I’ll admit that I have a hard time following motorsports. Even watching it can sometimes be an exercise in monotony. Sure, if you know all the ins and outs then the strategy behind tire choice, pit stops, and driving styles can make it quite the spectacle. But someone just tuning into a typical F1 race will ask “how come nobody’s passing”? Want to watch endurance racing? No problem – just block off the next 24 hours of your life. NASCAR, too, is predictable: turn left until there’s a big crash and shit hits the fan (and fans, for those sitting close to the track). Racing is fun; watching it… not so much.
Except for motorcycle road racing. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as a 200 mph man-on-a-missile whizzing past spectators, getting precariously close to obstacles, riding on the narrow line between control and chaos, all to set a lap time in hopes of receiving a trophy and putting his name into the record books. I know I’ll never get to the opportunity to drive an open-wheel Formula car much the same way I’ll never participate in the Isle of Man TT. The difference is, even if I could, I wouldn’t attempt the TT anyways.
(Note: the remainder of this post talks about the Dunlop family, who are profiled in the documentary Road. You can read the following section but to avoid all spoilers skip to the movie’s trailer at the bottom of the page.)
Ride in Peace
This is why, when I read that William Dunlop had died after an accident on the track, I fell into a somber mood. The Dunlop name is synonymous with road racing. Brothers Joey and Robert raced from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Both died in crashes. To hear that William – Robert’s son – had met the same fate was disheartening. Allegedly he was considering a retirement from the sport soon. At 32 years of age he was in the midst of bringing up his own family and wanted to spend time with them.
He won’t get to see his daughter turn 3 and won’t witness the birth of his second child. His grandmother has to attend her third funeral for a Dunlop family member because of their perilous line of work. I wonder if Michael, William’s younger brother and the last remaining racer in the family, will hang up his leathers ? It’s a real tearjerker of a story and makes it easy to posit that the family should have stopped racing many years ago. But things aren’t so easy for someone who needs to race, someone whose fuel in life is the smell of it burning within an engine.
You’re better killed on a motorbike than lying for 6 months, not well at the end of it.
– Robert Dunlop
In 2014 Road was released and I first glimpsed it a few years back on Netflix. It is a documentary about the Dunlop dynasty. Not just for gearheads, the film does a fantastic job of discussing the sport of road racing and its pervasiveness in Northern Ireland. Joey’s career began by tuning two-stroke engines and eventually racing them in the 70s. As the skill level rose so did the stakes, and soon victories were being accompanied by tragedies. Friends and competitors died leaving Joey to question his future involvement with the sport.
But he pressed on. Merely two weeks after losing his brother-in-law Joey was racing at the Isle of Man TT. For those unfamiliar with the event, it runs on the 38 mile-long Snaefell Mountain Course. The route features 219 turns as it winds through villages and towns from sea level at the coast to a maximum elevation of over 400 m (1,300 ft). Running the course is reserved for only a select few talented and brave enough to do so. I can only imagine the dedication and desire that Joey possessed to get on his bike after such a personal loss.
Building a Dynasty
Joey won the Isle of Man TT that year. Such is the trademark of the Dunlop family – in difficult times they turn to their bikes and use them to cope. As his story gained popularity, younger brother Robert also began racing and was successful in his own right. Not quite as stoic as Joey, Robert liked to entertain the cameras but also expressed his concerns about road courses.
In 1994 Robert’s fears became a reality when he crashed at the Isle of Man. It was a serious incident which he was lucky to survive. Doctors believed he would recover and be able to walk again one day, but never race. Yet his tenacity was underestimated by the professionals and just two years later Robert was back on the circuit. Once again, the Dunlop story echoed the phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. 4 years after his near fatal accident, Robert returned to the Isle of Man and won his class.
The Next Generation
William Dunlop, one of Robert’s sons, followed in his father’s footsteps and began racing in the year 2000. His younger brother, Michael, soon joined the ranks. Without a doubt the two boys had access to everything they needed in order to get a head start in the sport: equipment, connections, and a famous family name. However their father didn’t dedicate himself solely to their careers. He continued to race while he still could.
The facts have been written many years ago (and repeated in this post) so the outcome of the movie shouldn’t be a surprise. There are so many details you can read about but need to see, that warrant a screening. William and Michael’s retelling of the 2008 race that took their dad’s life is dramatic if not austere. Confronted with a nightmare of a situation the brothers do the only thing they know how – race.
I don’t think any bad of what had happened and everything. I think, you know, it’s a great career he’s had and […] other people look at it and think it’s sad, but you’re very proud of what he’s done. You just know that you’re part of something great.
Road Racing Today
The sport of road racing continues to thrive although not without criticisms. Simply put it has not been getting any safer whereas many other forms of motorsport prioritize the well-being of the athlete. Dating back to 1911, 257 competitors have died on the Snaefell course (this includes the Isle of Man TT and Manx Grand Prix). Whenever a new fatality is reported I see the same re-hashed article pop up countless times on websites. Should the Isle of Man TT be Banned? It’s Time We End the TT. Internet commenters love getting into the fray, because of course they do.
The risk factor is why many riders participate and why many people watch. They are modern gladiators wrangling their machines in a fight against the track. It’s a spectacle. And it will continue because these events are ingrained in the British Isles’ mores.
Motorcycle riding in any form is inherently dangerous – this notion lives in the back of my mind anytime I go for a ride. It’s also why I am not so thrilled about riding on the street anymore and am trying to do more track days. Personally, I believe road races can be made safer without losing any of the thrill. I’d prefer to see a competitor walk away from a crash in order to return again. New technologies can help with this cause, such as Dainese’s line of D-air equipment with integrated air bags. Bell uses their MIPS system in helmets to reduce the forces exerted on a rider’s head.
Perhaps some sort of catch fencing, similar to what’s used in ski slalom courses, can be designed for road racing? That may help prevent crashes like this one by Conor Cummins in 2010 (he survived):
Until then, let’s appreciate the level of commitment displayed by these riders in their pursuit of speed.
Road can be purchased online but is also currently available on Netflix for streaming.