It’s the sound that hits you. That guttural, demonic roar that descends into an ear splitting crescendo of speed and disappears off into the distance with haste. It’s intoxicating and intriguing in equal measures. Your heart races to see more, while your head struggle to comprehend. As a chase helicopter glides overhead, what can only be compared to the buzz of a low flying Jet fighter filters into a now anticipatory silence. Eyes dart from face to face, each home to a similar expression of utter amazement. Jaws are dropped and mouths hang open. But there was no visuals involved here! Each of us, all seasoned motorsport followers and competitors, were rendered speechless by a noise. When I say the head struggled, here we were standing at the boot of a Seat Toledo, parked up against a grassy ditch on a mud strewn rural lane on a damp Saturday morning, we had not seen a single motorbike but that noise, oh that noise, it stirred the soul. “Welcome to the Northwest 200 son” whispered a passer-by obviously aware our facial expression, and if that was the opening shots, boy oh boy were we excited for what lay ahead.
Backtracking slightly, as we’ve discussed here before, we as a nation are masters of holding extraordinary events that happen in the shadows of mainstream media. While back pages and sports bulletins are chock full of GAA or soccer stories, us motorsport and car fans are sure to be found out taking in top level competition, enjoying a scenic drive or attending all manner of shows. We do our motoring activities in a wonderfully low key manner. Motorcycle road racing is one such avenue of auto-addiction, with a true hard core of competitors and supporters keen to maintain one of the final past times that has remained almost un-sanitised by political correctness and necessary safety advances. In the Republic, many large events like Skerries, HalfWay Drags and Kells happen without causing the slightest ripple in the public consciousness unless something disastrous happens. Up North though, these Motorcycle wielding titans live god like status.
During the dark days of the Troubles, Northern Ireland became almost a no go place for many, and sport suffered massively as many feared competing or spectating at events north of the border. Through all this though, the renegade anti-establishment nature of motorcycle racing shone as a beacon of national pride. The Ulster GP, Tandragee and Armoy provided a competitive breeding ground for a succession of local talent, but it was the North West that became the jewel in the Irish calendar. The Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, became sporting icons, while others like Phillip McCallen and his famous 5-in-a-day in 1992 provided shining light on dark days. The Norths love affair with Road Racing remains as strong as ever, and after countless years of talking about it, time had come to experience exactly how nutty this thing is in person.
For a second though, consider the sheer lunacy of this sport, if you can. Imagine your drive home from work, and consider any stretches of road you might encounter that are two lanes wide and borders by grass verges and barbed wire. Down here, seeing any more than an 80hm/h speed limit would be uncommon, and truth by told the likelihood of being stuck behind a tractor means we’d be lucky to hit 60. Now also consider that unless your car of choice is of the hyper variety, most everyday vehicles, on a flat out, perfectly conditioned test facility would likely top out at about 200km/h or roughly 120 mph. On the same road, in the damp, these guys pass at 200+ mph. It silly speeds, and while similar speeds are seen on the Isle of Man, here the riders are released in packs and so a train of up to 10 bikes are likely to pass in the blink of an eye. Its crazy!!
Our particular adventure kicked off just shy of 4am, but even the prospect of nearly a 1100km round trip did nothing to dampen enthusiasm. We were all Road Racing virgins, and as I said at the top it took merely seconds to get us hooked.
Track-side, the action is soo frantic that it is almost impossible to keep track of how races are going, but the excellent speaker and online coverage available was at a level I’d never seen before. People could watch the race live on all manner of devices merely meters away than the ongoing battles.
Access to the action is so lax in regards to what you would see elsewhere in the motorsport world. Run-Off areas, barriers and the like just don’t exist, as all that separates you from the high speed action is about a foot of grass and a barbed wire fence. This is the true beauty of the grass roots nature of the sport, where those on the ditches respect the danger of the event and there is upmost respect of the measures put in place to make the event as safe as possible for everyone.
I had never been to a proper road race before, nor photographed bikes or anything at that speed, but the trip to the NorthWest has lit a fire under me to get out and experience much more of this spectacular action. Other events have wormed their way into my calendar for the summer, while as of this morning it would look as if my 2018 summer holidays may revolve around a certain island in the middle of the Irish Sea.