LIFE ON THE ROADS
As TT time approaches, one of its brightest stars reveals all in new book
He may only be 28 years old, but the recently released autobiography from the 13time TT winner is a captivating and brutally honest account of his life to date that goes deeper than any interview you’ve seen of the man on TV or in the press.
Despite being born a Dunlop – road racing’s royal family, his upbringing is not what you might expect, one where money is tight and he has to fight for every opportunity every step of the way.
From his intense relationship with his idol and father Robert, to his first wins as he progresses from club racing to the roads and ultimately being a TT winner. It’s a no-holds-barred take on his life, the death of his father and uncle Joey Dunlop; through to racing today, his rivals and above all dealing with the ingrained expectation of being a Dunlop.
There was no better place to get the noise going than in a little pub on Seymour Street in Ballymoney. Joey’s Bar was just about the flashiest thing my uncle ever spent a penny on. And it wasn’t bought to be a show-off. He wanted a haven, if you like, for the boys to assemble. There were only two rules. Number one: leave your religion at the door. And number two: bikers welcome. Dad loved it there. They all did. Joey would pull pints and run the place in his own quiet way, but he was happy to disappear into a corner with his brothers when they came by. It was paradise. My dad could go and have a red wine with Joey, Jim, his dad and their friends, and talk for hours if he felt in the mood. And even if Dad stepped inside and there was no-one there he recognised, plenty of the fellas would know exactly who he was. ‘Oh, you’re that Robert Dunlop. What are you? Made of metal now? Let me buy you a drink.’ As a kid in the 1990s you got to go in more places than maybe you would today, with the rules and that. Nobody thought about the smoking or the late nights, or if they did, it wasn’t something to get in the way of the good times. After one of the local races, Joey and my dad would all head to Seymour Street and often my mum would drop us boys off there to catch up with the old fellas’ news. That’d take about a minute, then he’s knocking back the wine with his mates and I’m chasing my cousins around the pub. Joey had five
kids and together we could make some noise. We’re Dunlop kids in a Dunlop pub in Dunlop country. No bugger dared complain. My favourite nights were the ones that got a bit messy. The lock-ins at Joey’s Bar were legendary. Those were the nights I’d be allowed – no, I’d be told – to hop behind the bar and pour my uncle a beer. Next to me much of the time was one cousin or another. We were partners in crime, no mistake. I remember pulling a pint one day and thinking, I’m running this place and I’m only nine!
Being a Dunlop
Some people would have buckled under the weight of expectation. Make no mistake, being a Dunlop around a road-racing paddock was a big deal. A journalist or two asked me how it felt to be continuing the Dunlop name. I said, ‘There’s nothing we can do to improve what my dad and my uncle have already done. The best we can hope for is if we don’t f*ck it up.’ I’m not sure they printed the exact quote. My dad was satisfied enough with my performance, although he mentioned again and again the risks I’d taken out there. In my defence, the road was dry and I knew what I was doing. In his defence, he had his brother and his own accident as evidence.
Making a mark
Aghadowey is a short circuit right round the corner from our house. I just stuck the bike in the back of the van, no warning, no nothing, and we went down and enrolled on the day. No sooner do we pull up than it starts to get a wee bit drizzly out in the paddock, then a bit heavier, then the heavens really open. We’ve just got Ronnie’s van, nothing else. There’s no space to work on the bike or even stretch your legs without getting a deluge from Niagara Falls. But given the rush we’d come out in, the 125 needed a few bits and pieces replaced, so I had to go through with it, rain or not. I’m barely out there five minutes when this boy across the road gives me a holler. He has a large lorry and an awning running along the length of it. He’s out there with his mechanics, his son – who was racing – and his family. They’re all dry as a bone.
‘Hey now,’ he says,‘you want to come over?’ That’s a welcome you’d be happy to hear, awning or not. So Ronnie and I wheel the bike over and we do our tinkering and generally get ready for the first race. It all goes like a dream. I manage to win from pole and I’m set up right for the second outing. There’s a bit more spice to this one because the lad whose awning we’re sharing qualifies on the front row next to me. It’s no bother to me. I know I’m faster. Maybe it’s cockiness but after a strong start I begin to drop back and a few boys go past. I’m not having that. I try to sh*t out the cobwebs and go hell for leather. One by one I pick the leaders off. Suddenly I’m in second and there’s just the boy with the awning ahead of me. Let’s put things in perspective for a second. His dad’s a diamond. His kid’s a decent enough fella himself and more than okay as a rider. It’s no shame coming second to him. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that I should allow it to happen. The last thing I’d want to do is cause a ricket for either of us. Imagine going back to the awning if anything like that were to occur. I think all this for maybe half-a-second. Then I think, F**k it. I’m having him.
It’s the last lap and I’ve been running closer and closer to the boy and I know I’m nearly out of time, so I just run up the inside of him. There’s no plan but
‘It’s the last lap and I’m out of time, so I run up the inside of him’
obviously one of us is going to have to go off-piste if we’re to avoid an accident.
One thing’s for sure. It’s not going to be me.
Twenty seconds later, the boy’s still trying to find his way back on to the track as I cross the finishing line. Ronnie’s slapping me on the back but that’s about the only friendly face I see. At the awning Ronnie had to separate the lad from belting me. His dad let me have both barrels of verbals. Obviously it was not one of my more magnanimous moments. But a win is a win, that’s how I saw it. That’s how I see it to this day. If you have a chance to win you owe it to yourself to take it. The record books don’t remember the good guys. They just remember the successful ones. I come from a family of record breakers. Can you blame me for wanting to join them?
Being around the paddock and the pits with my dad was like turning up to a party with Beyoncé on your arm. The boy was a superstar. Everywhere I’d been with him doing the wee races that year, you had the odd chap coming over for a chat or a photo, but at the Manx, where there were so many amateurs, so many fans and students of the sport, there wasn’t a soul who could hide how much they admired him. I went back to the paddock once to look for him and found him sitting in this old boy’s awning drinking this fellow’s red wine. They’d never met before in their lives but this fella, I promise you, thought he was entertaining royalty.
First TT win (2009)
Straight out of the box everything felt right. Glen Helen, I’m sliding all over the road but I’m leading. Ballaugh, I’m touching kerbs but I’m leading. Ramsey, I’m leading. Start/finish, I’m leading. First it’s by 10 seconds. Then it’s 15 seconds. Then it’s 20. I knew exactly where I was because there was this wee fella holding a board when I exited Greeba. First time round it had ‘P1 +4’ written on it. I couldn’t believe it. They were my stats: I’m in first place with a four-second lead. He’s not part of my team or anything; I didn’t even know his name. He just took it upon himself to help me out. I think breaking the lap record during practice must have got his attention, or maybe it was my name, because he didn’t do it for any other riders. And the thing is, he still does it to this day. I sometimes see him in the pits and he’ll give me a clenched fist and say: ‘Go on, good luck.’ Another boy, Phil, does the same thing in the mountains. Amazing really. They’re just guys, like so many others in my career, who just want to help out. They’re all invaluable.
Every success is bui lt up of tiny parts. Like an engine. Anyway, thanks to this boy with the board, the excitement was building in me as I came round on the last lap. All I had to do was keep it on the road – that would be enough. One slip and Bruce, Steve Plater or Conor Cummins were ready to pounce. Somehow I hold it together. When I take the chequered flag I’ve won by 30 seconds, achieving an average speed of 125mph. The record was 126. And I did it on my old bike. Joey Dunlop: 26 TT wins. Robert Dunlop: five TT wins. Now add Michael Dunlop to that list.
‘The record books don’t remember the good guys, they remember the successful ones’