parts of 1940s wartime Belfast.
Banished to the back of the class at school because of his then undiagnosed dyslexia - "the teacher just thought I was slow", he relates - Hector left without qualifications.
He had no money and no prospects, but he had his dreams.
"My father used to say that as long as we had our strength and health, we didn't need money, which was just as well as we never had any," he smiles.
But just look at him now, the epitome of the self-made man... in business as head of the Temple Auto Salvage car dismantling company he built up from scratch and in sport, founder of the famous TAS Racing team, far and away the most successful this bike racing mad country has ever seen.
All the top riders have won on his machines, from Joey Dunlop through to the enigmatic Guy Martin and North West 200 wins record holder Alastair Seeley. And soon he expects the team's newest recruit, Michael Dunlop, to rule the roost on the impressive Tyco BMWs he will campaign this summer. On the tracks, he also has Michael Laverty and Christian Iddon in British Superbikes and Keith Farmer in the British Superstock series.
Now aged 76, the grand old man of the motorcycle racing paddocks shows no signs of slowing down. I find him working under the bonnet of a monster Chevrolet pick-up truck he is restoring at the TAS yard, outside Ballynahinch. The bikes side of the operation, now run by son Philip, is at Moneymore.
And as we later chat in the cluttered portakabin that passes for his office, the walls adorned with biking memorabilia and photographs of past glories and absent friends, he talks enthusiastically of his hopes for the upcoming North West 200, 'fairyland', he calls it, and the Isle of Man TT, his 'Holy Grail'.
His journey still has a way to go and this far it has been a remarkable one, coming from the back of the grid, as he relates, to the top step of the podium in his business and sporting worlds.
The business he started from scratch, buying and selling used cars as a sideline, led him into the bikes, though, as he reveals, it had been his original intention to buy a boat!
But bikes and bike racing have been his passion since his earliest days on the long since bulldozed Ballycarry Street on the Oldpark from where he would walk 12 miles every August to watch the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod.
On the street corner, his dreams took shape by gaslight.
"We used to gather on the street corner," he recalls. "There was nothing else for us to do and all we had was our dreams. Lads would talk about what they were going to do when they grew up... train drivers, footballers, the usual stuff. But I distinctly remember piping up that I was going to win the Isle of Man TT. I didn't even know where the Isle of Man was. I'd just heard about it.
"Another lad said he would ask his dad and the next night he came back: 'My da says tell Hector his head's cut'."
Little did those disbelievers realise that the small boy with the big ideas would go on to win an incredible 16 or 17 TT races with his team and riders, he can't remember exactly how many.
What he does remember vividly are the tragic losses along the way... his friend, the great Tom Herron, at the 1979 North West, and two of his riders, the brilliant Norman Brown, taken at Silverstone aged just 23 in 1983, and the racing giant of a man, David Jefferies, killed in Isle of Man TT practice in 2003, aged 30.
"The wins you take and move on to try to get the next one. They are sweet at the time but you don't dwell on them. The people you never forget," he reflects.
"Norman was so special, the best. He was going to be so good. He was beating people like Barry Sheene, Phil Read, Brian Reid, Mick Grant and Steve Parrish. Sadly we never saw the best of him.
"He was my first rider, the start of the racing team we have today. He was also the one who realised my TT dream, winning the 500 Senior TT in 1982. We went as privateers in a Transit van, myself, Brian McDowell, Stanley Morrow and Norman with a Suzuki we prepared ourselves and beat all the big factory teams. That was some achievement by Norman. I believe he would have gone on to be one of our greatest."
But, sadly, a year later, Norman was gone, killed along with Swiss rider Peter Huber in a collision during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1983.
"I place a holly wreath on his grave every Christmas Eve," sighs Hector.
Four years earlier, he began paying a similar tribute to his pal Tom Herron.
Herron, a TT winner and poster boy of the sport, lost his life in a race he should never have taken part in. He turned up with his right hand in plaster following a racing accident in Spain, believing he owed it to his fans to compete. It would become known as Black Saturday, May 26, 1979, with accidents claiming the lives of Herron and Scotsman Brian Hamilton, and Frank Kennedy, of Armoy Armada fame, succumbing to crash injuries months later.
"Tom was so determined to ride he had me cut the plaster cast from his hand with an angle grinder," Hector reveals. "Another terrible loss and it doesn't get easier knowing Tom would never be allowed to ride today with the injury. Given the medical facilities now and the rapid response, a rider suffering the injuries he did would be saved at the track today. Instead, vital time was lost as Tom was taken to hospital."
And then there was David Jefferies, a tragedy that brought home to Hector the mindset of the bike racing family he believes outsiders and critics do not get.
