The Hard Road: The Real Road Racers

Road racing’s superstars may dominate the headlines, but the unsung majority are still the sport’s lifeblood. Warren Pole unpicks the fabric of ‘real’ road racing

Walk through the gap in the hedge however and you’ll find yourself in another race paddock. There are no motorhomes here – caravans are as posh as it gets, while just as many are sleeping in their vans – and the team awnings coated in sponsor’s logos have been swapped for old tents while the ‘hospitality areas’ are a packet of biscuits in the toolkit and a couple of well worn mugs wearing as much grease as they are tea stains.

If road racing is a religion in Ireland then this paddock is the congregation. Some days they make the podium and other days they’re lucky to finish, but they’re here for the love of the sport above everything else and are running on budgets tight enough to make many trackday riders wince.

“My Honda RS125’s 14-years-old and I don’t even own it,” Darren Gilpin tells me from beneath the small awning at the side of his aged caravan. The 34-year-old 125 rider from County 

Behind the giant race trucks, awnings and uniformed mechanics of the factory riders at the North West 200 lies a second, smaller paddock. It’s easy to miss – at first glance the gap in the hedge leading into it looks like an exit into an unused field, especially as the paddock tarmac ends abruptly at its border. The illusion of there being nothing through there is compounded by the lie of the land, which slopes up to the hedge, and then down beyond it, meaning that from within the main paddock the only way of seeing over the hedge is by climbing on top of one of the more deluxe factory race trucks. Ironically for a road race which sees riders top 200mph on a course where kerbs, lamp-posts and houses all lie inches from the racing line, you can’t do this. Health and safety you see.

Antrim is typical of the Irish road race breed, pouring everything he has into his racing. “I’ve never been on holiday abroad because all my holidays are spent at race weekends and my house doesn’t even have curtains – any spare money I do have goes into running the bike. I wouldn’t complain about any of it though because I love road racing, it’s such an addictive sport.”

His family must love it too – even Gilpin’s wedding four years ago was planned around it. “We got married a week before the Northwest and came here racing for our honeymoon. My wife Roisin’s a very understanding woman.”

This year’s North West 200 was held on the same weekend as this year’s Monaco F1 Grand Prix and the contrast between the two couldn’t be more extreme. Both are on closed roads and both are by the sea but there the similarities end.

While Monaco is a shiny jewel of a spectacle accessible only to the richest and most famous members of Europe’s billionaire elite with racing that’s little more than a pricey procession, the North West is a true dogfight among riders prepared to lay it all on the line for very little. Beyond the front row of the grid in any class it’s unlikely many, if any, are being paid to be there.

Legends like Phil McCallen, Joey Dunlop, Carl Fogarty and Steve Hislop have all won at the North West, while others including the circuit’s most successful rider ever, Robert Dunlop, have lost their lives there. Dunlop was killed after a fall in practice for the 2008 250cc race and his son Michael went on to win the same race two days later, dedicating the win to his father. Grown men cried in the grandstands that day. It was an outstanding display of the bravery, courage and sportsmanship on display in road racing.

Paul Robinson, another rider making racing ends meet from one weekend to the next, felt Dunlop’s death more keenly than most. His father Mervyn, a road racing great in his own right, was brother-in-law to the Dunlops and the man who introduced both Joey and Robert to the sport.

Tragically, Mervyn was killed racing at the North West in 1980, but Paul continued going to the races with the Dunlops before starting racing himself in 1993. Since then he has seen the sport take not only his father, but both Joey and Robert. These profound losses have never stopped him racing but he admits he may never get over them.

“I don’t really think I’ve come to terms with it, with all three of them. Not only that, lots of close friends have been killed racing as well. But you always have the mentality of  ‘well, it won’t happen to me, I’ll be lucky’. You have to think that – you wouldn’t be able to do this otherwise.”

You can’t imagine any of the superstar drivers in Monaco speaking like this. From Robinson however, it couldn’t sound more natural. I ask what drives him, and he answers after a pause.

“That’s a difficult one and to be quite honest it’s not just the thrill of riding a motorbike. I like winning, that’s what it is. You don’t have to win all the time, but having a chance of winning gives you the push to want to do it.”

One win which has eluded him so far though is the North West. “I’ve never won here. Two seconds, two thirds, but never the top step, and that win’s the one thing I’ve always wanted since I started racing.”

Sitting in his DIY motorhome – a truck he “packed the inside of a caravan into” – it’s plain he doesn’t have a huge budget to make this dream come true. Working as a lifeguard at the Joey Dunlop leisure centre in Ballymoney just down the road earns him enough for a decent living but it runs thin when it comes to racing.

