North West 200 riders' wives and girlfriends about how they cope with the worry
Motorcycle road racers risk life and limb every time they compete and ahead of the NW 200, we talk to riders' wives and girlfriends about how they cope with the worry.
Its name is synonymous with speed – a spectacular motorcycle road racing event to rival the Isle of Man TT and the Macau Grand Prix. The Vauxhall International North West 200 is one of the top three festivals of its kind in the world, drawing crowds of 90,000 and attracting some of the biggest stars of the sport.
Running all week, the NW 200 will culminate in today's race day, featuring well-known riders including Michael Rutter, John McGuinness, Guy Martin, Alastair Seeley and Michael and William Dunlop.
The thrilling 8.9-mile circuit, which runs between the towns of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, can see riders reach speeds of over 200mph – exciting for spectators to watch, but nail-biting for the loved ones of those taking part.
Road racers risk life and limb every time they put on their helmets and don their leathers. In psychological terms, they are sensation-seekers.
But what of the wives and girlfriends of riders who know that the men they love compete on a razor's edge? While many anxiously look on from vantage points along the route or from the competitors' paddock, others prefer not to watch.
Ahead of the NW 200 we talk to three WAGS and find out how they cope with their fears, how the sport impacts on their lives and why they will never put pressure on their partners to call it a day.
Jill McWilliams (47) a nursery manager, lives in Newtownabbey with her husband of 22 years, Jeremy McWilliams (49). They have two children, Jack (17) and Zak (15). Jeremy has enjoyed a distinguished career at Grand Prix level internationally in the 250cc and 500cc class. Jeremy made his NW 200 debut last year as part of Ryan Farquhar's team, which chalked up a 1, 2 and 3 in the Supertwin race, with Jeremy coming third. Jeremy will be part of Ryan's Vauxhall KMR Kawasaki team. Jill says:
I met Jeremy about 32 years ago. We both lived near each other in Newtownabbey, I was about 15 and he was 17, so I guess you could say we were childhood sweethearts. Jeremy had a motorbike back then, it was just part of our childhood growing up. He didn't start racing until he was about 23, though.
He used to take me on the back of his bike and I loved it, but I was young and never really worried about the dangers. When he started racing, it all took off quite quickly. After buying the bike, he bought a van, then the leathers. I can remember heading off different places in our Transit van, with two bikes and a mattress thrown down in between them. But then, as he improved, the sponsors began to come on board.
Jeremy became successful very quickly, winning his first Irish championship in his first year of racing. When we got married he actually bought me a Honda 50cc as a wedding present. He had just started competing at the Grand Prix races and though the bike would be handy for me to scoot around on.
I do get nervous before he races. I always have. I can't imagine any wife or girlfriend saying they are totally fine about it. Last year was particularly unchartered territory for me as he'd never done a road race before. I stood in the garage, watching the screen, trying to follow the race, but I didn't really know what was going on. He'd always talked about doing the NW 200. As boyfriend and girlfriend we'd gone to watch it. But a lot of his GP commitments clashed with it and he hadn't been able to compete there over the years.
I know some girlfriends and wives who don't like to be there, but for us, it's just part of family life. We always take the two boys with us. We're all aware of the dangers and Jeremy has had a few accidents. At the MotoGP in Jerez in Spain some years ago, I think it was around 2007, he had a bad crash. He broke his collar bone and his femur and had to have his wedding ring finger amputated. He was incapacitated for a week in a Spanish hospital. Then, not long after that, he came off his bike in Qatar, although he just received bumps and bruises that time.
So naturally I worry for him. And Jeremy gets nervous, too. All riders get nervous before a race. Sometimes he'll say to me 'Why am I doing this?' and I'll reply 'Why are you doing it?', but it's the buzz. It's just something in him that he has to do. Before he starts a race, though, the first thing I think is that he will be ok.
"We've always been a very positive family, so we try and think positive vibes. We just put any negative thoughts out of our heads. And, of course, we want him to win. If he's lying in third place, we'll tell ourselves that he'll move up to second. What does worry me a bit is that people see him as something of a legend and they might do something silly to try and beat him. When he was younger, he rode 100%, these days he keeps a bit back in reserve.
The boys weren't best pleased about him doing the NW 200 because it was a road race but he convinced them it would be ok. The older one has already asked his dad to take him out and has been on a bike. He's showing natural talent too.
If he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps, I couldn't say no. As much as I'd hate to see either of my sons get injured, I know I can't wrap them up in cotton wool.
I don't think any partner of a road racer would ever be blasé about the dangers of the sport. We're all very aware of the risks. Jeremy will be 50 on his next birthday but he thinks he's still 40. He still got offers this year to ride in the World Superbike Championships. He's still very fit and is the same size and weight as when he started. I don't know when he'll retire. He loves racing, it's part of him.
Robyn Fleming (19) is a business student who works part-time in Next and Ulster Bank. The Ballyclare girl has been going out with Jamie Hamilton from the start of this year. Jamie made his NW200 debut last year, coming sixth in the Supertwin race. This year he is competing for the Vauxhall KMR Kawasaki Team, managed by Ryan Farquhar. She says:
I was working in Next at Abbeycentre last Christmas when Jamie came in to buy his mum some pyjamas. I recognised him a little because we went to the same gym to do circuits, but I didn't know who he was or anything at all about road racing.
