Why the Northwest 200 Should be on Every Race Fan’s To-Do List!

As the racing at the Isle of Man is about to kick off, Toad thinks it’s time the NW200 stepped out of the TT’s shadow

John McGuinness on the grid for the NW200 Superbike Race - Image author's own

While the Isle of Man TT is widely, and rightfully, regarded as the world’s greatest motorcycle road race, the Northwest 200 is a very worthy and notable alternative, and it offers fans a different take on the sport of motorcycle road racing.

I’ve never had the chance to sample the NW200, although with Honda planning a press trip to Portrush to coincide with the event, I quickly jumped at the chance to head over to get a flavour of the event. It also gave me a chance to ride and review the new Honda NX500, so it was a bit of a two-birds, one-stone opportunity. 

From the minute you arrive in Northern Ireland, you can’t escape how deeply ingrained road racing is in the local psyche. From the road signs pointing in the direction of the Dunlop family’s hometown of Ballymoney, to the chequered kerbs lining the famous 8.9-mile course known as The Triangle. Road racing isn’t just a sport in this part of the world, It’s most definitely a way of life. 

It’s also interesting to see how different the NW200 is compared to the TT. The TT, by comparison, feels much more like a festival, with big-budget sponsorship from the likes of Monster Energy bringing a slug of American glitz to the sometimes gritty world of road racing. The VIP area at the TT is also awash with stars from music, TV, film and, of course, motorsport. And while that does mean a huge amount of eyes are on the island throughout the event, to the punter on the ground the VIP area will seem like a long way from hanging your legs over the grass wall at The Creg-Ny-Baa as the bikes flash by.

The NW200 feels very different, and while there are big budgets and sponsorship at the race, it all feels more lowkey, a bit more real. Instead of rubbing shoulders with the stars in the TT’s hospitality tent, I spent most of my day chatting to the staff from Ballymena Honda, who’d been treated to a seat at the top table as a reward for a job well done. I spent time on the balcony, watching the race starts and sharing the action with builders, restauranteurs and business owners who stepped forward to help sponsor the event in any way they could. It all feels much less far removed from reality like the A-list who’s who of the TT hospitality area is.

A memorial to the late racers Robert Dunlop and Mervyn Robinson​

But the hospitality area isn’t the best place to sample the racing. Granted the food is great and the beer flowing, but to get a true taste of the Northwest you’ve got to get out around the course. At places like Mather's Cross, you can stand behind what I can only assume is some kind of specially constructed safety rope, with your feet just inches from the bikes flashing by at speeds approaching 160mph. It’s also at places like this where the reality of road racing motorcycles is brought sharply into focus, as just across the road from us I catch sight of a memorial for local heroes Robert Dunlop and Mervyn Robinson who lost their lives at this spot in 2008 and 1980 respectively. Robert’s life was taken when it is suspected his bike’s engine seized as he approached 160mph. Robinson, another famous name and a member of the ‘Armoy Armada’, lost his life in what his friend and fellow racer, Conor McGinn, described as a ‘racing accident at high speed’. People get injured in all forms of motorsport, and sadly in some cases, they lose their lives. But few motorsports on the planet can be perceived as being so dangerous yet still have people queuing up to compete as motorcycle road racing.

Leaving the North Coast of Ireland after the event I’m feeling exhilarated and a little deflated to be heading home. While we were blessed with some of the best weather the NW200 has ever seen (it basically didn’t rain for the entirety of the event - which is pretty rare!) It’s the racing, the people taking part and the fans that really make the event what it is. You’ve also got some of the most stunning roads the British Isles has to offer, stunning seafood fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, varied nightlife and Guinness that does actually taste better than in the mainland UK. 

The tagline for the 2024 Northwest 200 was ‘No Where Like It’ and I can attest to that. There are other motorcycle road races across the world, but the Northwest 200 is just built a little bit differently.

Many thanks to Honda for letting us tag along for this event, and the staff and team at Ballymena Honda for laying on the bikes and helping us plot our route.