Road racing is something that TREVOR SMYTH was brought up to follow as boy, and he loved it — and still does aged 26 — but writes here about he can no longer accept the level of fatalities in the sport:
It is May 1999.
My Dad and I are sitting on the bench sofa in our caravan going through the North West 200 programme on the Friday evening before the races.
We come to the name Donny Robinson and Dad says: “I’ll score his name out.”
“He was killed in practice son.”
That was the last that was said or thought about Donny that year and if my memory serves me correctly, I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience at the North West 200.
I haven’t missed a year since.
The thing that seems strange is that I just glossed over Donny’s death. I suppose you could put that down to the fact that I was seven years old and I just wanted to see things go fast.
However, there’s a theme that runs through road racing – the acceptance and normalisation of death, and a strange ambivalence towards it.
It seems apt that I was introduced at the very beginning to the inescapable feature of road racing that has eventually taken its toll on me.
As a young boy I was probably attracted to road racing by all the things that are used to promote it, the excitement, the atmosphere, noise, smell and the creation of heroes to look up to.
I couldn’t believe my (strange) luck when in 2003 the final race was cancelled.
We were at the start-finish line grandstand and I was hoisted over the fence with my programme and before the riders rushed off the grid I went round and got autographs from all the top men – except one, David Jeffries.
Jeffries was “the king” of road racing, the heir to the throne of Joey Dunlop who died in 2000 in a minor race in Estonia. Still, it was a pretty good day’s work, and I was like the cat that got the cream.
I didn’t think any more about it until a couple of weeks later when I heard on the news that David Jeffries had been killed in a practice crash for the Isle of Man TT.
Surely that must be some mistake. He was the master, he’d had three hat-tricks at the event and knew the course like the back of his hand.
It transpired that he’d come across an oil spill left by another rider, and at the speed he was travelling at, his skill didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
Jeffries’ team continued for the remainder of the event with Adrian Archibald, and won the big race, The Senior.
You just get on with it, no time for looking back.
Rewind a bit, Sunday July 2nd 2000 – Top story on the evening news, “Motorcycle racer Joey Dunlop has been killed at an event in Tallinn, Estonia.”
Remember, I was a very young fan at this stage, only eight years old. No matter, everybody knew Joey – he was revered by all, a figure that transcended the sport.
Just three weeks previously surprised many at the ripe old age of 48 by winning a hat-trick at the Isle of Man TT, including beating David Jeffries in the Formula One race.
We should have seen it coming, it was almost too good to be true. Joey’s death had a strange effect on me.
The funeral was broadcast live on the Friday and I remember it as a gloomy grey day, but maybe that was just my mood.
I somehow understood the significance of this, and I even had to lie down on the sofa and hide my face as tears filled my eyes. I haven’t been as emotional as that before or since that episode but it seemed to make sense. THE DEATH OF A HERO.
I could go on about the dichotomy of feeling that road racing brings. Robert Dunlop won his last race at the North West 200 in 2006 with a risky move at the last chicane, and this (then) young boy was elated to catch the moment on camera.
Then there was Michael Dunlop’s victory in 2008 at the North West 200 just days after the death of Robert, his father.
The atmosphere was unbelievable that day – it was as if the fans were giving him a helping hand, willing him forward. That day to me showed the extreme ability of the human spirit to prevail in unlikely circumstances.
Certain events have led up to my soul-searching, beginning with Dan Kneen’s death at the Isle of Man TT this year. He was riding for the biggest team, the same team as David Jeffries in 2003. One of the big guns, a massive shock. I intended to give road racing a wide berth for a while.
Then came William Dunlop’s death a few weeks later at the Skerries 100. That was it. My mind shifted to his tearful grandmother in the film Road who now had to see her grandson die at this game as well as her two sons. He left behind a young daughter, a partner and an unborn child.
The magnitude of the hurt caused by this struck me.
No sooner had I said, “I’m out, I’m done,” than a couple of days later James Cowton was killed at the Southern 100 road races, and Ivan Lintin was critically injured.
This past weekend, the Ulster Grand Prix was on. I completely forgot about it until Dad reminded me on Saturday evening. So with only general interest I went onto the NI sports pages on the internet to see what had happened.
Sure enough, the main headline wasn’t anything to do with the racing, but news of another accident – “Rider critically injured at Ulster Grand Prix.”
Disappointed but not surprised. It’s the odd reality of the sport.
My question is not “Why is it accepted?”
I fully respect the individual’s right to pursue whatever gives them meaning. No, my question is “How did I, Trevor, not see this before?”
Maybe you only see what you want to see.
• Trevor is a mechanical engineering PhD student at Queen’s