Comment: Irish road racing facing its greatest ever challenge as Covid-19 crisis bites deep
Wednesday's announcement confirming the North West 200 had been axed for a second successive year did not come as a major shock given the current circumstances concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.
A spate of recent Irish road racing cancellations and postponements only added to the growing sense of inevitability that the country’s biggest road race would also succumb to the ongoing risk posed by the continuing coronavirus crisis.
Regretfully, those increasing doubts proved well-founded as the organising Coleraine Club released the disappointing news that plans for the 2021 event had indeed, completely understandably given the circumstances, been shelved.
Losing the North West 200 for a second consecutive year – the first time this has happened since WWII – is a huge setback for road racing in general.
Following a year when the Cookstown 100 in Co Tyrone was the only Irish national meeting to go ahead in September, there was optimism that 2021 would herald a return to a fuller race calendar.
Yet, here we are in January, with most road races in Ireland either cancelled or postponed for a second year.
The rollout of the vaccination programme is the light at the end of the tunnel for 2022, but the ramifications of two barren years for Irish road racing in particular will be felt for a long time to come.
While the North West 200 is not immune to the challenges ahead, the status of the event and its estimated £12million value to the local economy ensures it is much better placed to survive, although its future longevity could very well depend on an injection of significant additional government funding to ensure it returns in all its glory.
Second only to the Isle of Man TT in terms of prestige, the North West 200 – first held in 1929 – is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland motorcycling.
Of course, there is also the Ulster Grand Prix, an irreplaceable sporting event steeped in glorious history, with the legendary Dundrod course above the hills in Belfast hosting world championship racing from 1953 until 1971.
But adding to the dark clouds hanging over the sport right now, the event is facing a debt crisis of up to £300,000, placing the future of the race in serious jeopardy. A rescue package is needed to save the ‘Grand Prix’ from disappearing for good and the demise of the event, which is sewn into the fabric of Northern Ireland sport, is unthinkable.
Sadly, the situation facing the Irish national scene is even more alarming.
Some of the smaller race meetings were struggling even before the pandemic hit, and the impact has only served to compound the difficulties they face going forward.
In recent years Enniskillen and Athea have fallen by the wayside, while the Mid Antrim 150 and Bush meetings have also disappeared.
Many of these events rely on sponsorship from small businesses, including from within the hospitality sector, which have been amongst the hardest hit by the coronavirus lockdowns.
Obtaining financial backing in the future is going to be an unenviable task when the key priority for most business owners will be simply to get back on their feet.
There is also the financial burden of insurance costs, which continues to put cash-strapped clubs under pressure, not to mention a governing body that seems rudderless and lacking cohesion and meaningful direction.
Ryan Farquhar, the most successful Irish national road racer ever, makes no secret of the fact he believes the best days of the sport are long over.
It’s difficult to disagree.
And while there have been hard times for road racing in the past, the combined impact of this unprecedented pandemic in 2020 and 2021 is surely the biggest challenge Irish road racing as we know it has ever faced.
The old saying goes that sometimes we don’t realise what we’ve got until its gone, and never has that been more evident than it is now.
The hope is that things will return to normal in 2022, but mere hope is never enough.
Irish road racing is in a perilous position and even the drive and passion of the hard-working volunteers, who form the backbone of the clubs, may not be enough to prevent more races going to the wall over the next 24 months.
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