“It’s just all about the rush, the excitement and the freedom, y’know. You, the bike and the road. Nothing else in your head. Everything for those few minutes is in your hands. Want to go faster? Slow down? Nobody decides but you. It’s unlike any other feeling you can get. That’s road racing for ya.”
“God knows what sort of week you’ve had. You could have the missus on your case, the boss at work on your case, or whoever on your case all week. You work damn hard all week to keep food on the table, but come the weekend that goes out the window. As soon as those leathers come on, it’s all different; totally different man.”
“It becomes all about me and the bike. Nothing else. I can’t think of my family or friends. Sometimes they come to the racing and give you a wave or a hug, but they know you’re putting their future on the line time and time again. It’s pure selfishness, but it’s living. It’s an escape, a way of feeling alive for a few minutes. Throttle, tuck the head behind the fairing, battle the front wheel, brake, turn, go again.”
“You pull on that helmet and it all changes. It’s just you and the road, man, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
These are the words of a road racer.
In the modern world, with the never-ending desire for everything to be polished and shiny, and an obsession for more regulation than you can shake a stick at, motorcycle road racing doesn’t seem to fit. It does not conform to the new norms. It has remained bashfully ignorant to the advances of time, instead merely utilising the advances in technology to get faster and more dangerous.
After the strong reception that our NW200 coverage received, I knew there was a lot more to this motorsport than what first met the eye. So over the summer months, I went off in search of the real world of road racing, which as it turns out is in a very healthy state here in Ireland.Everything On The Line
Danger lurks all around road racing. The tracks are dangerous, and the consequences, should something go wrong, are very real. You hear the cliched line ‘putting everything on the line for your entertainment’ bandied about at other sports, but in the bike world it’s a deadly serious sentiment.
Every event is scarred with hard memories, the track sides littered with timely reminders of the harsh realities that exist. Fallen heroes are revered and idolised for the great days, but it feels like a never-ending hoodoo that hangs around.
Every day of racing that passes by without incident is celebrated.
At the very start of this journey, I knew very few people within the paddock, so catching a quick word here and there was my way of getting in. I asked questions and built relationships. In Skerries in July, I spoke briefly with Darren Keys, talking about the track, the conditions and his bike. That was it, a quick few words, maybe 40 or 50 seconds, but he was incredibly friendly and open.
The following week, at a meeting in Northern Ireland, Darren tragically lost his life to the sport.
The riders, as a whole, are the beating heart of the road racing world. While it’s easy at the larger events to idolise the superstars, there are hundreds of men and women out racing every weekend that share as much passion and excitement for bikes.
Working from small vans and running on shoe-string budgets, these riders give months at a time travelling the length of Ireland, racing week after week.
Vinny Brennan, AKA ‘The Racing Barber’ is one of these riders, spending every last minute working hard to fund a season of racing action. Vinny, who owns a barber shop in Dublin, has been a revelation this year, putting in noteworthy performances all season aboard his day-glow-liveried Kawasaki Ninja Supertwin.
“Ya, I built a bike over the winter with the intention of doing a few events, but now I’ve been racing seven weekends straight without a break. I have the two lads with me for the weekend, but it’s manic. I get home late on a Sunday wrecked, work Monday, and I’m still too tired to unload the van at that stage. Maybe a Tuesday the bike comes out and I can start checking things over. If there’s work needed, that’s Wednesday, and then Thursday the van is loaded again, ready to go on Friday.”
“We don’t have the big money sponsors, it’s just a few guys helping us with a few tyres here and there, a few bob off parts or a bit of cash towards the expenses. The gearbox blew mid-season, so that was a big blow, but we had it changed in time for the next week. You just keep pushing, week after week, to get the bike right and out on track. It’s an addiction, that’s for sure.”
This is the core of the road racing world in Ireland – single-bike operations taking on the established might. For some riders who have the support of a dedicated racing team and strong sponsorship, a suite of bikes will be on hand and ready to go for countless classes – just like the old days of F1 with tales of drivers hopping from F2 to Formula Ford to F1 over a weekend. Some will have a Superbike, a Superstock, a 600cc Supersport and even perhaps a Supertwin, all ready to go.
