Born into an Irish roads racing family, Glenn Irwin could have followed a different path to his BSB career. But now he’s won the NW200, is that all about to change?
British Superbike contender on his up and down relationship with roads racing.
Two defining photographs bookended the 2017 road racing season. Both featured Glenn Irwin, one in a moment of pure joy and the other an image of total despair.
The BSB star celebrated with a massive burnout after blitzing North West 200 specialist Alastair Seeley in the feature Superbike race on his Be Wiser/PBM Ducati at the Northern Irish meeting last May. Six months later, Irwin’s features were a mask of torment as he rode back to the pits after witnessing Dan Hegarty’s fatal crash at the Macau Grand Prix.
Depicting the pleasure and pain of road racing, they also highlight the contradictions in Glenn Irwin’s between-the-hedges ambitions.
The son of top Irish road racer, Alan Irwin, the 28-year-old was a schoolboy motocrosser who chose the short circuit route into bike racing. Competing in Irish and British championship events, success came with victory in the British Supersport Cup in 2012 followed by a fourth place finish in the 2014 Supersport series. But a childhood spent in the Irish race paddocks meant Irwin found it difficult to ignore the roads.
“People outside Northern Ireland don’t realise what it’s like to grow up there in a racing family,” Irwin says.
“Our summer holiday was a week at the North West 200 when my dad was racing. I remember as a kid watching Ian Duffus, Michael Rutter (who? – CN), Ian Simpson and David Jefferies at Juniper Hill, and I wanted to race around there myself.”
Irwin’s roads debut at the 2014 Ulster Grand Prix was supposed to be a low-key affair as he deputised for the injured Jamie Hamilton on a VRS Kawasaki ER-6. A new Supertwin class lap record for Dundrod highlighted his potential, and his first appearance at the 2015 NW200 was even more sensational.
Irwin had not been shy about declaring he wanted to
win on his debut at the seaside event and he showed it wasn’t just talk by finishing on the podium alongside Alastair Seeley. A return to the Ulster in August brought more Supersport podiums.
Although 10 years older, Seeley, who hails from the same town of Carrickfergus, has remained a constant presence throughout most of Irwin’s racing career. The former British champion has not raced the TT but has been an inspiration for Irwin as he inflicted defeat on all the pure road racers at the North West 200.
Irwin admits he loves the adulation his racing exploits bring. The BSB star is engaging and friendly, adept at embracing social media and winning legions of fans.
Up to now, most of that attention has been earned from his achievements on the roads rather than tracks, in spite of the Northern Irishman being Shane Byrne’s team-mate in Paul Bird’s BSB Ducati squad since 2016.
A 12th place finish in the 2016 BSB series was followed by another brilliant roads debut, at the Macau GP. Irwin qualified third in the daunting Chinese street race and ran up front with eight-times winner Michael Rutter, Martin Jessopp and eventual victor Peter Hickman, before the Ducati quit going into the final lap.
That performance ensured the Carrick man would be back on the Be Wiser/PBM Ducati in 2017. His BSB progress included winning his first race at Silverstone, but a shoulder injury picked up in a crash at Knockhill ruled him out of last year’s championship chase. Once again it was Irwin’s roads exploits that earned him more plaudits as he won at the North West 200 and Macau.
He knows he has to make a major impact in BSB this season if Paul Bird is to continue to view him as a natural successor to Byrne. Irwin’s focus will be firmly set on the superbike series, with the NW200 being the only roads outing pencilled in for 2018.
“My sole ambition is to win the BSB championship,” Irwin says. “The rest of the racing I do just provides patches of excitement. It breaks the season down a bit and keeps morale high. When I am racing at the North West it feels like I am on holiday – I’m down at the seaside having fun with my family and friends.”
This will come as bad news to the TT organisers, who would love to attract the young Irishman’s talents to the Mountain course. The event has struggled to find
‘The North West 200 or Macau take two days, but the Isle of Man TT is two weeks; two weeks of uncertainty’
high-profile newcomers since the debut of Josh Brookes in 2013 and Peter Hickman in 2014.
“I can’t give a fixed answer as to whether or not I will ever do the TT,” Irwin expands.
He admits fatal accidents involving Hegarty in Macau and his good friend Alan Bonner at last year’s TT have made him pause for thought. He has stated, for instance, that he won’t return to Macau.
“I watched the TT at Bray Hill last year and I thought it was class but then Alan had his accident and it makes you think,” he explains. Family pressure also plays a part in his roads options. “Dad would prefer me not to do the TT, although he did say that last year’s North West race was the first time he wanted me to win and not just get the bike home!” Irwin smiles. “But I have my own son now and I want to be around for him in the future.”
Another negative element the BSB rider points to is the amount of time involved in racing the TT. As Brookes and Hickman have found, even the fastest newcomers start at a massive disadvantage to rivals like John McGuinness, Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop, who have honed their knowledge of the 37.73-mile course over many years. Leaving aside the endless hours spent on learning laps, the event itself also lasts much longer than any other meeting Irwin races at.
“The North West or Macau take a few days, but the TT is two weeks; two weeks of uncertainty,” he says.
But despite these objections, Irwin retains an ambivalence in his attitude to competing on the world’s most dangerous race track.
“I would love to win one but I would also like to be able to say I resisted it and never went there,” he sways.
He insists it is not because of any lack of commitment when it comes to switching disciplines.
“I ride the roads as hard as I do in BSB,” he explains. “You don’t go into a road race thinking, ‘I want to ride at 90%.’ If you want to win it has to be 110%.”
“I have to want to do the TT, to have a passion for it.” he says. “I don’t have to do it, but Michael Dunlop does.”
The reference to Dunlop stirs up a hoary comparison between short circuit riders and their road racing counterparts that rages on, especially in Irwin and Dunlop’s homeland. Relations between the pair have soured as Irwin has proven his pace on the roads of the NW200 and Macau.
Despite his ambivalence towards the TT, does Irwin feel the only reason to race the Mountain course would be to beat his contemporary in Dunlop’s chosen arena?
“Michael has never beaten me in a road race,” Irwin goes on, fuelling the flames between the NW200 rivals even more and ensuring the only 2018 roads meeting the BSB star races in will provide plenty of fireworks.
Top: Irwin on his way to victory over Alastair Seeley in the 2017 North West 200 Superbike race
Above: A devastated Glenn Irwin rides back to the pits after passing the carnage of Dan Hegarty’s death following a crash at last year’s Macau Grand Prix. The race had been red flagged but riders were allowed to return to the paddock past the scene
Far right: Glenn Irwin, Lee Jonhston and Alastair Seeley to battle in the 2015 NW200 Supersport race Right: Irwin throws his gloves to the crowd after nailing his victory in the 2017’s Superbike race on the Portrush circuit
Above: Glen Irwin at Silverstone, where he took his first BSB race win in 2017
Left: Irwin and Michael Dunlop rarely meet on track, so when they were involved in a ‘Road Racers vs Circuit Racers’ charity football match earlier this year, sparks were always going to fly...