Wednesday 21 February 2018

Dunlops felt alive through a continual dance with death

'The sheer speed of the machines is fearful, the violence of the crashes shocking'. Photo: Oli Tennent/Getty Images
'The sheer speed of the machines is fearful, the violence of the crashes shocking'. Photo: Oli Tennent/Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

Between the London derby on Sunday and the first leaks from the Keane book on Monday, one of the best sports documentaries of the year got lost in the wash.

Shown on BBC1 Northern Ireland last Monday evening, Road is a sombre film on a sombre subject. It tells the story of the Dunlop family, the motorcycle racing dynasty that has embodied the twin pillars of triumph and tragedy like few others in all of sport.

Written, produced and directed by Diarmuid Lavery and Michael Hewitt, it is a dark, stylish and sensitive piece of work. As it happened, one of my first assignments upon joining the Sunday Independent was to cover the funeral of Joey Dunlop in July 2000. The occasion brought swathes of Ulster to a standstill. It made one realise the scale of his legend in that part of the island, and how little it was appreciated in the Republic.

Three weeks earlier he had won his seventh Formula One TT title in the Isle of Man. The race was six laps of a circuit measuring 37.73 miles. It meant steering a Honda 1000 Superbike at speeds of over 190mph for almost two hours. Dunlop was 48; it was his first Formula One title in 12 years; he'd beaten riders literally half his age. It was a glorious, sentimental swansong. It embossed his reputation as the greatest road racer of all time.

Two weeks later he was in Estonia competing in a minor race on a Honda 125, a so-called baby bike. They raced in a downpour. He crashed into a tree and was killed instantly.

"It is really hard to understand," says Stephen Davison in the film, "but he just made a mistake." Davison is a road racing writer and photographer. "All those years, all those 31 seasons, all those races, all those practice sessions, doing it over and over and over again - one split second." He snaps his fingers, the screen fades to black.

But what was someone of Dunlop's stature even doing at such a modest event in such a far-away place? And at 48, had not the normal frailties and fears of middle age eroded his nerve, or raised his awareness of his own mortality?

Murray Walker, the famed BBC motorsport commentator, offered his perspective on the singular mindset within this culture. "They're getting some sort of spiritual satisfaction out of controlling an enormously powerful bit of machinery on the knife-edge between safety and disaster."

Joey's young brother, Robert, was devastated by the loss. Six years earlier, in 1994, he'd had his own brush with death in a horrendous crash. His right leg was mangled; the nerves in his right arm were severed, rendering it almost lifeless.

Liam Beckett, a family friend, arrived in the emergency treatment room. "Robert was lying in his leathers and I've never seen so much blood in my life around the floor. And it was thick, thick blood, it reminded me of mercury. He was just conscious and no more and I remember him saying to me, 'The wheel came off, LB, the wheel came off.'"

Doctors weren't sure he would survive; they were certain he would never race again. But two years later he was back on a modified bike, the front brake switched to his left hand.

In 1998 at the North West 200 he was cartwheeled over his bike and sent flying like a rag doll. He got away with a broken collar bone. Two weeks later he was back on the winners' podium at the Isle of Man TT.

If life on the bike is a constant dance with death, it seems that life without a bike is a sort of death too.

By 2004 Robert's sons William and Michael were also committed to the family business. It might have been the cue for their father to step down and make way for the new generation.

But, says his widow Louise, "He couldn't have retired. He couldn't have thought of the family first. Loved his family, don't get me wrong, but he couldn't have thought in that context of, 'Well, I'll do it for the family.' Cos he was still enjoying the dream, wasn't he? His dream."

The documentary contains visceral footage captured by cameras mounted on crashing bikes. The sheer speed of the machines is fearful, the violence of the sudden crashes shocking. In 2008, at the age of 47, Robert Dunlop was filmed bulleting down a straight stretch of road, then hitting the tarmac at 150mph. Their mother, May, had lost a second son.

Two days later, William and Michael take their places on the grid for the North West 200. The race organisers had banned them, deeming them emotionally unfit to ride. But the brothers force their way through and the stewards, fearing crowd chaos, back off. Michael takes the chequered flag in a welter of emotion after a thrilling duel with rival John McGuinness. The next day he and William bury their father.

William admits they've been criticised for putting their loved ones through the stress of such constant danger. But he knows nothing else but bike racing, he says, and the thrill of "being on the edge the whole time" makes him feel alive like nothing else can. "And, you know, if something was to happen," he adds with an awkward smile, "I don't care. I suppose that's what it is."

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