Tuesday 23 July 2019

Joey at the top of an illustrious list of riders

Corry Corner - Jack Corry

During my recuperation from my recent operation I have been scanning my old collection of slides and photos, with the main reason to save them onto modern digital, and also to help me get through the three months off work.

The advances in modern technology have been wonderful in this way, and while I slagged off some of this technology a few months ago, this is something that has helped save both my collection and sanity.

I have put up a number of folders of these photos from the late 80s and early 90s on social media and I have had some lovely comments and requests for photos.

There is one question that I have been asked a number of times since I started my work, and that is: 'Who was our greatest ever rider?'

Straightaway I remembered the great Joey Dunlop being asked how it felt beating the legendary Stanley Woods on the day he past Woods' record of 10 Isle of Man TT wins, and he said: 'We are in different eras and it's hard to compare what Stanley did, as there were different machinery, roads and riders when he was racing compared to where I am at.'

A powerful statement indeed from a rider who went on to win 26 TT races, and thankfully I was there to see most of them.

To me, Joey was our greatest ever rider, but there are so many other fans who will have their own favourite.

Growing up on the original Skerries 100 course, I began to get my favourites as a young race fan. Riders like Len Ireland and Cecil Crawford spring to mind, but the name of Tom Herron soon came to the fore.

I don't know if it was seeing his van parked outside my cousin's house where he stayed when he raced in Skerries, but to see 'Tom Herron International Road Racer' painted on the side was something different for a young lad from Loughshinny.

As I started travelling the length and breadth of the country, and before I went to the Isle of Man for the first time, the name of Ray McCullough was in everyone's talk of racing.

McCullough and Herron had a brilliant battle at my first visit to the Ulster Grand Prix, and in the days where two strokes dominated the scene these two local riders were the kingpins.

In the background we had Graham Young and Donny Robinson, who were starting to come to the fore, along with the likes of Joey, Mervyn Robinson, Frank Kennedy, Trevor Steele and Ian McGregor.

Ray Mac, as he was known, was the king of Skerries, winning 17 races between 1965 and 1977, and yet the Dromara rider only ever raced at the Southern 100 in the Isle of Man, which took place in July, and never raced the TT.

Herron and Young were competing in the old Grand Prix where they could get entries, and Herron was at the top end of his game, but in the ultra-competitive class of the Grand Prix he was in a David and Goliath scenario.

Winning an Irish road race championship is one thing, but at world level it was tough. Yet he managed to finish in fourth place in the 1976 250 and 350 World Championships. That same year he won the Senior TT, the last of the world championship races held over the mountain course.

The following year he finished runner-up to Japanese rider Takazumi Katayama in the 350 world championship, and he was still a privateer.

In 1979 he finally got the break that he deserved, and he joined the great Barry Sheene and Steve Parish in the Heron Suzuki factory Grand Prix Team.

The first few races of the year saw the Lisburn rider take two third places and a fourth, but he crashed out in the fourth round of the championship in Spain, suffering serious burns to his arm.

He returned to race at the North West 200 but tragically crashed out in the final race of the day, on the final lap, in the Match Races and tragically lost his life. That became known as 'Black Saturday' as three riders died that day, as along with Herron there was Frank Kennedy and Scottish rider Brian Hamilton.

On the local scene, and coming up behind Ray Mac, was another Dromara rider - Brian Reid.

Racing in Ireland was becoming like a fan club, and you either followed the Dromara Destroyers, (McCullough, Reid, Steele and McGregor) or the Armoy Armada (Joey and Jim Dunlop, Mervyn Robinson and Frank Kennedy). We also had a brilliant Dublin rider in Conor McGinn, who was starting to inflict defeats on the top riders from the North, something we hadn't seen in the south for a good few years.

Joey took his first TT in 1977, winning the Classic TT, despite stopping in Ramsey to check his rear tyre, and he came back in 1980 on John Rea's OW31 Yamaha to take a brilliant Senior TT win, beating the factory Hondas and Suzuki.

He achieved it by literally pulling the wool over their eyes, riding with an enlarged tank which saw him only stop once to refuel, whereas the factory riders had to stop twice.

He was helped along the way by another great Irish rider, Sam Clements, who gave him help to enlarge the tank.

