NORTH MR WEST
Outside of the TT it’s undoubtedly the biggest road race on the international calendar, but how secure is the North West 200’s future? Scoop speaks to the man behind the magic to find out.
Just trying to grab a word or two with North West 200 supremo Mervyn Whyte is difficult. “Just come and see me. I’m around the compound most of the time,” says the diminutive and slightly balding Ulsterman to yet another interview request during the busiest week of his year. We arrive at the mass of Portakabins and have a chat with his charming wife Hazel, who tells us he’s in the office next door and to “knock and just walk in”. The hierarchy at what is billed as Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting event is as informal as it gets. In there, Whyte is chatting away to a corporate sponsor. It could have been strictly confidential for all we know, but he carefully interrupts the smartly-dressed gentleman. I’m offered a drink and a seat and he asks me how I am.
“Just give me five minutes, help yourself to tea or coffee, I’ll be right with you…” as Mervyn leaves with Corporate Guy. Tea in hand as instructed, we glance out of the window to witness the ever-growing queue to see the man whose name is inextricably tied to the closed-road festival which links the seaside resorts of Portrush and Portstewart with the busting market town of Coleraine some 60 miles north of Belfast.
Way back when
With questions answered, parcels signed for, passes issued and fans pointed in the right direction, Mervyn dutifully arrives, complete with a wee bit of sunburn on his bonce, testament to the beautiful weather so far this year. The North West 200 will be 90 years old in a few years’ time and some rudimentary mathematics tells us that Whyte has been involved with the event for nearly half of that time, fully justifying his Member of the British Empire status. So how did he get involved at the beginning? “I was working at a company called DuPont not far from Limavady where I live and was a friend of Billy Nutt who worked there too. We discussed giving some help to the local motor club running motocross and grass track races, which led to us marshalling at the NorthWest 200 in 1973. I was placed at Station Corner which was scarier than it is today and there was a guy called Graham Fish from Liverpool who was killed. I continued at other places for the next couple of years and then started attending the meetings of the Coleraine club which was promoting the races. “Back then I was single and it wasn’t hard to get involved and before long I was helping set up the course from Metropole through to York. Again, it was nothing like the work involved today. This was literally bashing a few posts in and putting some wire up, which took maybe five or six nights in total.”
Taking the reins
With Nutt progressing to clerk of the course, Whyte took on the role of race secretary as the event gathered pace, moving forward with the two men at the helm. Race treasurer and assistant clerk of the course duties also fell to Mervyn.
“Billy was instrumental in giving me lots of experience and management advice but in 2000, he decided he’d had enough and gave
the job up so that’s when I took over in the main role which I’ve done for 17 years now.”
Anyone who’s been will appreciate the massive task of running such a huge event which is a logistical nightmare, mostly relying on volunteers to pull the whole show together. Over the years, it’s become increasingly popular with riders, teams, fans and the media and while Whyte has a large and well-structured team in place under him, the popular perception is that the whole shebang wouldn’t happen without him. Does he agree?
“Well, if I was gone tomorrow, there’d be someone else to come along and make it happen. Because I’ve been involved so long with it, I don’t really see it like that although I know the extent of the organisation and what’s involved. If you sat down and considered all the complexities, you’d probably not do it, but you just carry on and make it as much of a success as possible.”
Many of those complexities are the result of the event gaining in stature over the past 15 years or so, mainly due to Whyte’s recognition of the increasing commercial aspects which in turn bring a greater demand for facilities, safety, exposure and participation. The North West 200 has gone from a glorified club race to one of the world’s most dramatic spectacles in a very short period of time.
Time for change
“My work at DuPont taught me a lot about what’s needed to run a successful event nowadays and I did all the health and safety, ISO9000 and risk assessment stuff and I’ve always tried to adopt as professional an approach as is possible. Presentation is important and over the years, we’ve improved facilities, provided grandstands, tarmacked the paddock and done as much as we can by paying attention to detail. There is so much more we could do if we had the budget but there’s no big money involved.
“This year’s event has cost us around £800,000 to put on but once all the bills are paid, there’s no surplus. We did get a grant from the Government this year of £124,000 which was great, but every penny of that went into improving the safety around the course. That’s our main priority. We’re always listening and taking ideas on board and I’m continually working with the riders and the teams. We work well with the local community and councils and are always looking to improve.
“There are plans for a new hotel in the start area which is due to go before planning in the next few weeks so if that comes off as we suspect it will, as well as 120 bedrooms, there’ll be spaces for permanent offices and conference facilities. It will also mean the whole paddock, TV compound and race control area will be flattened which will mean some big changes.”
