Robert Dunlop and Racing with Fate
With Liam Beckett's book recalling his time at the side of the late motorcycling icon, we ask if the sport's tragedies outweigh its triumphs
In the week when legions of fans flocked to witness Alastair Seeley’s rightful succession as the new king of the North West 200, it was also to have been an occasion for these road racing pilgrims to celebrate the life and career of the late, great Robert Dunlop.
The publication of the new Blackstaff Press book Full Throttle - Robert Dunlop, Road Racing and Me, by Liam Beckett, Dunlop’s long time mechanic and constant companion, was to provide the perfect overtaking manouvere as sole ownership of the mantle passed to Seeley.
However, Saturday’s crash which claimed the life of 20 year old rising star Malachi Mitchell-Thomas in the Supertwins race served as a reminder that the spectre of death remains ever present in road racing. The Englishman’s death – the fourth fatality since Dunlop died during final practice for the 250cc race on May 15 2008 - overshadowed Seeley’s achievements of 17 North West victories.
Dunlop’s 15 winning performances were spread across a 20 year period up to 2006 - much of it interrupted by injury. His road to the top was achieved in the face of much adversity and humble beginnings.
'My uncle Jackie had started taking me to road racing when I was a teenager and I was smitten. The Dunlops were from my part of the world, Ballymoney and I admired them,' writes Beckett, who ran his own successful plumbing business.
'Uncle Jackie told me that Robert was struggling to get a foothold in racing. I had a large purpose-built workshop and I told Jackie that Robert was more than welcome to come and work on his machines at my place. It was an offer that would change my life.'
Amid the adrenaline of eventual victories at the Isle of Man TT, the Ulster Grand Prix, Kirkistown, Cadwell Park, Macau and, of course, the North West, Full Throttle is littered with dozens of broken bones, long periods of rehabilitation and the admiration and rivalry with renowned older brother Joey.
If Robert were still alive he would certainly enjoy the tales, anecdotes and, no doubt, dispute some of the distilled stories recounted by the warm-hearted and generous mentor he nicknamed LB.
Meticulous preparation of motorbikes was key to getting the advantage on race day. On many occasions LB would be woken by late night visits from Dunlop to the workshop anxious that some gearing or component part needed to be reexamined. Robert and Joey would help one another when necessary – even to the extent of illegal late night testing with the assistance of helpful neighbours who blocked off the country roads.
'I insisted in total professionalism in every facet of the operation. We were a small poor team in comparison to a lot of the other set-ups in the paddock, but I was more than content with a small inner circle because that way we could maintain those vital ingredients of trust and respect,' describes Beckett.
Full Throttle is a genuine road book. Thanks to the support of long time sponsor PJ O’Kane, Robert and LB graduated from the confines of a cramped van to travelling in a converted Ulsterbus equipped with bunk beds, lounge, kitchen and small workshop. The long drive to Monza in Italy ended in Robert crashing in the rain in the warm up lap and eventually being repatriated by air ambulance while LB drove home alone.
Beckett believes that while misfortune – in particular a serious crash during the 1994 TT - denied Robert Dunlop even greater accolades, the excitement he generated when he was winning was unparalleled. I, for one, will never forget the thrill of seeing him curve around Juniper Hill, moulded to the black JRS Norton and take the chequered flag at the 1994 North West 200. The roar of the engines was drowned out by the cheering of the crowd.
'Bearing in mind that Robert was restricted to the smaller 125cc machine after his career changing accident in 1994, it is a testament to his brilliance that his record stood for so long,' writes Beckett, in anticipation of Alastair Seeley overtaking Robert’s North West achievements this year.
Listening to Liam Beckett reflecting on the crash that killed Malachi Mitchell-Thomas on Saturday, one senses him thinking back to the time that he took the emerging Robert Dunlop under his wing.
'When you see a kid like that, the picture of life, the picture of happiness with the world at his feet in terms of road racing, he was the brightest star I’ve seen in the sport for five years,' Beckett told BBC Radio Ulster. 'I had him earmarked for the very top. He would have been an absolute legend had he stayed safe.'
Eight years ago Robert Dunlop eventually ran out of road in the sport that he loved. And while Full Throttle contains much joy and humour, there is a part of Liam Beckett that still mourns the tragic loss of a talented sportsman who was without question an absolute legend.