But what can always be counted on is somebody biting at the big stars’ heels…
Mike Browne from Cork has caused quite a stir in Irish road racing circles this year. Softly spoken, shaggy haired and down to earth, the man who spends his weekdays running a farm has got people talking in excited tones.
Campaigning a lone Kawasaki KZR 600cc machine, #16 has been on fire, not just in the 600cc races, but also scoring a large number of podiums in the Open races that welcome everything up to full-blown Superbikes.
“Yeah, it’s been a grand year alright. I’ve done a bit of circuit racing, but the real craic is out on the roads. I had a great time out at the Manx last year, and the aim was the TT this year which went well enough in fairness [Well enough for Mike is actually a spectacular 18th position finish against the best 600cc road racers in the world, and a 120mph lap on a first visit to the Mountain Course] so I’ve just kept going since.”
“We have good support from a few businesses down home, but this isn’t a cheap hobby. I’d love to have all the bikes and awnings and team, but it’s just myself and the buddy running from a van. The Isle of Man cost about €20,000 [US$22,200] all in, and you’d nearly spend that again over a season if nothing goes wrong. All I can keep doing is racing hard and putting on a show to get more people involved.”The Family
While riders push themselves to get out racing every week, a small army of supporters travel along with them, track to track, keeping the show on the road. The paddock feels like a holiday camp, lined with campervans and caravans, all stocked up on BBQ food and alcohol, every race meeting a mini break from everyday life.
The marshals, organisers, commentators and teams all have so much love for the sport, and faces become familiar over time.
The circuits themselves are not such in a conventional sense. These are not race tracks, there are no FIA-approved Armco barriers, and most certainly no gravel traps or run-offs. This is pure closed-road racing. Save for a small amount of safety padding and the removal of a few roadside signs, these strips of tarmac are nothing more than everyday stretches of public highway.
Just like the historic pictures you’ve likely seen on Facebook or Instagram of Spa-Francorchamps or the Nürburgring back in the day, with race cars passing farmed fields lined with barbed wire, not much has changed at all in road racing. Solid walls and banks are skimmed in places, jutting trees are used as braking markers, and grass verges are packed with spectators, just feet from the action.
Road racing does not bother the mainstream media in the slightest. Save for the large international events – think the NW200 and the Ulster GP – the only time you ever hear about this motorsport is when something goes bad. Bikes flying up country lanes at north of 170mph (274km/h) doesn’t seem to compute with the modern ideals of society, so it happens away from the glare.
The loyal band of supporters are just that – loyal – and to spend some time in their company is fascinating. One guy asked me to identify race tracks simply by pictures of corners he had on his phone, and when I’d finally identified Faugheen as the answer to question eight, he’d sussed I was an outsider. Despite this, he still loved sharing his connection to bike racing.
Around the paddock, countless friends and family members chip in to keep the machines ticking over, to help savour the taste of victory, and most importantly – especially from what I saw – help to change tyres at extremely short notice when the rain starts falling.
And it always seems to rain.
Of the seven days racing I saw this year – including the NW200 – only two were run in the complete dry.Skerries
The Irish road racing season plays out over a number of smaller meetings, bookended by the two internationals in Northern Ireland. North and south of the border, small rural localities light up – or more, wake up – to the sound of high-revving race machines for a weekend. Practice on Saturday, racing on Sunday, non-stop action for both.
While I had been to the ‘big’ races before, my aim this year was to see the true world of the sport, so come the start of July, I made my way to North Dublin. The sleepy seaside village of Skerries is home to one of the most spectacular and high-speed circuits on the calendar.
Racing in the area for well over 70 years, the Skerries 100 is a true favourite for both riders and spectators, and a perfect chance to get embedded into this fascinating world.