Big changes indeed from the muddy fields and canvas scout tents of just a couple of decades ago when the likes of Joey and Robert Dunlop were plying their trade on the A2, B185 and A29 roads of the Causeway Coast, but the big question is whether or not Mervyn Whyte will be around to implement them. Recent years have taken their toll, what with the weather not playing ball and causing considerable disruption to the race programme and a spate of serious accidents including a number of fatalities to leading riders, including Robert Dunlop, Mark Buckley, Simon Andrews and most recently, Malachi Mitchell-Thomas. It’s a big question for the man in charge and one he’s instantaneously uncomfortable with.
Remember, this is the guy who shoulders the aftermath personally, he tells the relatives what they need to know, visits the hospitals, attends the funerals and the inquests, anything that happens at the North West happens to him too, it’s that personal. It’s a massive strain on any human being and surely there’s only so much more he can take? He leans forward, cups his hands and looks to the floor. There’s a big pause… “I get asked that question all the time. How much longer? But I’ve spent so much of my life involved with the North West; I probably should have spent more time with my family and watched them grow up instead. It has had an effect on me and going back to Robert’s accident in 2008 and right up to last year and young Malachi, it does make you think, there’s no doubt about it, it’s about getting the strength to go on.”
He elaborates: “Looking back at last year, Malachi died at the scene and that’s not happened before. I was faced with a situation where I knew he wasn’t going to pull through as the doctors had said it’s not looking good. So I thought to myself, what am I going to do now because whenever there’s been a fatality while I’ve been in charge, they’ve usually got them away to hospital first. Robert went to hospital and Simon did too, so there I was, wandering up the road to Black Hill thinking what to do for the best. I had to do the right thing but it was a dilemma. Here we are, running an international show live on TV in a residential area with lots of business and commercial partners behind us so part of me said the show must go on. But if I had made that decision, people would have said I didn’t care about a young lad’s life. Imagine the headlines if I’d said carry on.”
With a puff of the cheeks, he continues to describe his torment: “It’s so difficult. Where do you draw the line? It does get to you. Your head tells you one thing, your heart tells you something else but as I paced up and down the track as the medics worked away, I made a decision and knew I wouldn’t run the rest of the programme that day. You see young lads getting killed and then you have to remind yourself this is a high speed sport and unfortunately there will be accidents and incidents but all we can do is minimise the risks.
“I attended the funeral and it does affect you, it’s difficult to get away from it, what you’ve seen, what images you have in your mind. It’s not easy,” he says, looking up as if to say ‘can we move on now?’
Law and order
We do, but questions remain about not only his future but that of the event, which turns 90 in 2019. In today’s litigious society whereby people sue each other as a second means of income, increasing health and safety regulations may sound the death knell for the historic event (and those like it). It’s a worry, for sure, but there’s a bigger threat to deal with.
“Insurance,” says Whyte. “It’s fair to say we don’t have too many problems with the health and safety elements, mainly because
we try to be proactive on that front. We are always questioning where do we go from here but all the time we are making sure we have as many bases covered as possible. We work tirelessly on our risk assessments and safety plans; there are hundreds and hundreds of pages produced with every minute detail covered, or at least we hope it is. The paperwork is all there, from road closing orders to liaison with the police and local councils and authorities, it’s a never ending stream. So we don’t have too much of an issue there, it’s the insurance element.
“This has come to a head over the past few months as it’s getting very difficult to get a company to insure motorbike racing. We’ve lost a number of traditional events over the past year or so because they can’t get cover. If they can get cover, then it’s the cost and this is what we are finding. It’s a big worry for the future, that’s for sure.
“I do get immense satisfaction from running the North West but at some stage it has to come to an end. I’ve not talked about it but I suppose we’ll see what happens after this year.”
The North West 200 without Mervyn Whyte would be unthinkable but that day will come, perhaps sooner than most of us realise. But the thought of there being no North West 200 is, understandably, an even scarier prospect with very real reasons for concern. Today’s world doesn’t extend open arms to dangerous and potentially litigious happenings, and it’s fair to say that motorcycling, in particular the racing of motorcycles on public roads, is perhaps one of the most vulnerable of sports to mollycoddled thinking.
Racing is dangerous, as Mervyn knows better than most, but events like the North West 200 have become an institution to spectators and racers the world over. It’s left an indelible mark in the world of two-wheeled competition and it’s with our warmest wishes that we hope this historic, even iconic, event will continue for decades yet to come. But as to whether that’s what fate has in store, only time will tell.
TODAY’S WORLD DOESN’T EXTEND OPEN ARMS TO DANGEROUS HAPPENINGS
Mervyn’s committed his life to the NW200.
A huge investment in track safety has seen barriers and air fences placed around the road circuit.
“What time does Pizza Hut open?” King Carl giving it big licks around the NW200 back in the early 90s.
The pop-up tents of pitlane might become a thing of the past if the event attracts further investment.
John McGuinness suffered a potentially career- ending crash at this year’s NW200.
Irwin showed the old hands how it’s done in the superbike race. ‘Alastair who?’ Irwin’s epic win showed there’s a new wave of talent for the NW200.