Its a Saturday afternoon. Mid August, there is a sense of late summer heat battling through a distinctly gray and ominous sky. Heavy rain was a feature of the 5 hour drive up the country, but in motorway mode it makes little difference. Weary legs bow in delight at the prospect of a sitting height section of ditch. Solid, grassy and ideal height, this feels more like a front-row seat than a means to provide a barrier between road and field. Sitting upright, the first strains of an engine note floats in the breeze. Tension rises, phones are held outstretched and those of us enjoying the temporary relaxation stretch out horizontally. And then it happens. Four Motorbikes come into view, chased by an enthusiastic helicopter, throttles pinned open above and below. The approach speed is frightening, and then your vantage point becomes the apex. A cacophony of colour and noise blast past and my face is filled with grass once part of the very ditch I am extended over. Its exhilarating. This is proper road racing!!
While I had one of the most soul inspiring moments I’ve experienced following motorsport in quite some time, less than a couple of feet away battle raged at a frantic pace. What I was seeing up close was the Superbike race of the Ulster Grand Prix, already being regarded as one of the greatest motorcycle races of all time, happening in real time. Purpose built rockets, these big-bikes are fearsome pieces of kit designed to tackle the quickest and most fearsome circuits in the world. But that doesn’t cut the mustard for a certain cohort, a certain breed that see safety barriers, run-off area’s and compact lap distance and begin to chuckle. Around here, its being able to rule the roads that carries the most kudos.
Speed is something that I have quickly learned goes hand-in-hand with this world of road racing. The Ulster GP, more so than most, uses the experiences of riders on the edge as their main selling point. Everywhere you look, men, women and children sport t-shirts bearing an outline of the Dundrod circuit accompanied with the slogan “The World’s Fastest Road Race”. In a world of cutting political correctness and storms arising from what someone says on Twitter, its refreshing to see an event being so old-fashionedly open about it’s USP.
Where the title comes from is the lap record pace. While fellow events like the Isle of Man or the North West 200 may have longer circuits, its the average speed figures that are of most bragging come the end of race day. The honour and title of being known as the world’s quickest road-racer now lies with Dear Harrisson, the 28 year old rider from England. As a rider, Harrisson is almost from a different era. While the majority of his rivals can be seen competing most weekends on circuits as part of the British Superbike Championships, Harrisson is all about the roads. Short circuits, as regular tracks are known, do nothing for him, and so he and the Silicone Engineering team concentrate their efforts on events like the Ulster, IOM, Scarborough and other road races. Come lap four of the Superbike race, Harrisson crossed the line at an average speed of 134.6 MPH. Let that sink in for a second. As you blast up and down the motorway at 120 KPH, these guys are nearly doubling that on average, over fence lined b-roads. Oh and if you thought that’s unheard of, the ultimate motorbike GP average lap speed was set at the old Spa Francomschomp circuit by Barry Sheene…..in 1976….at 136 MPH!!
What made this particular race so spectacular is that while Harrisson was blitzing lap records, the battle for the lead was a four-way duel. Leading the pack was the hard charging Peter Hickman, fresh from success the previous week in the BSB, on the flying BMW. Add into the mix the ever dangerous and crowd favourite Michael Dunlop then you know its gonna be epic, but come the end of lap seven it was veteran Bruce Anstey riding the Padgetts Honda who took a well received victory. Later in the day, the big bikes were wheeled out again to do battle. Hickman and Anstey’s hopes were dashed with reliability issues, and although fellow Manx-men Connor Cummins (Padgetts Honda) and Dan Kneen (Tyco BMW) pushed each other to the absolute maximum, it would be the impressive Dean Harisson, thanks to a proper rubbing-is-racing overtake at the hairpin, that would claim victory.
How I know the intricate race details here is thanks to the fantastic coverage available on the day, keeping all of us on the ditches right at the thick of the action. I have spent days off at rallies only to come home and not know who has won the event, yet here big screens lined the circuits while commentary was available on loud speakers as well as broadcast live on the radio. Every piece of action was broadcast, and you could get a real sense of the race unfolding in real time.
While the big 1000cc Superbikes are the obvious bill toppers, some of the support racing was ferocious to watch. Something familiar to the more referent road racing fan is the Lightweight/Ultralight race for 2-stroke machinery. Although we saw very little of this race, by god did we smell it and smile. In the SuperTwins, it would come down to the final meters of track to find a winner as Ivan Linton sneaked it by 0.024 from Dan Cooper is a finish that seemed almost too dramatic for the excellent BBC television coverage.
Come the end of race day, it was Peter Hickman who would head off with three victories, twice in the 600’s and in the SuperStock, but with the disappointment of not grabbing a SuperBike victory. Personally speaking, I felt somewhat confused. While the NW200 had been spectacular, the Ulster brought better racing. Obviously the need to pay to watch the action is something Id never experienced at an open road event before, it was a clear indication of how I personally see things like rallying going in the future. On Rallying, I was left speechless the first time I saw a WRC Subaru properly at full chat down a tarmac rally stage. It was mind blowing speed it seemed, but on reflection it likely geared for about 120 MPH. After a few bike events, anything shy of 180 now seems slow!!
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.