North West 200: Mervyn Whyte Interview

The NW200 has enraptured and enraged spectators for decades, reports Heather Simpson

The North West 200 has a high octane atmosphere, to say the least. Every May, spectators are treated to the unmistakable smell of Castrol oil and burning tyres as motorcyclists zoom past at incredibly high speed.

Regarded as the biggest outdoor sporting event in Ireland, up to 130,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from across the globe make their annual pilgrimage to the race meeting on the North Coast every year.

The race was launched on April 20, 1929, under the management of the City of Derry Motorcycling Club. From the 31 entrants, only eight bikes passed the checkered flag.

In those heady days, the roads around Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine echoed to the thunderous roar of big singles and twins with megaphone exhausts.

Then, bikes were simple and had none of the gadgetry bestowed on today's Japanese race motorcycles. Riders were viewed as heroes as they navigated the high speed straights and chicanes.

In 1967, the race came under the control of Coleraine and District Motor Club. Meryvn Whyte, has been Clerk of the course since 2000 and has overall responsibility for the event.

'The North West 200 is an international event, which has global status on the sporting calendar,' says Whyte. 'The Ulster Grand Prix and the North West 200 are the only road races in Ireland to get international accreditation by the governing body - the Federation of International Motorcyclists.'

The triangle race meeting, held over the public roads of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine, has become renowned as an important date on the sporting calendar. Described as a week-long festival of sport, practice sessions take place on a Tuesday and Thursday, with the main races on the Saturday.

As well as holding the main race meeting, there are air displays, fireworks, parachutists and stunt riders. 'Motorcycling is so popular because it is a high speed sport and people love to see the action and the thrills,' observes Whyte.

'It is a very high speed track with two straights and a number of chicanes around the Coast Road between Portrush and Portstewart, but it is very easy to learn. The average speed is about 120 miles per hour and [in 2010] Michael Rutter broke the record to clock 201 miles per hour, during the superbike race. The highlight of the course would be the Coast Road, which is the most demanding section of the course.'

The race is steeped in racing history. From Joey Dunlop to Ryan Farqhuar, the meeting is recognised as breeding motorcycling stars from around the world.

Whyte highlights the fact that Northern Ireland has a long tradition of motorcycling. 'Motorcycling is so popular in Northern Ireland because we have always had a number of road races and competitors have been involved in road racing. Whereas, in England there are no road races and riders are practiced only on short circuits.

'The race is broadcast to 13 countries across five continents. As a result, I have had phone calls from Australians and Americans wanting to come over for the race. It is an international event in every sense of the world and seems to have an ever-increasing fan base.'

However, Whyte admits that the sport has changed significantly since the untimely death of motorcyclist Joey Dunlop. Known as 'King of the Roads', the Armoy motorcyclist died during a race in Latvia in July, 2000. 

'Following a number of fatalities, safety issues have come to the fore and tracks are being improved to be more safe,' says Whyte. 'The Coleraine and District Motor Club places an emphasis on safety for spectators and riders during the event. We have placed 200 bales on the course and 150 purpose built bales on the corners. We also carried out a number of risk assessments on the course.'

Joey Dunlop became a superstar the world over, and his overwhelming popularity was reflected in the massive crowd of supporters who visit his memorial in Ballymoney each year. 

No matter what happens this year or in the years to come, he will always be remembered as the greatest ever to compete at the prestigious North West 200.