The extraordinary Dunlop family are the focus of DoubleBand Films' new documentary on the thrilling sport of road racing
In the opening sequences of the documentary ROAD, a lone motorcyclist is thundering along a country road. The on board camera captures the world flashing past as the rider, drawn by the emptiness of the path ahead, turns the throttle and seeks to go faster.
'They are called road racers. Men who race on ordinary country roads,' intones the film’s narrator, Liam Neeson. 'Roads lined with trees, lamp posts, stone walls. Unforgiving obstacles when struck by a human body.'
ROAD explores the relationships between two sets of brothers whose family has been associated with the sport over the past four decades. They are, of course, the Dunlops.
Two of them, five times world champion Joey and Robert, a 15 times winner at the North West 200, have given their lives for road racing. Robert’s sons, Michael and William, have taken on the mantle of their late father and uncle to ensure that the Dunlop name continues to be a global brand.
Michael’s four victories at the recent Isle of Man TT festival dismisses any sense that they might be a spent force. However, the broken leg suffered by William in a crash is a reminder of what has gone before.
ROAD pays homage not only to these exceptional athletes but to the sport itself. It gives some insight into the motivation of competitors for whom road racing is an addiction. The annual pilgrimages to the North West 200, the Isle of Man TT and the Ulster Grand Prix races are the fix for the riders and the thousands of spectators who come to watch in awe.
There is the challenge, the celebration and the aftermath of racing accidents. There is no attempt to shy away from the obvious danger attached to the sport. How could there be? Road racing claimed Joey and Robert as it did Mervyn Robinson, and Frank Kennedy, who along with Joey were part of the group of friends known as the Armoy Armada. Only Jim Dunlop, Joey and Robert’s older sibling survives.
Road racing can be a brutal, cruel sport. 'If motor cycling was not at all dangerous, I suspect most would not do it,' says former Formula One commentator Murray Walker, who knows a thing or two about bikes as well.
'From the outside it looks insane, but when you‘re on the bike you feel in control,' adds Morecambe-based rider, John McGuinness, himself a multiple winner at the TT and the Coleraine Triangle.
And in many ways the sport is insane. Those who would wish to have road racing banned or moved off public roads to a short circuit track have had their argument strengthened by the deaths of Simon Andrews at this year’s North West, followed by those of Bob Price and Karl Harris at the TT.
Perhaps a viewing of ROAD – which premiered at the Belfast Film Festival earlier this year – or indeed a visit to a road racing event, might give them a different perspective on what it means to those for whom this is a way of life.
The dangers are self evident. Some would argue that those are not sufficient grounds to outlaw it. My personal experience of reporting from road racing events has been of an incredible band of people, generous of spirit and forever willing to share spare parts, tools and advice with one another – none more so than Joey or Robert.
'They were never irresponsible on the road,' says Liam Beckett, who worked with the Dunlops for many years in the preparation of their machines. 'They would only ride their bikes in races. They were so particular they wouldn’t even go down the road to get a loaf of bread on a bike.'
ROAD was written, produced and directed by Diarmuid Lavery and Michael Hewitt of Doubleband Films, and was several years in the making. 'As it happens, Michael and I are road racing fans anyway and we had made a documentary with Robert some years ago called Between the Hedges,' explains Lavery. 'Liam Beckett helped in getting us access to the Dunlop family. It took time to build up the necessary trust with them. We wrote to Liam Neeson and asked him to narrate and he agreed.'
In this gripping documentary, which will be aired by BBC One Northern Ireland at 830pm on October 6, 2014, Lavery and Hewitt manage to get inside the intensely private world of the Dunlop families. To hear from Joey and Robert’s widows, Linda and Louise, their mother Mary and brother Jim – who rarely speak in public – shows how the filmmakers honoured the promises they made.
As with Senna, Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary on the life and death of the Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna, we know where ROAD is leading us – to inevitable tragedy. In Joey’s case, life came to an end in 2000 at a race meeting in Estonia, where word filtered through that he had crashed in the rain on a tree-lined circuit in Tallinn.
For Robert, death came in a much more public way in 2008 during practice at the North West. The helicopter shots tracking from above show him winding his way out of Portstewart, negotiating the roundabout at University, accelerating up towards Mathers Cross and then that awful moment when his modified 250cc bike seized and he was catapulted on to the road.
In spite of their loss, Robert’s boys, William and Michael, insisted on competing in the 250cc race two days later. While William’s bike failed to get him off the start line, Michael rode like a demon and took the chequered flag from John McGuinness in one of the most emotionally charged races ever seen at the North West.
It was maybe not a happy ending in the common sense of the word, but it was the result that everyone wanted. Robert and Joey would have been proud of his performance.