'Road Racers' filmmaker David Wallace remembers Joey Dunlop as 'the ultimate professional, just getting on with his craft'

Northern Ireland filmmaker David Wallace’s famous 1977 documentary ‘The Road Racers’ offers a priceless insight into Joey Dunlop’s early racing days with the legendary Armoy Armada.

Wednesday, 1st July 2020, 5:00 pm
Northern Ireland motorcycle racing legend Joey Dunlop.

Over four decades on, the film resonates as much now as it did when it was finally aired on television in 1980 – perhaps even more so – providing a window into a golden era when Irish road racing was in its heyday.

Wallace, who hails originally from Dunloy in Co. Antrim, was inspired to tell the story of the courageous men behind the helmets after attending the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix as a young schoolboy. He was working as an assistant director with the BBC in London when he pursued his idea of making a documentary about road racers back home in Northern Ireland.

The BBC was uninterested but he was determined to make the programme himself, ‘whatever the personal cost’.

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A young Joey Dunlop casts a glance towards his great rival and 'Dromara Destroyers' member Ray McCullough during the 1977 Irish road racing season.

A grant from the Ulster Arts Council with no strings attached proved invaluable and the 26-year-old was able to complete the documentary, which was eventually broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland before being shown nationwide on BBC Two.

Wallace, who later produced two BAFTA-winning films for the BBC – The Last African Flying Boat and Great River Journeys of the World – was granted intimate access to the lives of the Armoy Armada, which at the time consisted of Joey, Mervyn Robinson and Frank Kennedy.

Here, he provides a candid account of his memories of working with Joey during that season in 1977.

KW: What was that first meeting like with Joey and the ‘Armada’ when you pitched your idea for the film?

Frank Kennedy pictured in 1977, when the legendary 'Road Racers' documentary was filmed by David Wallace.

DW: Mervyn set up a meeting in a pub with all three. Lots of vodka and coke, not the Guinness I had imagined. Mervyn and Frank did most of the talking. Joey held back, one-word answers mostly, but perfectly polite and the occasional smile. The others would check with him if I asked about what they could arrange for me to film. Many of his responses were simply a nod of the head. Joey was going along with this because his best friends wanted to do it. He could live without it, but I was never refused anything.

KW: What was it that struck you most about Joey’s character?

DW: I was born within 10 miles of Armoy, so I knew not to expect too much outward enthusiasm at the first meeting. At first, I assumed he was just shy or wary of this apparent ‘English’ outsider. But in the end, I believe that he was just so focused on what he did that a film crew were just a distraction. The quiet steely resolve wrapped up in North Antrim reserve was the lasting impression.

KW: How was Joey in front of the camera?

Joey Dunlop in action at the North West 200 during the early 1980s.

DW: There were no interviews as such, mainly because film stock was too expensive for long chats. I just filmed what they did and their conversations and interactions. So mostly Joey was silent, but that worked fine: he was the ultimate professional, just getting on with his craft.

KW: Joey famously shunned the limelight, so how accommodating was he with any requests made during filming?

DW: He never said ‘no’ to any request, but you knew he had better things to do, so it was best to be as efficient and quick as possible. Just once he said, “I’m only going to do this once, so you’d better be ready.” Fair enough, he just wanted us to be as professional in our craft as he was in his.

KW: Can you tell me about the on-board camera idea, which was way ahead of its time. Was Joey easy to persuade to ride the bike with it?

Mervyn Robinson (left) and Frank Kennedy pictured during the filming of the 'Road Racers documentary in 1977.

DW: Our sound recordist Norman Johnstone was a motorcyclist himself and an ace at making things, so I got him to come up with some mounts for the gun cameras. I’d bought these second hand from RAF fighter trainers, where they filmed the gun performance in training exercises. They were small but could only run for about a minute. So, the rider had to switch them on and off himself. We could only use them on practice days, but often these could be tense occasions as the lads had to get the bikes set up right. Again, we were a distraction. I remember Joey waiting to go out at Cookstown, as Norman struggled to attach the camera’s battery and lead. Joey finally said, ‘Give me that,’ and shoved the battery between his legs on the seat and roared off. He did the fastest lap with the camera battery on his lap and remembering to switch it on and off for the best corners. He was unbelievable. On another occasion he returned from a lap with a battered 10mm lens in his glove. “You might need that,” he said. The vibration had shaken it off and he’d stopped to pick it up. No fastest lap that time. When the footage was developed the laboratory sent back a report saying we would have to reshoot it all, because the bikes looked like they were doing three times the correct speed. But we checked, by counting the time between telegraph poles passing. That was exactly what it looked like to the rider. Terrifying!

KW: How difficult was it to film those infamous ‘unofficial’ test sessions?

DW: I imagined we would have to persuade the lads to allow us to see the Friday night illegal test sessions. But it was so much a part of their normal life, they never questioned us filming it. I was told that the local policemen arranged to be elsewhere on a Friday night as no one wanted to arrest Joey. The only scene we cheated was the opening title sequence, where Mervyn, flat-out, shared the road with a herd of cows. As a farmer’s son I didn’t want any animal casualties.

KW: How did you feel when you got the news that Joey had been killed in 2000?

DW: I was abroad filming at the time, so didn’t get much detail, but it was a real shock. I had believed it couldn’t happen to Joey. But I suppose I always knew it couldn’t be ruled out. It was immensely sad. He was a true hero. The pictures of his funeral reached me on location. I suppose that’s when I realised how many others held him as a hero too.

KW: And given that the three main people in Road Racers – Joey, Mervyn and Frank – all eventually lost their lives to the sport, have your views on road racing changed today?

Joey Dunlop on his way to victory in the Formula One race at the Isle of Man TT in 2000, weeks before his tragic death during a racing accident in Estonia on Sunday, July 2, 20 years ago.

DW: When I started to make the film, I was a fan of road racing. I loved the quiet bravery of men like Dick Creith and George Brockerton. I was privileged to share a summer with the Armoy trio. But one by one, as the sport claimed them, it did change my feelings. But it’s a personal choice to race and I still understand why today’s riders carry on the tradition. But yes, certainly it’s changed how I feel about it.

The 'Road Racers' is available to purchase on DVD at www.dukevideo.com.

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