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We must not turn our backs on North West 200


The only winner of the only race of the day, Michael Dunlop pictured after the racing was abandoned on Saturday afternoon

The only winner of the only race of the day, Michael Dunlop pictured after the racing was abandoned on Saturday afternoon

The only winner of the only race of the day, Michael Dunlop pictured after the racing was abandoned on Saturday afternoon

The luckless North West 200 can no longer afford to put all its eggs in the Saturday basket. That was made patently obvious as Race Chief Mervyn Whyte and his team were left counting the cost on Saturday night of a second abandonment in three years and the impact on the future of the event as we know it.

Roads Minister Danny Kennedy was in attendance to witness first hand the dismay and frustration felt by riders, teams, thousands of disappointed fans and the race organisers by the day-long torrential downpour that restricted the action to just two laps of the opening Supersport race, won by Michael Dunlop, the leader when the red flag was hoisted after five accidents and an oil spill.

The blessing was no physical casualties, as after three hours forlornly waiting for the skies to clear, Mervyn Whyte had no option to declare the day over at 3.15pm, three hours ahead of schedule with surface water and poor visibility in the rain making the track totally treacherous.

The event itself, however, is left licking wounds that require immediate surgery, quickly followed by a major financial shot in the arm.

Whyte and his team from the organising Coleraine Motor Club will, no doubt, be encouraged by Minister Kennedy's support in this newspaper today for a review of the currently stringent road closing orders that restrict bikes to the roads only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for practice and racing.

What they require, first and foremost, is flexibility. Whyte knew early doors last week from his close contacts with the Met Office that Saturday threatened to put a damper on proceedings in a big way.

With a bit of wriggle room with the road closing orders, he could have rescheduled for Friday when the north coast was basked in sunshine and racing conditions were perfect.

It may not have attracted the Saturday walk-up crowds but at least sizeable numbers already on the coast for the weekend would have enjoyed a bit of a spectacle.

But those road closing orders are legally binding, as they stand, and cannot be bent, even by a minute. Changes can only be made through legislation passed by the Stormont Assembly with all the associated consultation periods and discussions that entails... so time is of the essence to get the process onto the starting grid.

What the North West needs are options which a blanket road closing order over the week, from Tuesday to Saturday would provide with accurate advance weather warnings minimising disruption for those who live and work around the 8.9 mile Coleraine-Portrush-Portstewart triangle circuit.

Flexibility is the key, for with the option to switch to Friday last week, there would have been no need for the area to go into lockdown on Saturday.

The climate has changed and so must the North West with the only winner on the day, Michael Dunlop, observing: "You used to come away from here with a suntan, now you get flu.

"It was bad enough for the riders but at least we had some protection. The fans were saturated and still cheered us on. Their dedication is incredible and we owe it to them to give them the racing they come to see."

Bearing in mind poor weather and an oil spill also caused the 2011 abandonment, a multi-million pound operation like the North West can no longer afford to rely on the vagaries of our unpredictable climate to smile upon it on a given day each year.

Nor can the local traders who lost out on their annual bonanza as hot food vans, souvenir stalls and shops did virtually zero business on Saturday.

Minister Kennedy's willingness to consider an Isle of Man TT-style festival week of racing at the North West has merit and is worth pursuing in terms of the extended road closing legislation it would bring.

Local residents, on whose goodwill the race has run for over 80 years, will need to be won over in a hearts and minds exercise flagging up the huge economic benefits to the area from a North West guaranteed to take place, over the inconvenience it causes them for one week of the year.

The Government's own estimates of the North West's worth bear repeating – £7million to the Northern Ireland economy; £4million locally, the equivalent of 150 jobs. Which brings us back to the running sore of funding for the event, a worldwide showcase for Northern Ireland with BBC NI pictures seen globally.

While all and sundry stand to make money from the race, as those figures show, the Coleraine Club must find in the region of £2million to put the show on the road. By a valiant effort they raise a sizeable sum from sponsorship, television and programme sales, but only enough to cover costs.

Government funding amounts to £70,000 each year, for which the Club are grateful, but set against the support for other projects and events, some of them one-offs, it is a mere drop in the Atlantic.

The North West organisers wouldn't for a minute begrudge the likes of Titanic, the Maze, Derry City of Culture and the Windsor, Ravenhill and Casement projects their millions.

But some parity of esteem for an event of such long standing and magnitude as the North West wouldn't go amiss.

It's value was indeed recognised by the attendance on Saturday of Minister Kennedy, his Ulster Unionist MLA colleague Jo-Anne Dobson and the DUP's Edwin Poots and Ian Paisley junior, a lifelong supporter of the race – influential voices all.

So the event is on the political radar. It just needs to get off the grid in terms of legislative support and more generous future funding.

Everything happens for a reason and if Saturday's washout helps to focus minds, then all will not have been lost.

Unlike the surface water trickling away from the paddock area yesterday morning, this country cannot afford to see the North West go down the drain.

Belfast Telegraph