In 1981 McGinn was on top form at the TT, and in practice for the Junior TT he was third fastest overall behind the factory Kawasaki of Graeme McGregor, but disaster was to strike the Stillorgan rider when he crashed in the 500 race on the Maine Autopoint Yamaha at Laurel bank, and his injuries left him wheelchair-bound.

Norman Brown was another up and coming rider, and the classy Newry rider was lighting up the local scene. He was the new star, and he got an early chance on a factory Suzuki at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1982, in an effort to stop the mighty Joey and Honda from taking the World F1 Championship.

He took to the task, but it was Dunlop and Honda who took the world title. In 1983 he became only the second rider to come from winning the Senior Manx Grand Prix the previous year, to winning the Senior Classic TT, in the process breaking the lap record.

He was again signed to ride for the factory Suzuki team at the Ulster, but only two weeks before that he took part in the British 500 Grand Prix. With the rain starting to fall, Brown slowed, and was touring back to the pits. He was passed by a number of riders, but tragically Swiss rider Peter Huber didn't see him and ploughed into the back of Brown. Both riders lost their lives in the accident.

Joey was spending a good bit of his season with the Honda team in the British and World Championship, with only selected races on home turf.

His younger brother Robert was making an impact into the local scene, and we also had the likes of Steven Cull, Sam Clements, both riders from Bangor and great competitors on the roads.

There were Courtney Junk, Noel Hudson, Sean McStay, Eugene McDonnell and Con Law, along with our own band of Southern riders - Geoff Cronin, Alan Coulter, Ron Sherry, John 'Bart' Byrne, Eric Galbraith and of course Eddie Laycock.

Laycock came from the same area of south Dublin that most of the above riders hailed from, and it was clear that he was going places. A stylish and competent rider, he was soon making a name for himself, and while it was still hard to get competitive machinery sponsored in Ireland, Laycock opened plenty of eyes when he beat the great Joey in a classic 250cc battle at the North West, on practically Joey's back door in 1986.

This didn't go unnoticed by one of the great sponsors of road racing, Joe Millar, who gave the Dubliner his break after Millar's top rider Eugene McDonnell was killed in a freak accident at the 1986 TT.

Laycock took advantage of the top-class machinery that the Randlastown Haulage Contractor was providing, and he beat a young up and coming Steve Hislop in the '87 Junior TT, although Hislop reversed the result in the Formula 2 race.

Laycock was to go on and win another TT, as well as breaking the lap record at the Ulster on a 500 Honda. He then went on to race at the top of Grand Prix Racing.

Brian Reid was joining Joey on the world stage, and while Joey went on to take five World Formula 1 TT Championships, Reid took two F2 crowns.

In 1988 a young Portadown rider called Phillip McCallen made his way onto the scene. He had taken six road race championships in 1987, but he became the first rider to take two Manx Grand Prix in a week in '88, and that was the start of his illustrious career that saw his dominate the international road race scene and end his career equal with Steve Hislop on 11 TT wins.

Joey was still topping the TT win ladder, as well as the Irish scene, but in 1996 a young fella from Morecambe, John McGuinness, started his first TT, and after his three-year apprenticeship he took the first of what was to be a 26-win run over the iconic TT mountain course.

We also had a great crop of riders coming through on home turf, like Richard Britton, James Courtney, Gary Dynes, Dennis McCullough, Derek Young and Adrian Archibald.

Just behind this crop, we saw a young Ryan Farquhar, Darren Lindsay, and of course our own Martin Finnegan .

Tragedy struck in 2,000 when Joey was killed at an event in Estonia, and his legacy lives on, no matter where in the world motorbike racing is held.

That same year Martin Finnegan added his name to the illustrious winners over the Mountain course when he took the Newcomers Manx Grand Prix, breaking the lap record on the way that still stands to this day.

I could go on with so many names, as we have Michael Dunlop and many more from the modern era, but no matter where you go in our sport and ask the same question, who was the greatest ever rider, the debate will never stop.

Joey was my hero. He was such a simple man, who just wanted to ride motorbikes. His charity work was recognised worldwide and honoured at the highest level, and yet all he wanted in life was a fag, vodka and his family.

The names of the likes of Herron, McGinn and Brown are always there, and what they could have achieved, but for the 48-year-old grandfather from Ballymoney, he was simply Joey.

Keep 'er lit!

Fingal Independent