Riders on the Storm

Nowhere in the world loves motorcycle racing as much as the people of Northern Ireland. Killian Faith-Kelly explores how the sport rides alongside centuries-old sectarian strife.

Shortly after midnight on 10 September, 2022, Davy McCartney discovered that the motorbike race he’d been organising for a year had been sabotaged.

‘The minute we turned onto the Dunbought Road, we seen it. I got out of the van and I could smell the kerosene. The whole road was swimming in it. That doesn’t wash out of the tarmac. It soaks down into the tarmac, kerosene. And it rises, and it rises. You could see where it was done for a month afterwards.’

The Mid-Antrim 150 is a 3.5-mile motorbike race that takes place on public roads, sometimes at speeds of almost 200mph, around the village of Clough in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It’s one of eight annual road races held in a part of the UK that voted motorbike racer Joey Dunlop as its greatest ever sportsperson – over the likes of a golfer called Rory McIlroy and a footballer called George Best. England and Wales have one road race each.

It’s happened most years since 1946, but not every year. Motorbike races are fickle things.

They’re easy to sabotage, for one thing – in 2011, someone poured oil and nails over a section of the course, which stopped the race from going ahead. A police investigation failed to find a culprit.

They cost a lot of money, too, and don’t tend to make profit. In 2016, bad weather deterred the spectators from the Mid-Antrim 150, and the race had to take time out to recover. Then there was COVID, and then finally, in 2022, the race was set for its return.

They had their sponsors. They had their programmes. They had the paddock and the toilets and the health and safety people and the medical staff, and they had the hay bales set out as crash barriers and the speakers and PA systems, and timekeeping equipment and scaffolding, and cabins and flag posts.

Even the weather was sorted. ‘The riders there this year said they’d never seen a course set up that well or racing conditions that good,’ says McCartney, the Chairman of the Mid-Antrim 150 Club and Clerk of the Course. ‘Everything was right about it. Until it went wrong.’

Where it went wrong, or started to at least, was at a local residents’ meeting in Clough the night before the race. There had been one the day before, Thursday, to discuss whether or not the race should still go ahead in light of the news that the Queen had died. A community that holds motorbike racing and the monarchy in similarly high regard decided, after considerable discussion, that it would – with some modifications to accommodate a show of respect in the village.

That all seemed fine, says Davy, until the next meeting, on Friday night. ‘A couple of blow-ins,’ as he puts it, appeared. ‘Outside influences.’ They said that to continue with the race in light of the death would be wrong, and they did not argue, but rather, asserted – the race would not be happening. Davy strongly suspects the Queen’s death was being used as a cover, for a more ‘personal reason’ behind the intervention, and that it was the same thing that motivated 2011’s saboteurs. He won’t say more than that. There have been rumours in the Clough area of loyalist paramilitary involvement, but police have dismissed such concerns and when I put them to local MP Ian Paisley Jr, he said, ‘I frankly just don’t believe that, or think it has any credibility.’

As soon as the meeting was over, about 10pm, the race organisers called the police. They said they’d do what they could to help Davy, who’d been up since 5am, to patrol the course overnight. And up until midnight, they did.

But then it happened. Davy was turning into what they call the Victor Gilmore corner – named after a friend of his who was killed in a road race. They saw the kerosene, they called the police, and they found nails and rivets all over the course as well.

By 1am, Davy had officially called off the race. There might’ve been the possibility of washing the oil off and going ahead – indeed, the road was open to the public the next day. But at the speeds the riders would’ve been going, the sort of danger they were already putting themselves in, Davy wasn’t prepared to take the risk. He struggles, as many people involved in motorbike racing do, with the incessant rate at which road racing kills its participants. The guilt of being, or feeling, complicit.

The way he explains his involvement – primarily helping friends who race out with their bikes – is that they’re going to do it anyway, so he might as well make it as safe as possible for them. Davy reckons he’s lost maybe 50 friends to the sport. (I had to ask him, three times, to clarify that he wasn’t saying 15.) And this, he says, was weighing on his mind at 1am on Friday night, when he had to make his decision.

‘I’ve lost enough friends down the years without… ahm…’

And here he paused for a moment, and shook his head.