The paddock here is a buzz of excitement, with the roar from the main straight adding to an atmosphere peppered with two-stroke fumes and frantic spanner-work. The rain fell all morning, leaving the track slippery and damp, so frantic setup changes happened on Saturday.
Outside one awning, crowds stood and stared. Inside, tinkering with a BSA Rocket, was a truck mechanic from Yorkshire. Guy Martin has become the ultimate fan favourite, the epitome of the everyday man taking on the racing elite.
A road racer to his core, Martin has become a household name in recent years through appearances on television, and now simply races for his own enjoyment.
Out on track, the action was every bit as quick as I had been led to believe. Shooting becomes mind-blowingly difficult, as the mind struggles to comprehend the speed at which the noisy blurs cross the viewfinder.
In the Sam’s Tunnel section of the track, about half a second of visibility was all that was there to be utilised. The bikes, at maximum velocity, skimmed the ditch a mere three-feet from my arm.
This was exciting behind the camera, so I can’t comprehend how it must feel behind the visor.
Crowds build over the weekend, with Sunday seeing huge numbers packing into the grandstands all around the track. The most popular spot is at Gillies Leap, an innocuous dip in the road while driving a car, but a terrifying drop into the unknown while gunning a motorbike at full tilt.
It’s said that a few riders overdo the wheelie dramatics here in the knowledge that a sizeable media pack lies over the crest, cameras at the ready.
Skerries also showed me the staggering variety of machinery that compete in various classes. From the more modern Superbikes and 600s that I already knew about, I added the 125cc/Moto3s as well as a complete world of Classics that I had never thought of before.
The excitement comes in swarms, an action-packed blast of a few laps before the next cohort come buzzing down the road.Faugheen
A few weeks later, Faugheen was on my agenda, but a clash with another event only allowed for a day-trip to the tight and technical Tipperary venue. While not as flat-out as Skerries, the high banks and flowing corners most definitely reward more precision compared to other tracks on the calendar.
In the paddock, it was fascinating to watch the way riders prepare for what lay ahead. Some smiled, some joked, some went tweaking, while others wore thousand-yard stares, each in their own way focusing on what they were about to do.
It was also fascinating to watch the small interactions. Some offered words of encouragement while others discussed track conditions. The sharper riders were straight over to those returning from previous sessions, searching for any info on what lay beyond the paddock gate.
Out at the back of the course – the quickest section – the real fascination was in the bravery of breaking manoeuvres. Some would pull hard at the latest possible moment, just getting their machine slowed enough for the sharp left-hander. Others, perhaps in desperation or struck down with racing fever, would arrive clearly carrying too much speed, choosing to take the opt-out of a small slip road and thankful of not having met the ditch face-first.
Back up through the fields, swing double left past the church and housing estate then flat past the banks lined with truck trailers employed as grandstands. It’s not exactly the standard track description, but this is the reality of road racing.
At the sharp end of the racing, a pair of names just kept reappearing. Michael (Micko) Sweeney and Derek Shiels are, as a pair, the current pinnacle of Irish road racers, although certain others may contest that assumption had it not been for injury this season. Week after week, the pair have duelled, much to the enjoyment of the spectators lining the ditches.
Both running under full-time teams – Martin Jones Racing for Micko and Burrows Engineering for Derek – the two riders have continually shown how good they are, and plenty of people have taken notice. Although Sweeney won the Irish Championship, Shiels kept him sweating, and the pair have had some thrilling duels during the larger International meetings.Munster 100
The start of August was a special stop on this journey, as after years of travelling countless hours and miles to get my motorsport fix, the racing came home. Well, 5km from my home, with a return of the Munster 100.
As south as the competitors will travel all season, and on the edge of Cork City, the event had plenty in its favour. A freshly resurfaced track was the absolute cherry on the pie.
Supported by local authorities who permitted the closing of public roads, the will of a large body of racing supporters helped to bring racing back to an area that has been devoid of the sport in recent years. Lightning-quick up a section of the old Cork-Dublin main road, before swinging onto a tighter road, and linked with what can only really be described as a lane, the Glanmire circuit offered plenty of variety.
