Belfast Telegraph

The legends of motorcycling have made the Ulster Grand Prix one of the sport's top races

Exciting new book outlines roller coaster history of the Ulster Grand Prix which takes place today

Legend: Joey Dunlop lost in his thoughts at the 1995 Ulster Grand Prix
Legend: Joey Dunlop lost in his thoughts at the 1995 Ulster Grand Prix
The start of the 250cc race at the 1975 UGP
Giacomo Agostini gets set for his parade lap in 2007

In February 1922, Co Down-born Harry Ferguson, famed for his role in the development of the modern agricultural tractor, proposed an event on the 20.5-mile Clady Circuit in Co Antrim with its unique seven-mile straight, the intention being to run a motorcycle race in the morning followed by a car race in the afternoon.

Antrim Co Council agreed to contact the newly-formed Northern Ireland Government for permission to close the public roads. But, in fact, it was then Editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Thomas Moles MP, a keen motorcyclist, who was credited with being responsible for the Road Races Act reaching the Statute Book in 1922.

Thus the Ulster Grand Prix was born and first run by the Ulster Motorcycle Club on Saturday, October 14, 1922.

Seventy-two riders started the seven-lap handicap race with Hubert Hassall on a works Norton winning by 45 seconds at an average speed of 60.57mph, the first time a race anywhere had been won at over 60mph.

The race survived the Great Depression in the Thirties and was boosted by being awarded the title 'Grand Prix of Europe' in 1935.

Speeds were on the increase, Jimmie Guthrie lapping at 95.97mph in practice, 32 seconds inside the lap record, so it was decided to paint five feet wide yellow lines every 30 feet at 10 corners to warn riders of the bends ahead. Nowadays we have marker boards.

The UGP was fastest road race in the world from 1923 until 1937 and from 1938 until 1952 despite a number of financial crises and but for Billy McMaster, who approached the Ulster Centre governing body for assistance, and ordinary club members raising £200, the race could have been lost.

Winners in the pre-war era included Stanley Woods (six times), Walter Rusk, Ernie Nott, Jock West, Johnny Lockett, Doriano Serafin, who set the first 100mph lap of the Clady Circuit on his Gilera, and Freddie Frith, riding machines like Norton, Rudge, Velocette, Cotton, Rex-Acme, New Imperial, Enfield, New Imperial, DKW, BMW, AJS and Sunbeam.

After the Second World War, the 'Prix' was back in 1947, but on a shorter 16.5-mile circuit as a new airfield had been constructed at Nutts Corner.

From 1949, the Prix became part of the newly introduced World Championships until 1973 when the status was removed.

The year 1950 saw the legendary Geoff Duke ride a new 500cc Featherbed Norton and record the first sub 10-minute lap of the new circuit and first 100mph lap at 101.77mph.

In 1951, tragedy struck prior to the race when Italian Moto Guzzi team mates Lorenzetti, Leoni and Geminiani were practicing unofficially.

Lorenzetti and Geminiani stopped at the pits while Leoni carried on until Ballyhill where he realised his team-mates were not behind him. He turned and proceeded back towards the pits unaware that his team-mates had set off from the pits again.

They collided head on with Leoni killed instantly and Geminiani dying later in hospital while Lorenzetti escaped uninjured, but badly shaken.

Duke became the first double winner in 1951, taking the 350cc and 500cc races on Nortons.

September 1950 then saw the Belfast & District Club run a race on a new circuit at Dundrod, replacing the Carrowdore 100 with the Dundrod 100.

A bombshell came in 1953 when Antrim Co Council decided it could not maintain two circuits and made it known they would not grant the use of the Clady Circuit for the UGP, but would permit it to run at the new 7.416-mile Dundrod venue.

Protests proved futile and, although unpopular at first, the inaugural Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod was held on Saturday, August 15, 1953.