We got chatting and just seemed to get on, really. I thought he had a great smile and he made me laugh. Then we started talking on Facebook. He asked me out on a date around the end of January and after going out together for a month or so, he asked me to be his girlfriend, which was quite sweet.
I hadn't a clue about his sport although, funnily enough, myself and my friend Kirsty had gone up to the NW200 for the first time the year before. It was a lovely sunny day so we just went along for a nice trip out. We weren't following any particular rider. Obviously it will be a very different experience for me this year, being Jamie's girlfriend.
I like to help out now as much as I can, doing wee things for him like refilling his water bottle or carrying his stuff for him. The wives and girlfriends are allowed at the grid before the riders take off, to wish them luck. Then we'll wait in a special area in the paddock for the race to finish.
I've been to a few races with him at Tandragee when he was racing in the 1000, the Supersport 600cc and the Supertwin 650cc. I hadn't a clue about racing before, but now I ask Jamie lots of questions and there are always people around talking about it. I never used to like it really, but now I do. It's something that he loves doing and I can see how much it means to him. I enjoy it now but I must admit, I do get nervous before a race, especially if he's nervous. I can feel his nerves beforehand. He gets particularly worried if it's been raining. And because he won fastest newcomer at the Isle of Man TT last year, I think he feels that people expect him to do well. Obviously I want him to win. It's a great feeling when he does win, to be able to say 'that's my boyfriend up there'.
Before a race I just tell him that he's not allowed to crash, that he has to come back safely to me. But to be honest, I trust him. He knows what he's doing. He absolutely loves road racing. We haven't been together long but we get on great and I could see us having a future together. But I could never ask Jamie to stop. I know Ryan [Farquhar] stopped racing after his uncle died, but he has a family and probably felt now was the right time. Plus he also still gets to work with bikes. I would just never ask Jamie to give up his dream. If he did and was unhappy, I'd always feel that it was my fault.
When you enter into a relationship with a road racer you know what to expect. You can't start going out with them thinking you can ask them to give up their sport, no matter how dangerous it is. It's everything to Jamie and I'm there to support him."
Danielle Henry (24) works for MSS Kawasaki and Gearlink Kawasaki. Originally from Loughborough, England, she now lives in Carrickfergus with her boyfriend Alastair Seeley, (33). Alastair won the NW200 Superbike feature race at the NW200 last year. He competes in BSB in the British Supersport category. He recently won Race 2 at Oulton Park and came second in Race 1. Alastair competes for Gearlink Kawasaki in the British Supersport Championship and at the NW200 his team will be MSS Kawasaki. Danielle says:
I think it's fair to say that I'm born and bred into bikes. I've grown up around them. My older brother Dean started racing in 1994. I used to go along with him when he'd be racing with guys like Ben Wilson and James Ellison. He retired from racing and those guys progressed on in the sport. My brother James still races in the British Superstock 1000. I've never raced myself, although I was bought a little Honda when I was just four years old. I still have it even now.
I've been to the British Superbike Series all my life so I knew who Alastair was. In 2011 he was racing Ben Wilson in the British Supersport Championship and I was rooting for Ben because I've known him from childhood. Alastair won, beating Ben by a point.
I met Alastair properly at an end-of-year dinner organised by a charity. He sent me a message on Twitter and we started chatting. We had our first date in March, at a motocross race in Kent. We started going out together and I moved over to Carrickfergus in December to be with him.
Last year I went to the NW 200 with him. It was my first time there. I had no idea where he was, I was just watching the helicopter on a big screen as it followed the racers. Alastair was just a dot on the ground. But on the Saturday he won the Superbike feature race, which was an overwhelming feeling. I was so proud of him.
I'm all too aware of the dangers, having already experienced those feelings of concern for my brothers. But they never raced at Alastair's standard. When he's racing now I'm doing the pit board. I won't watch the race on the screen. I just keep watching the timing screen and stay focused on that. The only time I do watch is on his last lap. Then we'll go home and watch the race back together.
Alastair does get nervous before a race, we both do. We don't talk about it at all. Last year's NW 200 was the first time I'd been on the grid with him. I won't say good luck or anything like that, I just put my hand on his leg and give him a pat.
I'd never ask him to give up, not at all. If anything, I encourage him. He's doing what he loves."
Thrills, spills and tragedy: what makes the North West 200 such a unique event
• The North West 200 is a motorcycle race held in May every year. The course is a street circuit, consisting of roads running between the towns of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush. It is one of the fastest in the world, with speeds reaching over 200mph. It is the largest annual sporting event in Ireland, attracting over 150,000 visitors from all over the world.
• Since 1964 it has been organised by the Coleraine and District Motor Club. In 2001 the NW 200 was cancelled due to the Foot and Mouth disease crisis. In 2011 there were significant delays due to a hoax bomb alert and an extensive oil spill on the track caused racing to be cancelled after the completion of only one race. In 2004 Michael Rutter became the first rider to record a top speed in excess of 200mph on the course.
• There have been a number of high profile deaths at the NW 200. In 1979, Black Saturday saw three riders lose their lives – Tom Herron, Brian Hamilton and Frank Kennedy – who died months later from injuries. Local legend Robert Dunlop, who had notched up the most wins at the event, was killed on May 15, 2008, while practising in the 250cc class.
• In 2009 Mather's Cross was widened to improve safety at the corner. For 2010 additional modifications were made to the circuit to improve safety.