Beyond the limit: Experiencing the Ulster Grand Prix
Motorsport.com's Covy Moore experienced the thrilling Ulster Grand Prix first-hand.
For a very long time I have always admired the men and women who take on the massive course at the Isle of Man TT.
But it wasn’t until only a couple years ago that I found my first Irish road race video online. It wasn’t a time trial. They released all the bikes together, like any other normal circuit race.
I had the opportunity to travel around Ireland for ten days this month on my honeymoon, and on top of that, my racing-loving wife was just as excited as I was to witness the Ulster Grand Prix.
The Ulster Grand Prix is an annual road race that is approaching its 100th anniversary. World Champions, down to passionate riders take to the 7.4 mile course in County Antrim near Dundrod. It is a normal stop for famed commentator Murray Walker, so you know it must be special.
It is billed as the world’s fastest road race, as its average speed is the highest of all the international Irish road races held in that country.
Nothing like witnessing it first-hand
Having spent a few years watching highlights of this event, and even a documentary or two on the personalities that take part, I had a good idea of what to expect. However, what I didn’t expect was the sheer shock of seeing it all in person.
First thing in the morning, the 170 riders with, typically, two or more bikes line up for a kilometer to have their bike inspected before they are allowed to take on the Dundrod Circuit.
I spent a few minutes mulling around scrutineering. It is a slightly less involved process than that which you would see at a bigger race such as Le Mans, but still an important one. Dozens of bikes pack a tiny building where men in red coveralls check over the hundreds of bikes.
By 9 am, there are track closing vehicles racing around the circuit to clear the course. We hopped on the media shuttle (a rather tall, Mercedes-Benz manufactuered van) and the driver takes off from the start finish line.
The volunteers who put on this event have obviously been around for some time, as this fellow driving was abolsolutely full out. Asking which corner we want to be dropped in, I decide on the only one I know in which the sun would be at my back first thing in the morning. The Lindsay Hairpin.
I have been around motorcycle road racing for some time. I have great friends who compete at the national level here in Canada, but nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing can prepare you for what you witness at any Irish road race.
Telephone poles, fences, trees, hedges, buildings, dry stone walls, spectators…there is nothing that screams safety about this place. While waiting for the first of seven races to go off, a few track workers removed a sign pole from the hairpin I was stationed in.
Then Darude’s Sandstorm started blasting over the speaker system as you could hear the bikes revving up. Three waves of more than 20 bikes are released, and even being miles down the road, you can hear it.
Aside from the sound, which can be reasonably inaccurate for determining the location of the bikes on this hilly circuit, a helicopter following the leaders comes flying over the hillside, alerting us of bikes approaching.
I photographed the first couple bikes, but then had to put the camera down to enjoy the absolute madness of dozens of bikes heading into the hairpin, and then accelerating as hard as possible out.
Each race we tried to get to a new location, but once the rain started falling and a couple red flags for accidents came out, our chances of the media shuttle coming by got slimmer and slimmer.
The lead pack was something to see. Typically 3-6 bikes keeping pace with one another dropping their knees only inches from the various hazards (or what the riders call, furniture). Any time I would watch this spectacle online, I always thought “These guys are mad. Absolutely mad.”
But now that I have experienced it, I feel there is no other form of racing remaining on this planet (aside from Rally) that comes close to the barebones love of speedy competition than Irish road racing.
A day marred by tragedy
Unfortunately, the day was not without tragedy as 24-year-old Scotsman Andy Lawson would make a rare mistake through one of the more extravagant corners called Deer’s Leap. A massive downhill straight that begins out of a blindingly fast right hander.
He was killed instantly after being thrown from the bike. A very long delay would follow as emergency services would tend to the young rider, but to no avail. I was stationed in a corner called Lough’s Corner when it occurred, and everyone knew it was serious when a police escorted ambulance drove past, certainly not at emergency speeds.
In the end, however, his family insisted the event continue to its completion. Three more races would be run. From the other members of the media we spoke with, that is standard procedure. If the family wants the event to continue, it will continue.
There is a love and passion in the men and women who take to closed Irish public roads and risk their life that is unrivaled. In a health and safety obsessed world it is like nothing you will see anywhere.
If you have the chance to even stop by one of the national events, held on smaller courses throughout Ireland, do it. You will not be disappointed.
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