Famous names of the Fifties and Sixties included John Surtees winning five out of six 350/500cc races from 1958 to 1960 - it would have been six out of six but for a broken gear lever in the 1960 500cc race - and Mike Hailwood won his first Grand Prix riding a Ducati in the 125cc race, beating the MZ of Gary Hocking in the 1959 UGP.

In a memorable 1960 350cc race, Alan Shepherd on his Geoff Monty AJS tailed the MV Agusta of Surtees for five laps before sweeping into the lead past the grandstand.

A split timing pin forced Shepherd to retire, but MV still lodged a protest about the engine capacity of the AJS and, embarrassingly for the mighty Italians, all was found to be legal.

Honda made their UGP debut in 1960 and a year later Bob McIntyre (250) and Kunimitsu Takahashi (125) gave the Japanese giant their first wins around Dundrod.

The Ulster Grand Prix Supporters Club was formed in 1963 when the Tourist Board withdrew their support and the event looked financially doomed. Since then the club have provided over £1million in financial support

Hailwood set the first 100mph lap of Dundrod in 1963 on an MV Agusta and then, in torrential rain, Bushmills rider Dick Creith, on the Ryan Norton, finished second in the 1964 500cc race, going one better a year later when the rain came on four laps into the race. Everyone slowed except Creith, who went on to win by eight seconds from South African Paddy Driver.

Grand Prix House was constructed in 1965 when Leathemstown became a T-Junction and a year later Leathemstown Bridge was by-passed by a straight road.

Names like Ivy, Read, Stuart Graham, Ralph Bryans (our first world champion in 1965), Mike (now Michelle) Duff, Agostini, Ginger Molloy, Creith, Hugh Anderson, Redman and Luigi Taveri were stars of the Sixties.

The troubled 1970s were difficult years for Northern Ireland and the UGP but in 1971 our own Ray McCullough pulled off a sensational win in the 250cc race after Phil Read, chasing the world championship, gestured to McCullough to slow down in horrendous wet conditions.

Read retired, while McCullough won a Grand Prix race on home soil from Jarno Saarinen and Dieter Braun.

Two months later, Grand Prix House was left in rubble by a terrorist bomb and led to the UGP being abandoned in 1972 when a short circuit ran at Bishopscourt instead and then in 1973 World Championship status was withdrawn from Dundrod by the FIM world governing body.

Many doubters thought this was the end for the Ulster. However, the leading British riders still supported the race and John Williams became the first ever triple winner in 1973.

The entry did decline, but in 1977 local hero Tom Herron's world championship influence brought the likes of Jon Ekerold, Alan North, Pekka Nurmi and Vic Soussan to Dundrod. Herron won the 350 from McCullough, flashed past the chequered flag as one with North in the 250cc race, the local star getting the judges' nod for the win.

John Williams won the 500cc race in 1978 but later crashed at Wheelers in the 1000cc race and although initially thought not to be seriously injured he died in hospital that night suffering from a congenital heart problem.

The 1980s were dominated by Joey Dunlop and Honda in the FIM TTF1 Championship, although in 1980 he was a works Suzuki rider to help Graeme Crosby seal the world championship, but not before 'The Gurk' showed his talent, building up a huge lead only to slow in the closing stages to let Crosby through to win.

Joey signed for Honda for 1992 and spent the rest of his career, until his untimely death in 2000, with the Japanese manufacturer.

Joey won a record 24 UGP races in his career and clinched five successive TTF1 World Championships.

Dromara Destroyer Brian Reid was NI's third World Champion in 1985, winning the F2 race at Dundrod to clinch the title before crashing out at Flow Bog and breaking his leg in the 250cc race. Reid finished second in the 1986 F2 race behind Eddie Laycock, enough to clinch the second F2 crown.

Neil Robinson, in his second UGP appearance, demolished the field in the 1986 TTF1 race, Joey Dunlop and all, riding the Skoal Bandit Suzuki, but a few weeks later Neil lost his life in a practice crash at Scarborough.

