As the North West 200 prepares to mark its 90th anniversary, LAURA MCMULLAN talks to a man whose name has been synonymous with it since the 70s - Mervyn Whyte MBE
Mervyn Whyte is enjoying a very rare day off, yet before the clock even strikes midday, his phone, discreetly concealed by his side, is vibrating.
I offer him the chance to take the call, but, ever the gentleman, he politely declines.
As Event Director of the North West 200 - one of the fastest road races in the world - his is a 24/7 job; his role at the helm of what is arguably one of the most popular and biggest attended events on the Northern Ireland calendar sees him liaise on a continual basis with all manner of people, from riders to sponsors to press to governmental bodies.
“You never really get away from it,” the 67-year-old, who is from the Limavady area, admits, as he sips his coffee.
“It’s like keeping 25 balls in the air at any one time.”
Here we are, on a snowy February morning, where we’ve met in the Roe Park Resort Hotel, and we’re mere months away from the next NW 200, which this year takes place on a very special date; the main race is scheduled for Saturday May 19, the same date as the FA Cup Final - and the Royal wedding.
It will be the 90th NW 200, and the 18th year that Mervyn has had overall responsibility for the event; he took over as Course Clerk in 2000, before becoming Event Director.
And the stalwart says he has no plans to quit just yet.
The middle son of three boys, Mervyn was raised on a farm outside Limavady by church-going parents who instilled in them traditional values about hard work and attention to detail - traits Mervyn carries close to his heart to this day.
“We were brought up to polish our shoes on a Saturday night for Sunday School the next day; in the early days we weren’t allowed to watch television at home, but as we got older, that changed.”
Mervyn attended Limavady Central Primary School where he sat the Eleven Plus before going on to Limavady Grammar; he left after taking his O’ levels, and got a job with chemical company DuPont, where he spent 30 years.
In 1973, after just five years of employment, he became the company’s youngest ever supervisor.
His passion for hard work and success was obvious, but his interest in the world of motorcycling was much more of a slow burner.
“My father took me to see a practice session at the North West when I was about 15 or 16,” he recalls.
“Then in 1972, a man from Limavady called Billy Nutt, who was synonymous with the NW 200 back in the 80s and 90s, suggested we give marshalling a go as they were looking for people. I ended up with the job of marshalling at Station Corner on the course itself, which is just outside Portstewart.”
From there, Mervyn went on to become involved in helping set the course up, to race treasurer, race secretary, assistant clerk of the course, and then clerk of the course, and finally, event director.
He is the man who knows every detail about the course and the event as a whole, the man who takes ultimate responsibility for it, and who makes the tough decisions, as well as answering the tough questions.
Road racing has attracted its fair share of controversy over the years, and there are those in certain quarters who have called for events like the NW to be banned.
Conversely, in the past Mervyn has also been accused of being ‘too careful’ - of restricting races if, for example, he feels the weather is unfavourable, or if there are other outside factors which may have an impact.
It would seem that the man cannot win, but as he stresses - and what is becoming abundantly clear to me, once he starts to describe in detail just how much work he and his team do in terms of reviewing every single, minute detail and aspect of the course - the safety of the riders is paramount at all times.
“Ultimately, the competitors want to run the race, and we want to make it as safe as possible,” he says.
“They’re keen to get out there, and their all have their own thoughts and ideas, so you have to work with them. We often get calls for the event to be banned, but what I always say is, listen, the riders want to take part, that is what the race is there, and if they don’t take part, they’ll go out and do something else.”
He continues: “I’m very hands on, and I like to have my finger on the pulse. The work itself is all around the detail, and getting that right. I’ve always been a firm believer in that.”
And indeed for Mervyn and his team, their work begins literally as soon as one NW event finishes.
They immediately begin working with all involved parties and “review every aspect of it”, and record every single piece of feedback.
From any issues in the paddock itself, to problems with hospitality, or the roads - all is documented, and Mervyn reveals that it can take up to six weeks to pull all this together.
“We pay out the prize money, we sit down with the police, the fire crews, ambulance service, coastguards, we have multi-agency meetings with the Council - everybody has their say. We accept all that feedback, record all the details, then we look at how we can improve it for next year.”
Once that has been done, it’s a case of the team moving forward and preparing for the next event.
As Mervyn says, it’s “all based around people”, and he gets as much of a buzz from that as the riders undoubtedly do from the racing.
“I do get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment out of it,” he smiles. “I have had bad days at the North West - days where you sort of feel like walking away and saying, ‘I’ve had enough’. But you have to keep the head up and focus on the positive side of things, and just try and let it go over your head.”
‘When something happens a rider, it knocks you for six’
Saturday May 14, 2016, was one of the darkest days in the history of the North West 200 - and in Mervyn Whyte’s life.
Being in charge of one of biggest, fastest, and most dangerous and popular events in Northern Ireland must surely be a lonely job at times, and on that tragic day especially, Mervyn felt the weight of such a responsibility heavy on his shoulders.
He had just left the scene of a terrible accident that would transpire to be a fatal one, involving a top young rider named Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who was making his debut at the world famous race.
“When I arrived at the scene, he was alive, and we spoke,” says Mervyn, recounting something which must be so difficult to revisit.
“Then the medical people came and took over. I remember thinking that he would hopefully pull through, and then the doctor said to me. ‘Mervyn, this is not looking good.’ I thought, ‘if Malachi passes, what am I going to do?’ And I walked the whole way up towards Black Hill on my own. I decided that if he died, that would be it, there would be no further racing that day.”
I reminded Mervyn about how he had told the News Letter back in 2016 that the death of the 20-year-old English rider hit him so hard that it left him actually pondering his own future at the helm of the famous road race.
Why did he think this particular fatality impacted on him so deeply?
“He was just a young lad in the prime of his life,” Mervyn replies. “He had taken part in some of the national road races here in Northern Ireland, but had come to the NW200 as a newcomer, full of life.”
He adds that the death of Robert Dunlop at the event in 2008 was another huge blow, and like many of the riders, he knew the Ballymoney man personally.
“I knew these guys really well. You build up a relationship with them, and get friendly with them. You do all you can to help them, and when something happens it knocks you for six.”
Since Mervyn took over in 2001, there have been five fatalities at the NW 200, and safety is something that he and his team, “spend hours upon hours” working at.
But as someone once tragically but realistically pointed out to him, unless they “wrap the course in cotton wool”, they can never make it 100 per cent accident proof.
#Freemanship is a ‘great. great honour’
When Mervyn first heard last summer that Causeway Coast and Glens BC were proposing to award him with the Freedom of the Borough accolade, his initial response was one of disbelief.
“I never really thought it would happen,” he admitted.
However, it did, and when the enormity of such a bestowment sunk in, he felt nothing but a sense of honour and delight.
And he says he was blown away by the official ceremony that the Council threw to present him with it last month.
“The whole presentation that they arranged really was something else. Afterwards they brought everyone into the main hall and we had a lovely meal there.”
But the Limavady man says the reality of being honoured in such a way didn’t really hit home until one morning when he and his wife were out for coffee in Coleraine.
“I was only there for a couple of hours, but I lost count of the number of people who came to shake my hand. It’s a great, great honour, and I was pleased to get it I must admit.”