A remarkable racer and a remarkable man, the boy from County Antrim became a legend in his own lifetime
Motorcycle road racing – one the most dangerous sports in the world – has its heartland in Northern Ireland. Riders and machines compete on closed public road circuits, such as at the North West 200 in Portrush, Dundrod’s Ulster Grand Prix, the Mid-Antrim circuit outside Ballymena, and the Tandragee 100 in Co Armagh.
Born in Armoy, County Antrim, Joey Dunlop’s first race was in 1969, and in 1971 he made his road-racing debut at the Tandragee 100 on a Suzuki. The first of countless wins came in 1975 at the Temple 100 on a Yamaha.
Despite the frequency of injury or even death for competitors, supporters clung to the belief that Joey Dunlop was invincible. Sadly, this myth was shattered during a race meeting in Tallinn, Estonia on July 3, 2000. For some of the 50,000 gathered at his funeral, the fact that Dunlop had died doing what he did and loved best – riding his motorbike – provided some consolation.
An incredible 26 Tourist Trophy victories on the Isle of Man, 13 chequered flags at the North West, and five successive Formula One world titles from 1982 to 1986, were testament to the abilities of the unassuming man with nerves of steel. He remains one of Ireland’s best-loved sporting superstars.
Dunlop joined forces with Honda in 1982. Their trust in his talent was well placed. However, while the sport considered him a star, he was very uncomfortable with fame. Renowned for giving single syllable answers to those he did not know well, Dunlop preferred to let his bike do the talking. He once recalled the dilemma he faced on the verge of winning his first big race: ‘When I realised I was going to win, I considered coming second. I didn’t know how to open a bottle of champagne.’
Given the success that followed, Dunlop became used to the sound of corks popping. Having overtaken Mike Hailwood’s record of 14 TT wins in 1992, Dunlop’s final tally of 26 was completed with a hat trick in 2000, just weeks before his fatal crash in Estonia.
But Joey Dunlop is not just remembered for his performances on two wheels. Away from the limelight, he would often pack his van with medical and food supplies, and take them to needy hospitals and orphanages in Eastern Europe. He travelled alone to maximise the space. Dunlop received the MBE in 1986, and the OBE in 1995, for his services to sport and in recognition of his humanitarian and charity work.