|One of the all-time greats of Motorcycle Road Racing Joey Dunlop died tragically in the year 2000, at a little known road race in Tallinn, Estonia.
Asked what made him so successful around the Isle of Man TT course, the quiet, helpful and polite man away from his race bike, responded with a thoughtful ” I like going right quick” known as ‘yer maun’ by a huge fan-base (some 50,000 people attended his funeral), here was a man of few words, whose talking would be done on a racing motorcycle, his trademark canary yellow helmet feared by competitors and revered by fans.
|Born February 25th 1952 an awkward, shy but fiercely determined character, hero to many, a publican to others, kindly benefactor to East european orphans and world champion motorcycle racer hailed from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland.
Joey achieved ‘legend’ status in his own lifetime, however, to mention any of this to him would have had his cheeks glowing like the fading embers of a campfire.Voted by the Irish people to be Ireland’s 3rd greatest sportsperson of all time in 2009, behind 3 time major winning golf superstar Padraig Harrington and Irish Rugby leagues all time top try scorer Brian O’Driscoll, and even beating George Best into 4th place, a colossal achievement given the relative obscurity of his sport.
All legends have to start somewhere and for Joey it was messing around on a Triumph Tiger Cub at Maghaberry in 1969, “as a bit of fun with my mates”. In the mid 1970’s the wins started to come, and from here, he never looked back.
His first TT race came in 1976: “It was wet, I rode a 250, and I’d never been round the circuit before, even in a car. I remember coming up to Ballacraine (the 90 degree right handed corner made famous in George Formby’s TT film ‘No Limits’) and didn’t know whether to turn right, left or straight ahead!” Amazingly, and perhaps as a foresight of what was to come, he finished all three races he started in, including a solid 16th position in the Junior 350 event aboard his 350 Rea Yamaha.
The following year, still a relative unknown at the TT, he beat all the favourites to take the 1977 Jubilee TT aboard a privately-entered TZ 750 Yamaha. The remainder of the 70′s were quiet for him at the TT, but the 80′s would belong to Joey, starting with a win in the 1980 Classic 1000cc race, again Yamaha-mounted.
The works Honda team boss Bob McMillan, not wishing to be outdone by Dunlop again, signed him up 1981, promising him “bikes for life” and thus began a 21 year association with the marque, making Joey Dunlop Honda’s most loyal servant bar none. The men in suits at Honda tried to change Joey, his unkempt appearance and almost incoherent accent not really conforming to the Honda image. But it was soon apparent that they were wasting their time, and they left him pretty much to his own devices, and concentrated on supplying the machinery required to do the job.
And it was a job he was born to do. As well as winning countless Irish road races, including the Ulster GP and North West 200, he started winning TT races for Honda in 1983, beginning a winning streak in the F1 race that was to last 6 consecutive years from 1983-88 during which time he was F1 World Champion on 5 seperate occasions.
Joey’s career also took in a handful of GP’s and world Superbike races, the 1979 French 350cc grand prix at Le Mans where he finished ninth and the 1985 250cc British grand prix at Silversone recording a tenth place finish. The world superbike championship was created in 1988 and Joey finished in 3rd place in the inaugural wet race held at Donnington Park, and this championship may well have been a great platform for him had it arrived earlier in his career, but he was more at home on the roads and at the TT that year he recorded his second hat-trick of victories around the tortuous Isle of Man roads circuit.
1989 was a different story though and Dunlop was badly injured in an Easter crash at Brands Hatch. Although he was passed fit by his doctor in Ireland, it was plain for all, including the ACU (Auto Cycle Union) medical men, to see that he was not fit to ride, so he handed the stage over to Steve Hislop, who recorded 3 wins that year, and raised the lap record over the mystical 120mph average.
In fact Joey didn’t win another TT until 1992, picking up the Ultra Lightweight 125cc race (a race he would win for the next 3 years consecutively) and it may have seemed to some that his glory days on the big bikes were behind him, as the young chargers Hislop, Fogarty, McCallen et al continued to move the outright lap record ever higher, but at the 1995 TT and at the age of 43 he won the lightweight 250cc category and, more importantly, would take his final Senior TT victory that year.
During the the 1998 Lightweight TT Joey’s wet weather mastery once again came to the fore (as it had in the 1987 Senior TT), the race was reduced from four laps to three and, as soon as the flag dropped, the rain started. The opening lap in the prevailing conditions by Joey Dunlop must rank as one of his bravest ever, he went round in 22 m 31.4 s – a speed of 100.50mph – to lead John McGuinness by 34.4 seconds with James Courtney third.
The weather really deteriorated as the opening lap was in progress, and the Clerk of the Course announced that the race would be reduced to two laps. Some of the riders came in for fuel and were waved away by their pit crews. Joey sailed straight through to notch up victory number twenty-three in his 23rd year of TT racing! He won from Bob Jackson and John McGuinness.
Joey Dunlop, for long the acknowledged ‘King of the Roads’, surpassed even his own legendary standards when he won the first three races at the TT in 2000, to bring his total wins to 26.
Celebrating his 25th TT year, Dunlop won the Duke Formula One race on the SP1 Honda. He followed that by winning the 250 Lightweight on the Bertie Payne Bitmac Honda that hadn’t completed a decent practice lap. And he followed that with another start to finish victory in the 125cc Ultra Lightweight TT, which he won for the fifth time.
The 48-year-old publican from Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, was cheered to the echo all round the 37.73 mile Mountain Course and at the TT presentations. In addition to winning his three races, Joey was also awarded a replica of the Manx Sword of State by David Cretney MHK, the ex-Manx Grand Prix rider who was Minister of Tourism and Leisure.
In the Duke Formula One TT ‘Yer Maun’ was having a big dice with David Jefferies on the V&M Yamaha R7 until Jefferies motor blew at Ballig on the fifth lap. Dunlop, using all his TT experience in the tricky damp conditions in the early stages, was the leader for almost all the race.
The only time Jefferies grabbed the advantage was at the end of lap four when he was half a second in front. But Dunlop’s refuelling stop was much quicker which put him back in front at Glen Helen on lap five. Joey went on to win his 24th TT with Michael Rutter taking second and John McGuinness third. Joey followed this with emphatic wins in the lightweight 250cc and Ultra-lightweight 125cc races, his 3rd hat-trick of wins encasing his legend in granite!
Less than 4 weeks later he was killed and his funeral attended by some 50,000 mourners, it was a state funeral in all but name and the great and the good came to see him off.
Joey was enormously proud of receiving the M.B.E for his services to motorcycling in 1986, but was awarded an O.B.E ten years later for his humanitarian work delivering clothing,toys and food to Romanian & Bosnian orphans and others – these acts of kindness were unprecedented – he just loaded up his race transporter in the off-season and drove into what were often dangerous places, in the aftermath of the break up of the Soviet Union, to do kindly deeds for poor and suffering people. These trips were un-trumpeted and alone, no army of volunteers, just Joey and race truck trying to help people less fortunate than himself.
Happiest pulling pints and enjoying ‘the craic’ in his Ballymoney pub, the good deeds continue in his name, with the Joey Dunlop foundation providing holiday homes for the disabled, appropriately overlooking the TT course on the Isle of Man and a Joey Dunlop leisure centre in Ballymoney, the Joey Dunlop legacy will not soon be forgotten.
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