The 1987 event was one of the blackest days in UGP history with the death of German Klaus Klein in the F1 race that never should have started due to the diabolical conditions with rivers of water on the circuit. The meeting was then abandoned.

King of the Jungle Carl Fogarty was the new TTF1 champion for Honda in 1988, winning at Dundrod for the first time and retaining the title in 1989.

Ulster riders dominated the 250cc class. From 1980 until 1998 there were 25 completed 250cc races with Joey Dunlop, Brian Reid and Phillip McCallen winning 18 of them.

In 1990 Joey (Honda) and brother Robert Dunlop (Norton) battled for the win. Robert stayed out until the final laps before having to refuel while Joey went the distance without refuelling, taking the lap record to almost 123mph.

In 1993 the UGP had a title sponsor - Pepsi - for the first time in four years, but the promoters, Ulster Centre Promotions, had struggled to make ends meet for a few years and the UGP Supporters Club refused to back them with UCP going bust, plunging the race into doubt once again.

In stepped Billy Nutt and the Coleraine Club for 1994, immediately ditching the controversial and unpopular start/finish chicane introduced in 1992.

McCallen was unstoppable in 1996, winning all five races he started.

The sidecar race in 1997 set off on the warm-up lap and, within a quarter of a mile from the start, tragedy struck.

The outfit of Stephen Galligan left the track on the 'Flying Kilo' and hit seven-year-old Christopher McConnell-Hewitt, who was killed instantly. Galligan also died in hospital a few days later.

David Jefferies beat Joey Dunlop in the opening Superbike race in 1999, the first Superbike rider to win on his UGP debut, but in one of his finest Dundrod races, Joey reversed the positions with the V&M R1 Yamaha rider in a scintillating race.

It was Joey's last Dundrod race as he lost his life the following July in Estonia.

The year 2001 saw the foot and mouth epidemic with the UGP the only major race of the season, resulting in a huge entry and the best crowd for many a year. Sadly, it turned out to be a disaster of a day with Ian Lougher crashing at Dawson's Bend Chicane and his machine flying over safety bales and hitting flag marshal Gerry Allaway, who died on the way to hospital.

Billy Nutt announced he was stepping down from running the Ulster Grand Prix in October and with the Coleraine Club deciding to concentrate on their own North West 200, the 'Prix' was at another crossroads.

The Dundrod and District club eventually took over the reins from 2002 and still run the meeting despite numerous ups and downs, both financially and with weather abandonments.

In 2007 the event's future was again in doubt, due to a shortage of commercial sponsorship and lack of Government funding. The Belfast Telegraph stepped forward as title sponsor and, with other new sponsors coming on board, the event was secured.

The lap record is currently held by Dean Harrison at 134.614mph, set in 2017, making the Ulster Grand Prix the Fastest Road Race in the World, a title it lost in 2018 to the Isle of Man TT.

Names like Darran Lindsay, Richard Britton, Adrian Archibald, John McGuinness, William and Michael Dunlop, Guy Martin, Ryan Farquhar, Ian Hutchinson, Bruce Anstey, Conor Cummins, Lee Johnston, Peter Hickman and Harrison plus many, many more have all played their part in the continuing roller coaster history of the Ulster Grand Prix.

Roy Harris's second book 'Just for the Thrill 2' will be available in bookshops towards the end of the year, concentrating on Motorcycle Sport in the 1980's.

Classic Festival

All roads lead to Bishopscourt Racing Circuit today and tomorrow for the inaugural Classic Bike Festival Ireland, sponsored by GO Fuels. The brainchild of former TT, North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix hero Phillip McCallen, the event will be the biggest display of classic racing motorcycles ever seen in Ireland. The unique line-up of racing machinery, some of which will take part in parade laps of the Co Down venue, include machines raced by legends of the sport including Joey Dunlop's 1980 TT-winning Yamaha, Barry Sheene, Tom Herron, Neil Robinson, Ralph Bryans, Kenny Roberts (500cc Yamaha), Eddie Lawson, Sammy Miller and Ray McCullough.

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