Thursday 22 March 2018

'I have lost my best friend,' says dad of North West 200 tragedy victim

Kevin Thomas with his young son Malachi Mitchell-Thomas
Kevin Thomas with his young son Malachi Mitchell-Thomas

Jim Gracey

Grieving dad Kevin Thomas made an emotional return to the North West 200 track yesterday and the scene of the 110mph crash that claimed the life of his only son and best friend.

The 20-year-old tragically passed away on the track despite 40 minutes of intense medical efforts to save him after losing control of his Supertwin machine.

By unhappy coincidence the accident occurred within yards of the Thursday night Supertwins race crash from which veteran Dungannon racer Ryan Farquhar escaped with his life, although he remains in intensive care in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital with chest and liver injuries.

Initial findings by accident investigators are not believed to connect the two incidents which occurred just after the riders emerged at high speed from under the Dhu Varren railway bridge on the left side of the coast road, racing out of Portrush towards Portstewart .

Yesterday, a clearly distraught Kevin stood at the spot with members of his son's Cookstown-based B.E. Racing team, run by former road racer John Burrows.

Mr Burrows had opened his home to the young rider, who had been tipped for the top and was riding in his first North West 200.

As he gazed at floral tributes, one of which said 'RIP Malachi, you were a breath of fresh air in the paddock', well wishers and fans openly wept, many of them teenage girls who had flocked to his growing fan club, attracted as much by his boy-band looks as his racing skills.

But a brokenhearted and overwhelmed Kevin could only say: "I have run out of tears.

Malachi Mitchell-Thomas playfully fixes his father’s hat at a race meeting
Malachi Mitchell-Thomas playfully fixes his father’s hat at a race meeting

"These past 24 hours have been a blur... I have cried and cried and now I am running on empty.

"I have had so many people offer me their sympathy and it is a comfort that so many people seem to have taken him to their hearts in such a short time knowing him.

"But I can barely remember any of it. My head has been swimming since Saturday afternoon when I was told that the rider down was my Mal.

"I have lost my best friend - I have lost my son, but he died doing what he wanted to do.

"He did not have a bad bone in his body and nobody had a bad word to say about him."

We were speaking 72 hours after young Malachi had given what was to be his final press interview to the Belfast Telegraph.

It was published on Saturday and has now proved to be his obituary.

In it, he was upbeat and uplifting, praising dad Kevin (52) to high heaven for the sacrifices the doting single parent had made to help make his boy's racing dream a reality.

The reminder made our talk all the more heart-rending yesterday.

On a day when he might have understandably shut himself away from the world, this stoic and remarkable working-class Lancashire man chose to talk publicly and proudly about the life, times and personality of a lad cut down in his prime, doing what he loved.

And he spoke without a trace of recrimination or bitterness, anxious, in fact, for all his personal pain, to pay tribute to all who had endeavoured to save his son's life and to those who had offered him support in the aftermath, from the race medical team to the event organisers, local police on the ground, Malachi's team boss John Burrows, fellow riders and teams, and rank and file race supporters.

Poignantly he told how he said a final farewell to his son in a temporary morgue at Coleraine police station, where his body had been brought by ambulance from the course, the absence of haste and blue lights telling fearful fans lining the track that the worst had happened.

"I said a few words to Mal, stroked his hair and gave him a kiss," Kevin said, his voice quivering from a sense of loss brought home as he related the background to the powerful bond that existed between them.

"We were much, much closer than the usual father-son relationship," he explained.

"Mal's mum, Vicki, and I parted when he was very young. There was no animosity, it was all very amicable. We just decided to go in different directions and Mal stayed with me.

"Vicki lives in Cyprus now. We've spoken and she is naturally devastated and looking to book flights back for the funeral we now have to arrange.

"He was always her boy and he loved his mum. That's why he insisted on using our two surnames, Mitchell and Thomas.

"But it was hard for him growing up. He wasn't born with a silver spoon. Ours was a council house and where we lived, there were very few friends his age to play with so he grew up in a very adult-orientated environment," he said.

"He had to wait until I got home from work every day to have someone to play with.

"I was into bikes and introduced him to mini motocross at the age of four and he was hooked.

"He was riding in Supermoto at 13 and had success at European level at 16.

"Tarmac racing was a natural progression and we worked hard to get him fixed up with a team and he surprised everyone, bar he and I, by winning the Senior Manx Grand Prix and setting a new lap record last year.

“I was his secretary, his bookkeeper, the one who knocked on doors looking for sponsorship to keep him on the road and then things took a turn for the worse in my life.

“I lost my job and my partner in quick succession and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

“It was then that Mal became my rock, looking after me and helping to restore my health and esteem.

“With his help, I got through it but at a cost. We were living in a little flat in Adlington, nearly destitute and down to our last £200 in January this year. We didn’t know where the next rent instalment was coming from.

“But I always had faith in him as a rider. I kept making the calls to the road racing teams and sponsors and just when we were at our lowest ebb, John Burrows took him on.

“I knew if we could get Mal to his first Irish road racing meeting, what started to happen would happen, with wins at Mid-Antrim and Cookstown, that we would have a story to tell sponsors to bring them on board and that our lives would turn around.

“The dream became reality, thanks to Mal’s ability and John Burrows’ belief in him. We still didn’t have a big bank account behind us but we had less to worry about.

“Mal was able to concentrate on his racing and it was a bonus that he loved Northern Ireland so much.

“He was talking about looking at houses here and I know we would have ended up living here.”

Alas, his young life in the fast lane ended here and now his ashes will be scattered where he had dreams of completing the next lap of his meteoric rise to racing fame, at next month’s Isle of Man TT.

“We talked about what Mal wanted if the worst were to happen and that is what he asked me to do,” Kevin revealed.

His remaining daughter, Mal’s sister Rhiannon, he calls a boffin, proud, too, of her academic and scientific achievements after graduating with an honours degree in physics.

Malachi, however, was destined, quite literally for the other side of the track.

“He was a petrolhead who just wanted to go faster and I supported him in that because it was what he wanted to do,” he added.

“There are risks in everything you do. Mal got knocked off his bike by a car when he was six — he could have been killed then.

“Yes, it is a dangerous sport, but so are other forms of motorsport. So is horse racing and showjumping.”

And with the sound-bite brigade gearing up for their predictable, facile, once a year calls for the sport of road racing in general and the North West in particular to be legislated out of existence, a bereaved father spoke up for its continuation.           

“No way should road racing or the North West be stopped,” Kevin emphasised. “It’s a fantastic event and I cannot speak more highly of the support we, as a family, have received from the organisers, the event director Mervyn Whyte especially.

“John Burrows has also been with me every step of the way. I am thankful to all of them but mostly I want to thank the paramedics for trying to save him at the roadside.

“It was a great event on Saturday, saddened by his loss, but it must not stop because of what happened. Mal would not want that as his epitaph.

“He had been loving the event as a whole and couldn’t wait for the racing to start. I will also continue to be involved in the sport because that is what Mal would have wanted me to do.”

Belfast Telegraph

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