Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Mervyn rains supreme at NW 200 - Cool headed race chief delivers for fans despite weather

Mervyn Whyte
Mervyn Whyte

By Jim Gracey

The measure of a man is not how he basks in the glory when things go well but how he responds when all is going awry and the responsibility to make it right is his alone.

So take a bow this morning Mervyn Whyte, the remarkable race chief of the North West 200.

When all around was going wrong, Mervyn kept his nerve and relied on his 40-year experience of the event, and the challenging eventualities it throws up, to ensure a threatened washout turned into a 90th anniversary success story.

As the heavens opened, and the rain showed no sign of relenting, the clock turned around from 10am to 3.00pm and still the first race had not been completed, it looked as though everything that could go wrong would go wrong.

We had rider spills, oil spills, crazy conditions out on the course, constant stoppages, misgivings in the minds of riders and spectators alike, all fuelling a growing sense that we would see no racing this day.

No pressure, then, with 80,000 fans in attendance and a global TV audience tuning in.

Compounding all of this, a scenario not even Whyte could have envisaged - a helicopter colliding with power lines while landing at Magherabuoy, further delaying racing while emergency services dealt with the trackside incident.

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The easy option would have been to call it all off.

But cool-headed Whyte knew he had time on his side with a road closing extension to 9.00pm available, and he took all the right decisions to give those appreciative fans the show they had come to see.

That included listening to the riders who felt it unwise to proceed with the last race, the second Superbike, in worsening light at 7.25pm.

Glenn Irwin celebrates winning the Anchor Bar Superbike race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Glenn Irwin celebrates winning the Anchor Bar Superbike race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Spectators arriving for today's races at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Marshalls prepared for the conditions at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Spectators arriving for today's races at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Dean Harrison at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Event director Mervyn Whyte with Stanleigh Murray, clerk of the course, at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Lee Johnston with Northern Ireland star Stuart Dallas at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Alastair Seeley (34) takes off in the Supersport race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Alastair Seeley (EHA Racing) leads on the opening lap from James Hillier and Lee Johnston in the Supersport race (Pacemaker Press/Rod Neill)
James Hillier at Black Hill during today's Superstock race at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
James Hillier and his team celebrate his victory in today's Superstock race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Jeremy McWilliams celebrates his win in the Supertwins at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Jeremy McWilliams celebrates his win in the Supertwins at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Jeremy McWilliams celebrates his win in the Supertwins at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Teammates James Hillier and Glenn Irwin entertained the crowds in the Superbike race at the NW200 (Rod Neill/Pacemaker Press)
James Hillier leads Glenn Irwin and Conor Cummins at Black Hill during today's Superbike Race at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Team-mates Glenn Irwin and James Hillier celebrate their victories at the North West 200 with their team (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Alastair Seeley ahead of Saturday's racing at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Davey Todd leads Derek McGee and Conor Cummins at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Davey Todd celebrates his victory in the Supersport race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
James Hillier leads Alastair Seeley in the Supersport race at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
18/05/19 Pacemaker Press Intl/Rod Neill: Derek McGee (Kawasaki) leads Davey Todd (Milenco Honda by Padgetts) in the red-flagged Supersport race. Photo Rod Neill
Daley Mathison crashes off his machine at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
David Murphy comes off at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Victor Lopez hits the tarmac at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Mervyn Whyte inspects the work being carried out at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Jeremy McWilliams celebrates his win in the Supertwins with Glenn Irwin at the North West 200 (Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press)
Richard Cooper with Dean Harrison at Black Hill at the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)

Who would be in his shoes?

On the one hand, the expectation of the vast crowds and TV time to fill. On the other, his duty of care to his riders, amid the clear and present danger as the difficult weather conditions prevailed and one incident after another occurred.

It took five hours to complete the first Supersport race but, with life and limb intact, a testament to Whyte's judgement.

And, as the rains abated, he and the fans were rewarded, into the early evening, with a spectacle that will be remembered for all the right reasons; a tribute, above all, to the riders who braved the tough and unpredictable conditions to give their fans a lavish, if unexpected, treat.

But what a rotten trick for the weather gods to play, lulling us into a false sense of eager anticipation for a fair day's racing after a week of high speeds and high temperatures, sundrenched crowds, creating a feelgood atmosphere for the landmark occasion.

Then Saturday morning dawned with a steady downpour, disheartening, but still not enough to put a damper on proceedings.

Normally, not such a big problem for the riders, really, with tyre choices decided for them.

It's a bigger concern for them when forced to decide between wet and dry tyres when the course is neither one or the other.

Wet, it was, all day long, in every sense.

The trackside fans had prepared, too, having checked the forecast and packed their wet gear for a long day ahead. Who knew how long?

But there are only so many bases you can cover in an unpredictable sport such as this.

Accidents and oil spills you can legislate for and, true to form, they occurred, none of the former thankfully serious, leading to delays as the course was powerwashed clean.

Mervyn Whyte inspects the work being carried out at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)
Mervyn Whyte inspects the work being carried out at Black Hill during the North West 200 (David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press)

It was frustrating for the riders and fans, but everyone here understands that safety is paramount.

But how do you factor a helicopter mishap into the equation?

All the while, Whyte informed and consulted hs competitors, taking leading riders in the halted race, Lee Johnston and James Hillier, on a tour of the course in the safety car to check and pronounce on the conditions.

In the pits, other riders were expressing concern at areas of standing water on the course and the visibility problems they were experiencing.

And the longer it went on, the more instinct told some it was not meant to be, and they said so openly.

But in Mervyn we trust.

And as he calmly reacted to, and dealt with, every obstacle in a fire-fighting masterclass, suddenly it all came together and we had a race on our hands.

Thanks to his perseverance, instead of trooping home early and disappointed, we were treated to thrill after thrill.. Clevelander Davey Todd's first international road race win in the Supersport, the North West's longest race ever; a sensational fourth Superbike win in a row for local hero Glenn Irwin; the most popular and uplifting victory of the day for Jeremy McWilliams in Supertwin - how game was he after his two falls on Thursday; Hampshire's Hillier in Superstock.

Whyte was right to invoke the option to extend road closing to 9.00pm. Sunday racing has been a fallback since the last weather wipeout in 2013, but there is little appetite among the race organisers to cause further disruption to local residents, on whose goodwill they depend, or to church-goers.

Race chief Whyte is due to retire after this week's event. Surely not?

If yesterday taught us - and him - anything, it is that his knowledge and expertise is invaluable to the future of this great event.

Belfast Telegraph

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