2010 North West 200 Report

We get a firsthand look at one of the world's most infamous road races


If you’re reading this and you’re an American, chances are you’ve never heard of one of the oldest, most infamous motorcycle races on public roads.

It’s an event that sees more than 100,000 enthusiasts in a single day that has top racers clocking speeds in excess of 200 mph. The races take place on public roadways, fraught with the possibility of instant death, and counts one of the most well known names in all of motorcycle racing amongst its ranks. And it isn’t the Isle of Man TT.

Billed as Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event, the North West 200 Road Races are but a blip on the radar for most The North West 200: Ireland’s most celebrated motorsport event.American motorcycle racing fans. The North West 200 lives in the shadow of the Isle of Man TT for most bike racing enthusiasts living stateside, yet this hallowed Irish road race event is rich with motorcycling history.

The 2010 NW200 marked the 81st year since the first NW200 was held in 1929. Race day this year consisted of six races, with the second of two Superbike races christened the North West 200 race.

Taking place on public streets (closed to auto traffic, of course) in towns approximately 60 miles north of Belfast, along Northern Ireland’s rugged northwestern Atlantic coastline, the 200 starts in Portstewart, heads south to Coleraine, north to the coastal city of Portrush then back again to Portstewart for the finish.

The inverted-triangle course is just a tick less than nine miles long; the six races that comprise race-day activities were between four and six laps each.

If you’re doing the math, four or six laps over a 9-mile loop doesn’t come anywhere near 200 miles as the name implies. However, years ago the North West was in fact a 200-miler.

Local boy makes good

Cold, blustery winds and on again/off again rain showers plagued the early part of race day (May 15); race starts were delayed as one portion of the course would see rain while the rest remained comparatively dry.

This roulette wheel of weather had teams frantically swapping rain tires in favor of cut-slicks and DOT-type rubber. Tire swaps took place directly on the start grid as teams gambled on course conditions while waiting for race officials to make a decision on start time.

You’d think with so many Irishmen entered in the NW200, race organizers wouldn’t need to state the obvious. This is John McGuinness, in case the leathers didn’t give it away.

John McGuinness – HM Plant rider, British Superbike series regular, Isle of Man TT superstar and 17-year veteran of the NW200 – qualified in second during practice for Superbike Race 1 this year. McGuinness’ teammate, another successful racer in his own right, Steve Plater, took pole position.

NW200 Superbike favorite Plater suffered a 125-mph crash near the end of the second practice day that – thankfully! – resulted with the relatively minor injury of a broken arm.

This effectively placed McGuinness on pole for Race 1, which the Morecambe, England-native won after a tit-for-tat battle with Conor Cummins, a resident of the Isle of Man riding for McAdoo Kawasaki Racing.

In the only two-stroke race of the day, Paul Robinson, a Ballymoney, N. Ireland resident, claimed the 125cc victory, dedicating the race to the memory of his father, Mervyn Robinson, who died 30 years ago while racing the North West.

And in a victory filled with equal amounts of emotion as Robinson’s 125 win, another Irishman, Alastair Seeley, won the second Superbike race, the “official” NW200, in dramatic fashion.

The Dunlops: A tragic legacy of road racing

Look at the list of motorcycle racing accomplishments by Joey Dunlop (1952-2000), and it’s clear this man was meant to race motorcycles. But Joey wasn’t, and isn’t, the only Dunlop with racing in his blood.

Joey’s younger brother Robert (1960-2008) also made an indelible mark in two-wheeled racing history: Robert Dunlop has 15 North West 200 victories to his name, more than any other racer to date.

The Armoy Armada: “Big Frank” Kennedy, Mervyn “Robbo” Robinson, Joey Dunlop and Jim Dunlop. Photo collage by John Phoenix.

However, like Billy Joel sang, only the good die young.

The sport of motorcycle road racing, to which both of these men gave their lives, ultimately claimed their lives.

Joey Dunlop, legendary Isle of Man champion and native of Ballymoney, N. Ireland, died in July 2000 while competing during a 125cc race on public roads in Estonia. Two years ago to the date of the running of this year’s North West 200, Joey’s brother Robert suffered the same fate during a practice session at the 200.

But road racing’s family sorrow didn’t start with the brothers Dunlop.

Mervyn Robinson, husband of Helen – sister to Joey and Robert Dunlop – perished during the 1980 North West 200 after crashing at Mather’s Cross, the same general location along the course that claimed Robert Dunlop.Carrying the name Dunlop on your back is no light burden.

Fourteen racers have died competing in the North West 200 races.

Despite the heartache associated with the Robinson/Dunlop road racing clan, the spirit to race seems indomitable in the generations that follow these racing greats.

This year’s 125cc race winner, Paul Robinson, is Mervyn’s son.

Michael Dunlop, competing the same year that his father Robert died, summoned the courage to continue the weekend and claimed a win in the 250cc race. Michael’s brother, William, took the 125 and 250cc wins the following year in 2009.

Although neither Michael or William performed quite as well as they’d hoped in this year’s NW200 (Michael managed 3rd in the first Supersport race) it became obvious to me during race week that both young men remain committed – and fated – to a life of Irish road racing.

God willing, this pair of Dunlop brothers will only walk so far in their father’s and uncle’s footsteps.