An illustration of how thin comes when we talk tyres, or more precisely, lack of them.      “Some guys run new tyres at every race, but I’m not in that position. I had one set of tyres for the entire season last year. They did 15 races. And my wets are four years old. That’s why my leathers are so battered – I fell off in the rain the other week because the grip just ran out.”

His tyres may be in better shape this weekend, but Robinson still faced a battle to make the grid at all after a main bearing failure on his 125 forced him out of the first qualifying session and left him facing a full engine rebuild to make the second.

“All day Wednesday we were screwing the bike apart and we had the engine in about a thousand bits. But we got it rebuilt and I went out to Robert’s (Dunlop) house to run it in.” You may presume this is because there’s a dyno there – after all, where else would you run in a race bike – but you’d be wrong. This is the world of Irish road racing and given that even tyres are often a too-costly expense, rolling roads are hardly thick on the ground either. Instead, the more traditional everyday road is where race bikes rack up their running in miles.

So it was for Robinson’s Honda 125. “It’s not legal, but I had to run the bike in. I did about 20 miles. Some were slow, but at other times I was pulling top gear with the same gearing I’m running in the race.”

Don’t think the local coppers will turn a blind eye either. Stories of them pulling Joey Dunlop over doing just the same only to wish him luck are either from a bygone age or simply apocryphal. These days Northern Ireland’s traffic coppers are as stern as the rest. “If the police catch you they’ll throw the book at you – do you for so much it would be unbelievable and it would cost a lot of money,” explains Robinson. “You just have to take the chance. You use roads you know, out of the way where it’s quiet and if the police do see you, you just hope you can get away.”

And let’s face it, if there was ever a chase between a heavily laden cop car and a bantamweight road racer, on his own turf armed with a freshly tuned race bike, I know who my money would be on.

Walking deeper into the second paddock, I spot what has to be the smallest pit garage of all time – a tent so small it barely fits around the thoroughly well-used R6 nestling inside. Somehow two men, both hunched almost double, have managed to squeeze in around the bike and are giving it a final once over.

The two men in question are David Mulligan, the bike’s softly spoken rider, owner and mechanic and his cousin Gyles. Just like 125 riding Gilpin, Mulligan’s racing is entirely self-funded. “This costs a fair bit and more than you’d like, but I get by,” he says, adding, “It’s just what I like to do.”

Although admitting to being “Happy enough, you know,” with his qualifying spot of 35th, the lack of budget brings its own problems in the fiercely competitive world of supersport racing. “You need top speed around here, and I don’t have it. I heard Ryan Farquhar complaining he had no top speed, but he’s a lot more top speed than me,” laughs Mulligan. 

Back in the main paddock, inside the HM Plant Honda garage, everything is as deluxe as can be. A full fat factory superbike stands to attention as a team of mechanics prep it to within an inch of its life for racing in just a few short hours. I catch up with John McGuinness, 15 times TT winner, outright lap record holder and the man on pole position for today’s superbike race. His situation now is as far removed as it could be from the blokes in the back field, but he understands where they’re coming from because that’s precisely where he started out.

“I was just the same when I first came over here in 1993. An Iveco van and my old TZ250 were the only things I owned in the world back then. Anything else I had was begged, borrowed or stolen. If someone had told me I’d go on to win here five times, I’d just have laughed at them.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve such a good a relationship with so many people here because I’ve been there and I’ve done it. My motorhome didn’t just arrive one day from Father Christmas, I’ve had to work hard for it.”

But even with the might of Honda behind him, McGuinness’s bikes are still keeping it simple – 200-odd bhp of simple – but simple all the same. “There’s no bullshit on there,” he explains, pointing to his Fireblade superbike, “We don’t run traction control because it’s no good on the roads. The only mods from the basic superbike are the 24-litre tank,  steel subframe instead of  aluminium,  wide pegs, deeper screen and a thumb brake to tame the wheelies.”

McGuinness goes on to convert his pole position into a win in the day’s first superbike race, taking his North West tally up to six in total. Following this up with a third in the next superbike race, as well as top ten finishes in both supersport races and the superstock event. It’s not a bad day’s work at all for the former bricklayer from Morecambe.

But it’s an even better day’s work for Paul Robinson, who takes his freshly rebuilt RS125 to his long-dreamed of victory in the 125 race on the 30th anniversary of his father’s death here. To say it’s an emotional win would be an understatement.

Meanwhile Darren Gilpin makes it home as last finisher. On his budget this is an achievement. As for David Mulligan and his R6, they pull off a 30th and a 27th place in the day’s two supersport races. Both results are an improvement on Mulligan’s 35th place qualifying spot.

And as the sun sets over Portrush, the lengthy process begins to turn its back from a high-speed racetrack to the small, slow seaside town it usually is for the next 51 weeks. And you know they’ll all be back. As Darren Gilpin succinctly puts it, “Road racing is just something very special in this part of the world.”