"When DJ was killed, I had actually packed the truck to take the team home from the TT when his mother walked in and asked what we were doing. I told her and she replied: 'You'll do no such thing. David wouldn't hear of it... go and find Adrian Archibald (the team's other rider) and tell him to go out and win it'. And he did, twice.
"Fatalities are hard to cope with and you never become immune. I take the view that the onus is on us as teams and race organisers to make the sport as safe as we can possibly make it.
"It's a high-risk sport, the riders know and accept that. That's why I have no issue with the money they are asking compared to 30 years ago. They are putting their lives on the line and that makes them worth every penny.
"TAS dropping out of road racing would change nothing. Riders all want good bikes and if they weren't getting them from us, they would get them somewhere else. We like to think we provide them with the best.
"Of course, you want to see your riders back across the finish line but if you thought all the time about what could happen, you wouldn't be in it. That's the problem with people who criticise road racing... you have to be involved to understand it and what makes bike people tick. No one is forcing anyone... everyone has made a choice."
Hector believes his interest stemmed from an uncle who rode an old Ariel. "I thought, 'I'd like one of those', but even when I started working in Ewarts Mill, I wasn't making enough to afford one."
So to be close to bikes and bike people, he took a job in a parts shop in Donegal Pass where, by coincidence, one of his heroes, North West legend Ralph Bryan, also worked.
"We had loads of riders coming in and I wanted to be like them," he remembers. "But I couldn't afford a racing bike so I bought a scrambler and went into motocross."
It was there he met Norman Brown who had his own racing ambitions and the ability to fulfil them, Hector quickly realised.
"I had made a few pounds buying and selling old cars," he says. "I had £3,000 to buy a boat, it was three weeks before the North West and Norman had been let down on a £3,000 deal to ride a 350 Yamaha there, so I gave the money to him."
Hector Neill Racing was born, on a small scale compared to now when it takes a million pounds annually to run the TAS team.
The name comes from the Temple Auto Salvage firm he later founded, it too growing from small beginnings as a scrap business Hector started to help fund the racing team. Today he has backing from giant companies like BMW, security and safety experts Tyco and DAF Trucks.
Son Philip runs the 15-strong team but Hector still plays his part in the paddock. Until recently he was even refuelling bikes during pit stops and now it is his larger than life personality giving their riders a kick start.
He marvels at the hi-tech, computerised operation racing has become compared to his early days running the team from a van with a set of spanners and often no money to buy spares.
"Winning that first TT with Norman on a shoestring, I cannot begin to tell you how proud I was to see Hector Neill Racing finally etched on the iconic TT trophy. The dream had come true," he says. "The North West 200 is a fantastic event, the fairyland of bike racing, brilliantly organised and always a spectacle. I love it and will always support it, likewise the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod.
"But, for me, the Isle of Man TT is the Holy Grail. It is the total bike racing experience and it means so much to have put together a TT-winning team.
"I treasured that first trophy so you can imagine my reaction when I heard Norman had it on display on the counter of his father's pub in Newry. Pubs were being bombed all over the place then but they reckoned having the TT trophy in pride of place was keeping theirs safe. I wasn't long driving down to take it back, just in case."
Joey Dunlop won his first Ulster Grand Prix race on a Hector supplied 500 Suzuki and soon a procession of top riders were competing under the rebranded TAS banner... Ian Lougher, Adrian Archibald, Ivor Greenwood, then a second generation of winners in William Dunlop, Dan Kneen, Alastair Seeley and Guy Martin.
The latter's quirky personality and penchant for doing his own thing posed no problems for Hector, even when he became more famous for his TV and film appearances than for his racing career.
"I liked him. We got on great and had respect for each other," Hector stresses. "I remember how he got into the TV and film business. A company was making a documentary about the TT and captured a high-speed crash he was involved in. The crew went to hospital to see how he was and realised when they put him on camera what a natural he was. It took off from there. We never stood in the way of his commitments so I am sorry to say I wasn't happy with him when he signed for another team after I thought we had an agreement for TAS."
Now the team have another big personality in Michael Dunlop, with the complication of his reportedly cool relationship with existing team-mate Alastair Seeley who recently revealed the pair have never shaken hands.
"We've read all that, it happens," Hector shrugs. "Philip and I liked the idea of having a Dunlop on board... we've had Joey and Michael's brother William in the past. Michael is a winner and we'll get the best out of him by working with and listening to him. He's not the type you order about.
"Alastair is important to us, too. So they are not bosom buddies? We're a team, we will kick through it."
As only someone who came up the hard way can.