Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting event, which should have been in full flow this weekend, has fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic in successive years.
In January, the organisers announced that the race, held annually each May, had been called off once again. With Northern Ireland in lockdown at the time and the Covid-19 vaccination programme in its early stages, contingency plans to run the event in August were also shelved.
Since Coleraine & District Motor Club took over the running of the event in 1964, the North West 200 has only been cancelled in its entirety twice, in 1973 as a result of the Troubles and in 2001, due to the foot-and-mouth agricultural crisis.
However, Whyte – who stood down from his position as event director last October and is now involved in a consultancy role – said there are plenty of positive signs as work continues for the return of the race in 2022.
“It will be difficult coming back, but I’ve no doubt that the event will return bigger and better next year,” Whyte told the News Letter.
“The Coleraine Club are a strong club, very resilient, and they have an excellent committee and management team, so I have no doubt they will rally round and get stuck in again for 2022.
“I’ve talked to many riders over the past week or so, including the likes of Peter Hickman, Michael Rutter, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and Gary Johnson, plus our own riders here and the competitors from the south like Derek Sheils and Michael Sweeney: they’re all keen to get back and they’ve missed it big time because there’s been so little road racing over the past year or more.
“They’re all very positive about the North West and they’re keen to get back in 2022.”
From a financial standpoint, the North West 200 has not received any associated income since it was last held in 2019, with government grants instead ‘keeping things ticking over’.
Whyte said: “Financially, we’ve had little or no income with the event not running last year and again this year, but we received money from the Executive’s Sports Sustainability Fund.
“In total, there was £322,000 that went to eight different clubs for motorsport in Northern Ireland and out of that funding, we received £46,700, which was a big benefit because it accounted for loss of income for last year’s event.
“We were grateful to Sport NI for managing that and it’s been a big help to keep us ticking over,” he added.
“At the minute we’re working with Tourism NI around our applications for 2021-22, and we’d be reasonably hopeful that there will be positive news on that. We’re also due an interim payment from them soon and then we will see what support is available from local council as well.
“We’re just working away towards next year’s event and hopefully everything will open up fully soon, and things will be much closer to normal.”
Whyte is also optimistic that many of the event’s sponsors will continue to support the races next year and hopes to finalise agreements for 2022 in the summer. The 2019 event was jointly sponsored by Northern Ireland companies fonaCAB and Nicholl Oils.
“I’ve kept in touch with sponsors and we have three levels of sponsorship at the North West 200 – title sponsors, course sponsors and race sponsors,” he said.
“On Wednesday I was talking with one of the local sponsors and to be fair they’re all keen – they’ve had their issues as a result of Covid – but those I’ve talked to are keen to continue with their support of the event next year.
“Once we get into the summer then we’d be looking to get things finalised with sponsors for 2022.”
Whyte, though, has cautioned that it would only be feasible for the North West 200 to go ahead next Spring if there are no prohibitive restrictions on crowd numbers.
“If it was the case that we were told we could only have 500 people through the paddock area, then financially it wouldn’t be feasible to run it that way,” he said.
“The North West costs about £1million to run and there’s a lot of work in pulling in that kind of money.
“If there were limits on the numbers of people we could have then we’d have to have a review of the situation, but I would be reasonably confident that things will have improved a lot and we can get back to a normal North West in 2022.
“We’re a year away from that at the minute, so hopefully things will change a lot between now and then.”
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