Every form of motorsport – and there are quite a few of them out there – likes to push a key idea that makes them stand out.
Some put the emphasis on incredible control of a vehicle, while others run marketing solely focused on spectacle and excitement. The pursuit of seconds, tenths and decimal points is at the heart of plenty, while outright speed is at the core of others.
Motorcycle road racing seems to have taken each of these factors and turned them up to 11, but still remains a humble and hidden spectacle enjoyed by a hardcore fanbase.
The riders are modern day heroes, warriors of the road putting absolutely everything on the line each and every time they mount their machines.
The risk here is real, and that’s a part of the massive appeal for everyone involved.
Whereas fans of F1 or rallying can endlessly evoke memories of the crazy days of old, road racing has a real sense of being the last pure form of motorsport left untouched. The prospect of sending a motorbike screaming down a closed public road, lined by trees, walls and everything else in between, has remained the same for over 100 years.
In this ever-evolving modern world, it feels as if road racing just doesn’t compute with the new age ideals. It’s fast, dangerous and raw in an era where everyone wants sophistication, technology and safety beamed across their motorsport. Gleaming, pristine and safe is not road racing, and it’s likely why unless you live in or near a very few select pockets of the world, this is a spectacle you won’t be seeing on your doorstop.
While favourable to the palette of the general public, road racing is followed with such incredible passion that it’s hard not to be enthralled by it once you find an in. Racing often happens away from the glare of the media, with even the most prestigious events barely registering on the spectrum of news stories we are swamped with on a daily basis.
The most famous of all, no question, is the annual Tourist Trophy, or TT Festival, on the Isle of Man, a quaint island positioned between Ireland and the UK mainland. A mecca for racers, it sits at the core of a season of races on either side of its coast. Scarborough in England is well respected, but the vast majority of race meetings happen between the North and the Republic of Ireland.
Like rallying on the island, legislation allows events to take place, and our passion for speed and commitment keeps them absolutely thriving.
Of all the road racing that happens in Ireland, one event sits atop the pile. It’s the biggest event, attracting the biggest names and biggest teams.
Welcome to the North West 200.Road Warriors
Standing on any grid before a race is an odd experience. All around, VIPs and guests mingle, giddy on free alcohol and the excitement of being up close and personal with the stars.
Crews run around making final tweaks, while drivers or riders trade solely on their personal traits. Some sit silently, quietly preparing themselves for the race ahead; others take time to chat, smile and relieve tension.
On a road race grid, there is a certain feeling that lies in the air and seems almost unshakable: The risk.
The moment each and every leather-clad rider dons their helmet and swings their leg over their machine, they’re risking everything for the buzz of racing. The adrenaline, many of them say, is so addictive, and that makes the danger almost redundant in the thought stream.
Pinning a throttle wide open is their drug; it’s what keeps them coming back time and time again, no matter what.
There are accidents – it happens when you spend your day putting a motorcycle right on the limit – but minor bumps and scrapes are worn with a sense of pride or bravado.
The reality is that every competitor that takes to a road race circuit is holding their life in their gloved hands. But that’s part of the game, an occupational hazard.
There are plenty of safer places to race a motorbike, but that seems dull and boring to the road racers. Circuits feel like motorways compared to the tiny lanes so many have grown up racing down. It’s the safety issue that irks the racing community most of all, as their sport often only makes the headlines when things go very wrong.
In the damp Portstewart morning air, these everyday heroes sit and anxiously wait for the signal to race.
Disciples of the sport have long since travelled to these races, with rider nationalities becoming broader with each passing year. It was easy to spot the French or Spanish riders as they didn’t particularly take too favourably to the cold of a miserable Irish morning.
All around, there are reminders of the dangers. No other sport in the world sends competitors off with a chase rider strapped with donated blood stock and other medical supplies following them.Getting Ready To Race
The nature of road racing circuits is sort of given away in the title.
Racing, on the public road.
The same road that is full of traffic and people at 9.55am, is suddenly a racetrack at 10.00am. Traffic cleared, the transformation process can begin. Hundreds of cones, deployed to stop parking, must be retrieved, along what soon becomes the grid and start line.
Marshals don sweeping brushes to clear debris, while crews hurriedly emerge from the paddock with their competition machines. Engine notes become louder as the countdown gets ever smaller. Forty-five minutes from open road to start time of race one, there is no hanging about.
The North West 200 circuit, located as you likely guessed in the north-west of Northern Ireland, is a 8.97-mile (14.4km) triangle loop that connects the towns of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine.
The opening section along the coast is tight and technical, while the rest consists of long, flat-out straights interceded only by a few hairpins and a turn around a roundabout.
Celebrating 90 years in 2019, the North West 200 is a mammoth event for the region, with massive crowds flocking to fill grandstands and ditches right around the triangle.