Reigning British Superstock champ, Seeley, riding for Relentless Suzuki by TAS, battled with frontrunners McGuinness and Stuart Easton – both also BSB racers – for the crown jewel race of the day.

Seeley broke away on lap three, setting a new lap record of 121.875 mph, giving him a 1.1 second advantage over Easton to begin the fourth and final lap.

The Relentless Grid Girls representing title sponsor of the NW200, Relentless Energy Drink.
North West 200 winner, Alastair Seeley, revels in the crowd’s adulation.

Easton, not content with second place, briefly moved back to position 1 at a location known as Metropole along the course. Seeley quickly snatched back the lead for the final time at Church Corner to win the race by just a hair over one second. McGuinness clocked in a scant 0.15 second behind Easton for third place.

The emotion for Seeley, and all of Ireland’s road racing fans for that matter, comes in the form of the first NW200 win by an Irishman in 13 years, when the NW was last won by Phillip McCallen, another decorated North West and Isle of Man racer.

In recent years English racers (McGuinness, Plater, Michael Rutter, etc) have made their mark on the NW200, so to have a local boy finally take the 200 win was a big deal.

When Seeley’s victory was certain, the grandstand crowd at the Start/Finish area that had otherwise remained reserved and stoic for most of the day (it was a bloody cold and wet day to watch racing outside, though!), erupted with jubilation and gratitude toward Seeley for bringing home the win.

Seeley, standing on his race bike surrounded by exuberant team members, raised both arms in victory toward the crowd, like a newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion might stand on a turnbuckle to raise his belt in order to share his victory with his fans.

But Seeley went further. He dashed up to the fence separating the crowd from the course and threw his gloves into the stands as a small payback to his supportive Northern Ireland fans. The joy was palpable.

Seeley also won a nail-biter win in the first Supersport race of the day and finished fourth in the Limited Superstock race – the same race that Scotsman Keith Amor gave BMW’s S1000RR its first major victory.

Seeley also claimed another fourth in Race 6, the second Supersport competition of the day, and a podium finish with third place in the first Superbike race.

With Seeley’s consistent performance and NW200 victory, the Irishman owned the day during Ireland’s most prestigious and storied motorsports event, the North West 200.

Seeley on the podium with second-place finisher, Stuart Easton (left), and John McGuinness (right) in third.

If you go …

Since street-circuit road racing essentially doesn’t exist in the U.S., an opportunity to see it in the flesh is an opportunity to be seized.

Although the Isle of Man is the symbolic icon of true road racing, Irish road racing history is broader. Racing on public roads goes back decades in Ireland, and along with the North West 200, many road races are still held in Ireland.

Oft times the racing action is not dissimilar to what you might see during a GP, WSBK or AMA event, in terms of lead changes and overall jockeying for positions and points.

However, road racing trumps all those circuit-based series by way of the sheer threat of death involved when clipping down a country road at 200 mph as telephone poles, street signs, ditches, you name it, present themselves obstacles dotting what would otherwise be run-off area in closed-course racing.

Racers exiting from the Start/Finish area en route to York corner, a favorite spot of many race watchers.

For spectators, knowing that a racer is ever fighting a war in his or her head between the need to go flat out in order to win, and their sense of self-preservation, is what fascinates!

No matter the precautions taken, you simply can’t remove the danger inherent in screaming down public roadways. These are, after all, roads, and not purpose-built race circuits.

American motorcycle enthusiasts dedicated to bike racing owe themselves a trip at least once in their lives to witness road racing, and the North West 200 is an ideal venue.

Not only is the racing thrilling, the entire atmosphere in the paddock is one of approachability when, say, compared to the restrictive environments of MotoGP or World Superbike.

Other than paid seating for grandstand access, to spectate the North West 200 is an exercise in liberation from excessive ticket fees! Furthermore, racers routinely roamed the paddock area and seemed genuinely willing to hold court with fans when not under the wire to get to the start grid.

Along with the 200, Northern Ireland offers plenty more to go on your Irish road racing plate.

A trip to the natural wonder that is the Giant’s Causeway, as well visiting castle ruins, Bushmill’s Whiskey distillery, the Joey and Robert Dunlop memorial gardens, or any number of quaint villages that dot the lush, green rolling hillsides in the North, are but a few reasons to extend your NW200 adventure.

If time allows, take the short-ish trip down to Belfast.

It’s a city as rich with history – both sordid and pleasant – as any you’ll find in the whole of Europe, yet it’s also developing rapidly into a business and commercial hub. And it’s the place the ill-fated Titanic was built. Who knew?!

The ruggedly beautiful northwestern coastline of Northern Ireland.

Lastly, experiencing the warm, friendly and fun-living Irish people is as enjoyable as any attraction or event.

Go to http://www.causewaycoastandglens.com/ or http://www.discoverireland.com/ for lots more info on how, when and where to visit Northern Ireland.

If you find yourself there before August 28th of this year, a must-see is the Road Racing Nation exhibit at the Ballymoney Museum. Click here for all the details and to see a brief virtual tour of the exhibit. It’s a rare opportunity to experience in person tangible pieces of Northern Ireland’s historic road racing past.

The Joey Dunlop Memorial Garden in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland.

Related Reading
The Road to Jerez
Isle of Man TT 2008 Wrap-up
Far-flung reporter: Letter from the Isle of Man
A Photo Tour Of The Isle Of Man

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