Saturday added another variable. It rained.
Or more appropriately, it never stopped raining. Torrential downpours rolled in one after another, but the action never stopped. Road racing doesn’t take a break when the conditions don’t play ball, the only delays often being caused by standing water.
Such was the condition of the Cork track though, racing continued, and my cameras truly earned their stripes surviving the deluge.
The blast out of the final corner was interesting to watch, with all manner of lines being explored in the wet and dry. Some used all of the road on the outside, whereas others kept tight to the bumpy and slippery inner line.
By Saturday, the temperatures were up and the showers certainly less frequent, leading to some incredible racing. Healthy crowds came out to view the spectacle.
As I delved deeper into the road racing world, I learned of the efforts taken to prepare the tracks for racing each week. Multiple truckloads of safety equipment and race gear is transported week by week around the various circuits, which of course means countless people are required to spend hours constructing, and ultimately deconstructing, barriers, safety fences and grandstands.The Ulster GP
The customary season ender, on the Island of Ireland at least, has traditionally been the Ulster Grand Prix based at Dundrod just outside Belfast. This place, within road racing circles, is hallowed ground, spoken about in the same breath at the Mountain Course in the Isle of Man.
The reason they’re often compared? Well, both have traditionally done battle for the crown of being the fastest road race in the world.
That’s big bragging rights, and for the last few years the title has lay in the IOM. This all changed in 2019.
For most sane people, lap times are recorded in perhaps seconds, even tenth of seconds. At the sharp edge of road racing, laps are recorded in mile-per-hour averages, and this is what lapping a 7.4-mile (11.91km) circuit lined with poles, fences, ditches and people at an average of 136.4mph (216.64km/h) looks like.
Peter Hickman has, in the past few years, begun to completely rewrite the record books, in the process smashing the assumption that circuit racers can’t win on the roads.
A star of the British Superbike Championship, Hickman and his Smiths Racing team have been imperious the last few years. The Isle of Man record was smashed in 2018 with the very first 135mph lap, and the winning hasn’t stopped.
At the Ulster, all eyes were on the friendly English rider and the possible competition from Dean Harrison or Lee Johnson, both multi-time winners around Dundrod. Hickman had other ideas.
Starting on Thursday evening, the first day of racing, the writing was on the wall. Two wins in the bag, and the eye on the clean sweep on Saturday.
Jumping effortlessly from Superbike to Superstock (Both BMW 1000RRs) to Supersport (Triumph 650 Triple), the speed kept building, the comfort of victory ever wider. Even a mid-race emergency in the Supersport race – the fuel cap falling off spraying petrol out of the tank for a lap – wasn’t enough to stop the march. Seven, yes seven, race wins. 100% success. Imperious.
While Hickman stole the headlines, rightly, the Ulster was an opportunity to experience the highest echelons of the sport on one of the best circuits around. The spectacle of the mass starts as countless riders shuffle for position down the Flying Kilo, to the jaw-dropping spectacle of Deers Leap.
The paddock feels most alive here, big teams and determined privateers sharing a sacred space and a shared love for the sport. Faces I’d met and seen on the smaller rural lanes were there now, dicing it on the biggest stage of all, but one that still felt more grassroots than the TT or the NW.
The Ulster felt homely, almost like it was the biggest of the national rounds, while also comfortable being one of the best international events.
Leaving Dundrod, enthused after a spectacular day’s racing and exhilarated after a high-speed summer, I began to reflect on the whole world of road racing and what makes it so special. Was it the people? The riders? The machines? The speed? The danger? Perhaps the answer most suitable would be ‘all of the above’.
Road racing does not concern itself with airs or graces, flashy corporate identity or sanitised image. It’s about as true as motorsport comes, unchanged massively from its origins. Sure, there may be a bit more tape here and barriers there, but it remains simple at its core.
“It’s just all about the rush, the excitement and the freedom y’know. You, the bike and the road. Nothing else in your head.”Cutting Room Floor