Touching well over 200mph (321km/h) down roads lined by tress and barbed wire fences, the action is frantic. Watching along the real quick sections requires the aid of live streams and commentary to keep abreast of what is going on, but through the tighter coast road it’s easier to follow the action.Rain, Rain, Go Away
Getting to the North West involved the small matter of a 325-mile drive over six hours and leaving home at 2:00am on a Saturday morning. Up the road, everything seemed lovely, but about an hour from the track a few raindrops began to fall. They continued to fall, heavier and heavier, until it became torrential just as I arrived.
The road became saturated, with large patches of standing water. After a glorious week of practice in nice sunshine, the paddock went into scramble mode.
All over the place, teams were busy making setup changes. The main issue was going to be tyres, as a tasty set of sticky slicks would be of no use today.
The marshals are sent out to check the track, assisted by a member of the local police.
The officer has been getting a sequence of bizarre looks and hearty welcomes all day, mainly thanks to his mode of transport. Why be surrounded by some of the fastest motorbikes in the world, and not come sufficiently armed? Now, what sort of criminal is hoping to outrun the law when it’s riding a Ducati Panigale V4?
Dunlop tyre technicians worked at max speed to get rubber changed. The Arai crew were under pressure too, refitting new visors and applying condensation treatments to a huge variety of helmets.
Passing the bigger awnings, teams of mechanics tended to rows of bikes in preparation for either many riders, or many classes.
That’s a big part of the road racing world; riders jump freely from bike to bike depending on the race, much like the way Jim Clark or F1 drivers of that generation would jump from F1 to F2 or F3 cars.
Today will see Supersports (600cc), Superbikes (1,000cc bespoke race machines), Supertwins (650cc 2-cylinder bikes) and Superstocks (1,000cc slightly tweaked road bikes).
Elsewhere, within the same paddock and on the very same grid, smaller privateers squirrelled away themselves to get work done. Without large sponsors and shiny parts these competitors are the beating heart that keep road racing alive for most smaller events.
On the grid, the machines are left in the rain while many of the riders and team take shelter. A delay is inevitable, due to the conditions, but we must wait.
Moods lift with talk of racing starting, but a number of sighting laps are declared firstly to allow riders to test the conditions, as well as motorcycles that have been set up and tested in far more optimal conditions.
It takes five minutes before a rider slides off and coats the wet track in oil. Cue delay.
We go again, but once more the road receives a fresh dousing from a blown engine. The mood is not good as people become tired, cold and damp, yet the crowds don’t dwindle.
These people want to see racing, no matter how long it takes. Well, after a four-hour wait, they got exactly what they wanted.Let’s Go Racing
The sound of a racing motorcycle is a glorious thing. Singing all the way to north of 10,000rpm, the barely silenced scream would be enough to excite any racing fan.
Stood on a cold grass bank, having endured all that has happened all morning, the launch of 15 howling six hundreds was mesmerising. All scrambling for position around the long first corner, the sight is incredible.
On a still soaking track, the commitment is also incredible, dipping the bike into corners at crazy speed all while being blinded from the spray of the bike in front. Slowly, a leading trio break free and fight tooth and nail for the win, but down the field all manner of battles are taking place.
Down to the first hairpin, hard on the brakes and down through the gears. Dip in, hit the apex while dragging the bike around the corner. Rise up, open the throttle, and blip up through the box again aiming for the footpath curb on the outside. Five seconds have passed.
After the multiple delays getting the smaller bikes going, it’s little, if any, waiting before the big power Superbikes are unleashed. The rain has stopped, and there is even a dry line appearing on the track. Hoorah.
Now, I have to interject here and mention that I am not a biker, not a huge follower of bike racing, nor an avid attender of everts, but I’ll be damned if I will experience anything in the next while to match the ferocity of being up close and personal with a Superbike at full speed.
These monsters, on a wet, damp track, clock over 197mph (317km/h) down the main straight, which is three miles long, often two or three abreast.
Popping into view over a rise in the road, the riders are under pressure to keep the front wheel of the bike in contact with the tarmac. There is no dip in throttle – crest, lift wheel, crash down and control the rebound. That is the aim of the game, almost like trying to ride a rodeo bull.
All the big names of road racing are here, but the 2019 event brings out another sizeable star in Glenn Irwin, a leading figure in the British Superbike Championship. Irwin will happily say that he is not a road racer, yet he has become untouchable around the triangle circuit of the North West 200 over the last few years.
From bemoaning conditions, calling it a day and enjoying a burrito, through to giving the ride of the meeting to beat his teammate James Hillier with a 160mph (257km/h) overtake, it was another successful trip home for the track star.
By now it was starting to get late and the weather was closing in on the coast road. Tired and absolutely soaked, I got to Black Bridge in time for the last few races of the day. Here, the bikes pass at well over 190mph (305km/h) barely inches from your face, with a constant surge of wind and dirt peppering your extremities.
With a camera showing signs of having endured a seven-hour soaking and a body running well out of steam, I called it a day. The organisers did as well, with the final race of the day becoming a victim of the weather.
This is a taste of what motorcycle road racing is, what it’s about, and why you really need to find out about it. Tell us if you like the mad, crazy and exciting world, as I sure as hell would love to bring you plenty more action from what the last pure form of motorsport may be.Cutting Room Floor