The North West 200

Profile of Ireland's premier motorcycle road race

A series of motorcycle races run on public roads, the North West 200 is one of Ireland’s most spectacular sporting events. Staged annually on the middle Saturday of May, the North West attracts over 125,000 spectators, and can boast riders from over a dozen different countries.

The North West 200 was established shortly after the first world war, originating as an endurance test for the developing technology of the motorcycle. It featured 18 laps of an 18km triangle formed by the market town of Coleraine, Co Londonderry, and the seaside resorts of Portrush, Co Antrim, and Portstewart, Co Londonderry.

Although the circuit has been markedly shorter since the second world war, and the races separated into class of machine, the link to engine technology still remains. The race is a roll-call of the world’s leading manufacturers, from early, solid British bikes by BSA, Norton and Triumph, through the design classics of MV and Motoguzzi, to the hi-tech Japanese Honda and Yamaha. The latest machines from the big name manufacturers almost always outpace the private entrants. The pits area between Portrush and Portstewart is full of corporate pantechnicons as the manufacturers use the race week to sell to adoring fans and prospective buyers.

The North West 200 is highly unusual in that very few Grand Prix bike stars are willing to risk their reputations or necks on public roads. Road racing is unique to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and New Zealand, probably because of long summer evenings and reasonably empty country roads. Road racing once bore the same relationship to closed Grand Prix circuits as rugby league did to union—a coarse country cousin.

The present North West circuit is just under 14.5km long. The fastest machines, the 1000cc superbikes, complete the circuit in just over 4 minutes 20 seconds at an average of 193kmph.

The race has claimed many famous riders over the years, including Tom Herron from Belfast, but the stewards and the organisers, Coleraine and District Motor Club, do their utmost to preserve both riders and spectators. Padding and bales of hay line the course, and chicanes have been introduced to slow the fastest stretches of the course. Still, road racing is dangerous and even the most disinterested spectator becomes gripped by the spectacle of three or more machines dicing with one another at incredible speeds.

No article dealing with the North West 200 would be complete without mention of Northern Ireland’s own motorcycle road-racing legend, Joey Dunlop. Honoured with an MBE and an OBE for his sporting achievements and unassuming charity work in eastern Europe, this modest north Antrim family man recorded 13 wins at the race between 1979 and 1988. Following his untimely death in Estonia in 2000, over 60,000 admirers from Northern Ireland and beyond attended his funeral. For a generation of biking fans, the North West 200 and Joey Dunlop will always be synonymous.

The race costs hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum to stage, and the whole operation would be impossible without many hours and days of voluntary labour. Ironically, because the race is run on public roads, the club cannot levy an admission charge and therefore relies on generous sponsorship and programme sales.

© Lowell Courtney