Legendary motorbike racer Joey Dunlop died 20 years ago today during an event in Estonia and his premature passing, even in a sport all too familiar with tragedy, still reverberates
Even in a sport so intimate with tragedy, they never saw this one coming.
Barry Symmons was at Silverstone when he heard it, kneeling down beside Martin Finnegan's superbike when Billy Nutt came around the corner with a face of stone, his skin translucent grey. "I'm sorry to say, Joey's been killed!" said Billy.
Symmons - Joey Dunlop's manager at Honda Britain for his five Formula One wins - eased up slowly off his knees, speechless. He doesn't remember much of what happened next, other than climbing the tower so that course commentator Fred Clarke could convey the awful news.
And after that? Nothing really. Just numbness. Disbelief.
The bike Symmons had been working on at that moment was Martin Finnegan's, a Dubliner who himself would be lost to motorbike racing eight years later.
So these men knew all about the potential for death and horror and the speechlessness this sport all too regularly left behind. But Dunlop? It always felt as if Joey was, somehow, different.
He died 20 years ago today, killed on a road circuit outside Tallinn in Estonia, his 125cc bike seemingly aquaplaning in heavy rain before snapping in two on impact with a tree. Joey's final night on earth had been spent sleeping across the front seats of his van, a personal preference above the hotel suite provided by the organisers.
He always liked to stay close to his bikes, sleep invariably coming easier that way.
Tallinn was a low-key event Dunlop had been to once before (breaking his pelvis and severing a finger in a crash on the Pirita-Kose-Kloostrimetsa circuit), but this time he'd already won the 600cc and 750cc races at the meeting without - it seemed - ever having to over-stretch himself.
Some felt he'd gone there for some space, a little privacy maybe. Joey was said to be still in shock over the suicide of his long-time sponsor and friend, Andy McMenemy.
Serenity always came to him in the rapport he could find with a powerful motorbike and, despite being 48 now, Dunlop had never looked better in that dangerous world.
Just a month earlier, incredibly, he'd won a hat-trick (his third, but first in 12 years) of TT races on the Isle of Man. This shouldn't really have been possible against the fearless young bucks endlessly rising through the sport. But, as Davy Wood - his personal manager - liked to remind people: "They broke the mould when they made Joey Dunlop."
The cold figures of his career remain breathtaking to this day: 26 TT wins; five F1 world titles in a row between '82 and '86; 24 Ulster Grand Prix wins and 13 victories in the North West 200.
But Dunlop always seemed treasured too on a level above statistic.
It's estimated that 50,000 people turned up for his funeral in Ballymoney, though Symmons has always suspected that estimate to have erred on the conservative side.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life," he says now. "I mean the road from his bungalow up to the church must be about a mile and a half and the crowds were 20-deep in places along the way. That's a day, sadly, that none of us will ever forget."
There are a million stories told about Joey Dunlop communicating why such a multitude would gather to pay their final respects to him.
Maybe one of the most revealing revisits a day he'd been invited as a marquee guest to a big motorcycle show in Birmingham. Fellow racer John McGuinness spotted Dunlop politely waiting in the queue to buy an admission ticket.
His genius on a bike came married to an innate shyness off it, a desire to keep all but trusted friends at arm's length. He was, thus, a reluctant interviewee and a man with a deep-set resistance to formality.
One writer once described Dunlop as "scruffy and long-haired, like an oil-slick in racing leathers", and Symmons confirms that, initially at least, Joey was inclined to shut down verbally when in the company of anyone dressed too well.
"What Joey didn't like was to sit down around a table, especially if it was with people who were wearing ties," he remembers with a chuckle now. "He had a thing about ties, I think he saw them as some kind of symbol of authority.
"Joey always had his own ideas about who was trustworthy and who wasn't. And if you had a tie on, that sort of put you at a disadvantage.
"I quickly realised that if I called in to him wearing one - even if it was a purely social visit - he'd be ill-at-ease."
For all that, he had the wisdom to understand that a works rider for Honda was expected to, on occasion at least, bend to others' mores too.
Ten years after his death, a BBC Northern Ireland crew travelled to Japan with Joey's widow, Linda, and were treated like royalty by the manufacturers for whom he had been their longest-ever serving works rider.
Ron Haslam, a team-mate of his with Honda Britain, was always seen as a kindred spirit.
And, at Donnington especially, that spirit routinely entertained the paddock where Dunlop and Haslam liked to challenge one another to walk along a circling 12-foot-high wall, which had a depth of no more than four inches. Once bored with that, they'd play blind tennis over the same wall.
But road-racing was where Dunlop made his legend, his precision and utter fearlessness when carrying extraordinary speed through country lanes making him, in the eyes of many, unbeatable whenever he got in front.
He was notoriously superstitious too, routinely waving to magpies and talking to fairies. And he was terrified of flying.
Famously, he and his younger brother, Robert, were lucky to escape with their lives in May of '85 when the Tornamona, a fishing boat they were traveling to TT races in, sank to the bottom of Strangford Lough.
Robert, who was killed in practice for a road race in '08, recalled how - in the absence of life jackets - it was only Joey's decision to empty drums carrying airplane fuel into the Lough that gave them the buoyancy to stay afloat long enough for help to arrive.
A devoted family husband and father, he always made sure in latter years to have Linda and their five children on the island for TT week, son - Gary - once describing it as "like a family holiday".
And over time, awareness grew of Joey's understated charity work, driving his own van loaded with food and clothing supplies for use by children in impoverished Romanian orphanages.
It was for this work that Dunlop, reared in a Ballymoney cottage without even running water, was eventually awarded an OBE.
He was a maverick spirit on and off the bike then, fellow TT winner - Philip McCallen - marvelling in a TV tribute programme - "With others into their fitness and diet etc, Joey would still have a few beers. If practice was at ten, he'd turn up at five to ten.
"And fellas would wonder how could this man not sleep (much), how could he drink, smoke and beat everybody. And still be honourable to everybody too."
For all that, having struggled on uncompetitive bikes in the late '90s, there was also a growingly urgent clamour for Joey to consider retirement, Symmons himself fearful that the great man trying too hard for victories would be "a recipe for disaster".
But in 2000, Honda supplied the 'King of the Road' with a virtual works machine again as well as the technicians, engineers and mechanics to fine-tune it. The impact was instantly transformative.
Though he finished third in the senior TT race, Dunlop would set his fastest ever lap-time - average speed of 123.87mph - around the 38-mile circuit. His hat-trick of victories that week was recognised with a civic reception in Ballymoney and a tour of the village on an open-top bus.
Dunlop was subsequently entered in the Dundrod 150, but it's believed that McMenemy's sudden death directed him to Estonia instead.
And there, on the smallest, least-powerful bike he could ride, Joey Dunlop met his tragic end. "To me, it seems like it was only last week," says Symmons now. "I think about him all the time. My office has a picture on the wall, so I see Joey's face every day."