The Dunlop Road-Racing Dynasty

The Dunlop Road-Racing Dynasty

Motorcycle road races are uniquely dangerous and uniquely thrilling. Since 1911, the Isle of Man TT has claimed the lives of two hundred and sixty five riders. This year, spiralling insurance costs have led to the cancellation of most of the famous road races held annually in Northern Ireland. This summer there will be no Cookstown 100, Ulster Grand Prix or North West 200. Perhaps it is the end of an era and health and safety stipulations will close down the sports in entirety.

Since the 1970s, road racing has been dominated by the Dunlop family from Ballymoney, North Antrim. Joey (1952-2000) was the undisputed king of TT racing. Over a twenty three year period, between 1977 and 2000, Joey notched up no less than 26 wins in the Isle of Man. This record will never be surpassed. Joey’s death, when it came, seemed so unnecessary. In the wake of the death of a close friend and sponsor, and well past an age when common sense might have suggested retirement beckoned, Joey travelled to Estonia to compete in a pretty obscure race. In the middle of a torrential downpour, he lost control of his bike and the unthinkable became reality. The seemingly invincible Joey was no more and legions of fans were left in a state of disbelief. His funeral was attended by over 50,000 mourners. The streets were lined with those who had followed Joey down the years.

In what now seems like another life, I was involved in the organisation of Joey’s memorial service in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Liaising with the Irish Motorcycle Association, I gained a personal insight into the single-minded courage of those addicted to a sport that could often be so unspeakably cruel. Some years later, the TT races would claim the life of the father of someone else known to me and so I have had good reason to reflect upon the dangers associated with the sport.

Robert, William and Michael Dunlop
Robert, William and Michael Dunlop

Joey’s younger brother Robert loved the limelight and was a very talented racer himself. Charming, charismatic and brave, he survived several terrible crashes and, at one point, he was told that he would never walk again; let alone race. Never to be deterred, he returned to racing – first on 125cc bikes and then back to 250cc machines.

The Dunlops were not just great racers but they were supremely talented engineers. Nobody else could coax as good a performance out of a two-stroke engine as the Dunlops. The speeds involved in road racing are frightening. The fastest average lap speed on the TT circuit is 135 mph whilst the fastest speed was recorded by Bruce Antsey on the Sulby Straight. Riding a modified Suzuki GSX-R1000, he clocked 206 mph. Despite his brother’s death, Robert carried on racing into his forties. On 15th May, 2008, Robert died from injuries sustained in a crash during a practice session on the North West 200. Just two days after his death, his two sons, William and Michael, decided to participate in the same 250cc race that Robert had been due to compete in. The race organisers said that they were in no fit state to race but the brothers took to the grid, and in front of the assembled crowds the track officials were powerless. William’s bike failed him before the starting flag but Michael sped off into contention. In a gladiatorial duel which should go down in the annals of road racing, the nineteen year old Michael fought his way to victory. Whether driven by grief or a desire to make his father proud, Michael raced with an edge that is so brilliant that it is exhausting and nerve-wracking to watch. With tears streaming down his face, he acknowledged the support of the crowd before leaving to bury his father the following day.

Ten years later, his brother William died after injuries sustained at the Skerries 100 after a malfunction with his machine. He was just 33 years old. Despite losing his brother, father and uncle, Michael continues to race to this day and he continues to push back the frontiers of what is possible.

For one family to experience such extreme levels of triumph and tragedy is, of itself, remarkable. Narrated by Liam Neeson, the 2014 documentary, ‘Road’ tells the story of the Dunlops’ obsession with motorcycles. Now available on Amazon Prime, it is described as a ‘heartbreaking and adrenaline-fuelled tale’ and this is surely something of an understatement.

Of course, there are those who would question the Dunlops’ obsession and some have even described their refusal to stop racing as selfish. They reference the terrible impact that their deaths have had upon their immediate family. I do understand that perspective and yet I cannot help but admire the Dunlops’ courage and single-minded devotion to racing. Their lives have been defined by the pursuit of perfection and the relentless desire to win. Their courage, charm and determination to live life on their own terms and not in deference to the needs of others marks them out as exceptional human beings. I would argue that humanity needs exceptional outliers who live in accordance with an ideal or a passion. Champions such as the Dunlops operate in a creative space suspended between life and death, triumph and tragedy. They dance within a zone which is exhilarating because it exposes the fragility of life and the extraordinary potential that lies within each and every one of us. It is a zone filled with beauty, sorrow and courage. It is a zone which elevates us from the mundane and allows us to believe in the impossible. Their feats enrich the lives of the 99% of us who will never enter that zone.

Free-climbers such as Alex Honnold perform precisely the same function. His legendary ascent of El Capitan is about more than one man’s desire to prevail over a rock face. Extreme sports offers us glimpses of something transcendental, something that provides meaning and purpose to our existences. Road racers live life with a vital vividness that is perhaps only shared by those who feel that their days are slipping away from them. Tomorrow comes with no guarantees. Road racers remind us that, on one level, there is only ever today.

I do not think it is possible to justify the terrible losses that occur in road racing. However, there is a purity in the determination and courage that racers such as the Dunlops exhibit and we can learn plenty from this. The word legend is bandied about all too often but the Dunlops are total legends – they are giants amongst men. If you have the opportunity to watch ‘Road’ then you will be left with many more questions than answers and that is just fine.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School