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.

Fast Bikes - - RACE FEATURE - WORDS: LARRY‘ SCOOP’ CARTER

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.”

Hard choices

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

IMAGES: GA VAN CALD­WELL

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.

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