‘So I called the event off. I was broken by then. I wasn’t going to push it any further. I wasn’t going to see anyone get hurt.’ The next day, a police officer came off their motorbike after driving over the patch of road where the oil was spilled.

He dreaded breaking the news, but he wanted to do it quickly, to minimise inconvenience. ‘To have to tell people that all the money they’d spent, this thing they were looking forward to… most of them didn’t argue about the money, they just wanted out there to race. It’s what they do. It’s who they are. You get involved in this thing for the love of it. Wesley [Assistant Clerk of the Course] had spent six weeks building up that course. He went home that Saturday and we didn’t see him for two months. He was heartbroken. It was hard. Hard for the whole club.’

Wesley wasn’t alone, not in how hard he took the news, and not in how much work he’d put into the race either. Road races rely on armies of people like him – people who pitch in because they love it, expecting nothing in return. The course was dismantled less than 24 hours after the sabotage because so many riders – having travelled from across Europe to find the race cancelled – stayed on to help out. Davy himself worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, having gone to bed at two o’clock that morning.

‘There’s paperwork, there’s hard work, there’s skinning knuckles and there’s standing out in the rain getting wet. There’s jobs for everybody,’ he says. And despite the unspoken qualifiers that often underpin such apparent inclusion in Northern Ireland, he means everybody. Even through The Troubles, says Davy, sectarianism never interfered with devotees’ love for their sport. ‘We’re all friends. We’ll go for a beer together after. We all encourage each other, all help each other. Nobody asks where anybody goes on a Sunday.’

This indiscriminate inclusion may, sadly, be what put a target on the race’s back, if the rumours about paramilitary involvement are to be believed. It’s been suggested that issue was taken with the participation of riders from the Republic of Ireland racing in Northern Ireland, especially following the death of the Queen. Local knowledge is often more reliable than official sources in Northern Ireland, but all that can be said for certain at the moment is that nothing is certain. If what people in the Clough area told me is true, this would be a sad reflection of the stranglehold that groups reliant on the legacy of the The Troubles and their currency of fear continue to have over many rural communities in Northern Ireland.

Stephen Watson, who’s been covering the scene as a sports journalist for over 30 years, echoes Davy’s sentiment on racing’s openness. ‘Religion doesn’t come into motorcycle racing in Northern Ireland. Motorcycle racing is the religion,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t matter where they’re from, or what side of the border they’re from. They all race together, celebrate together, and when tragic things happen then they grieve together as well.’

Davy can’t see the Mid-Antrim 150 returning any time soon. The club would have been bankrupted if not for the intervention of an extremely generous sponsor. The insurance costs, too, are astronomical – Northern Ireland’s biggest road race, the North West 200, was recently cancelled over insurance costs, only to be saved by a crowdfunding effort that raised more than £50,000 within 48 hours of the cancellation.

But more than any of these things, says Davy, it’s the will of the club to organise another race that’s the biggest barrier. ‘Time’s a healer – it has to be in this sport. We’ve all had our hurts down the years. But whether the money, or the energy, probably more the energy and the will, ever comes back again…’ Once more, he shakes his head. ‘Never’s a long time, but that’ll definitely be it for the 150, for the foreseeable.’

They’ll run their short-circuit events, which take place on closed-off tracks and carry far less risk – both personal and financial. But it’s not the same. Not for Davy. Not the same buzz. Not the same hype.

Road racing is about a coming together – of people, and of circumstances. It’s so delicate. It can be sabotaged or ruined by the weather, and it makes no money. It can so easily go wrong, in so many ways; that’s partly why it’s so dangerous. But this reliance on the perfect unison of so many different elements, to produce such power, such thrill, such speed – that’s why Davy loves it. He explains it like this:

‘You can drive up a road at eight o’clock in the morning in your car, and two hours later there’s a boy doing 180 miles an hour down it in a race. There’s nothing like that in normal life. It’s that one-off element. You build it and you see boys come in, and they’re all smiles and there’s good banter after. All them riders, they’re all the best of mates. In normal life, they’re the best of mates. But once that visor drops, they’re gladiators. There’s only one thing they see, and it’s the chequered flag. Away they go. It’s their ability, and what they build, that gets them there. And our bit is to build the circuit – they build their bikes, we build our circuit. And whenever it goes right, it’s… it’s something else.’

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