A distraught John Burrows has told the News Letter of his heartbreak over the tragic death of rising young road racing talent Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who was killed at the North West 200 on Saturday.
Former racer Burrows signed the 20-year-old for 2016 to replace Ballyclare’s Jamie Hamilton, himself badly injured after a high-speed crash at last year’s Isle of Man TT in the Senior race.
The exciting prospect proved a shrewd capture for Burrows’ Dungannon-based Cookstown B.E. Racing team as he shone on his Irish debut at the Mid Antrim 150, winning three races.
Mitchell-Thomas, form Chorley in Lancashire, continued to enhance his reputation with a string of podiums at the Tandragee and Cookstown meetings, yet the best was still to come as he produced a sensational performance to finish fourth in Saturday’s Supersport race on his North West 200 debut.
Hours later, he was dead after Malachi crashed while holding third place on lap three of the Supertwins event between Dhu Varren and Black Hill in Portrush, at the same spot where Ryan Farquhar and Dan Cooper came off during Thursday’s Supertwins race.
The tragedy has sent shockwaves throughout the tight-knit road racing community and a devastated Burrows, who quit racing himself in 2012 following the death of close friend Trevor Ferguson in a crash at the Manx Grand Prix, is unsure whether he will continue to run his highly-successful privateer team.
In a tearful interview, the 44-year-old said he was struggling to come to terms with the fact he never had the chance to hold Malachi’s hand and say one final goodbye.
The popular English rider passed away on the roadside on Saturday, despite the best efforts of the MCUI medical team to save his life.
“The worst thing for me is that we never had a chance to go and sit down beside him and hold his hand – we never got to say goodbye to him and that’s very hard to take,” said Burrows.
“He never even had a fighting chance of pulling through because he was too badly injured. Mal was robbed of his chance to go on and fulfil his potential.
“I’m 44 and Mal was only 20, I was old enough to be his dad and he was like an adopted son to us,” Burrows added.
“My two children adored him, he played with them outside on the trampoline and he called my wife Rachel ‘Ma’.
“From Rachel’s point of view, she’s taken it really hard and although I’m struggling to deal with it myself, I can pick myself up and plough on.
“He was so much part of the family here and you can’t help but let yourself get close, then it just rips you apart. I haven’t had a chance to tell the kids yet – how do you do that?”
As a hardened former racer himself, Burrows witnessed the harsh side of the sport first-hand and called time on his own career following the death of Castlecaulfield man Mr Ferguson in 2012.
“I saw tragedy when I was racing myself when I witnessed Darran Lindsay’s accident [at Killalane in 2006] and Paul Dobbs [Isle of Man TT in 2010], which are two that spring to mind,” said Burrows.
“Paul crashed in front of me and I raced on for four laps after that. I knew Darran well and I had a lot of respect for him. Darran crashed on the Saturday but I went out and raced on the Sunday. It’s part of what can happen in this sport and you just get on with it.
“Obviously I decided to hang up my leathers when Trevor, who was a good mate of mine, was killed. It was the end of the season at that point and I had time to reflect on what I wanted to do.
“Right now, it’s the middle of the season and the TT is around the corner, where our plans were all based around Mal,” he added.
“I obviously have commitments with Peter Hickman to go to the TT as well to ride my Supertwin and with Derek [Sheils] after the TT.
“At this minute in time I don’t know what I’m doing. I won’t make any rash decisions just yet.
“My truck was supposed go to the Isle of Man this morning [Sunday] but I didn’t send it. It’s a very hard decision to make but Mal’s dad doesn’t want me to walk away and neither would Mal. But it gets to a stage where it weighs you down, it really does.
“I still support road racing but it comes down to how much do I want to be involved going forward, how much more can I take?” said Burrows.
“Racing isn’t my livelihood and I’m fortunate that if I want to walk away, I can do that. I do this because I want to do it, not because I have to.”
Burrows recalled his last words to Malachi on the grid on Saturday, moments before he set off in the ill-fated Supertwins race.
“I went over to him on the grid and shook his hand like I always do and I put my arm around him and said, ‘Mal, you’re doing this for you and not for the team, whatever result you get, we’re behind you’.
“I always told him that and I would never send anybody out there under pressure – I make sure they know they won’t come back to a disappointed John Burrows.
“I never want them to be do anything that will put their lives at extra risk just for a result,” said Burrows.
“Mal was riding hard, he had a chance to get second place and he was caught out – that’s the bottom line. It’s just hard to take because he was so young and he had such a big future ahead of him. We’re going to miss him so much.”
Malachi’s father Kevin has issued provisional funeral details, with his son’s service due to be held in Charnock Richard, Chorley, on Tuesday, May 24, at 4pm.