Those who get it, fall in love with it.
“It’s the sheer, visceral thrill of being that close to the speed, to the noise, to the breeze. Every sense is lit up when you’re at a road race, and until you experience that, you can’t really get it, can’t really understand it,” says photographer Stephen Davison.
The adrenalin trembles through his speech; in his mind’s eye, he is sitting in the hedge as the bikes approach, picturing the narrow country lanes, the sudden roar of the engines, and the smell of the petrol fumes.
“If you stick your nose through the hedge, these things are going past you at 160, 170 miles an hour, and you’re actually part of it … it’s a vortex of speed and noise and colour.”
The heartland of motorcycle road racing — racing bikes on closed public roads — is north Antrim, home to both the North West 200, which attracts more than 100,000 spectators each May, and the Dunlop dynasty, the most successful road racing family ever.
At its head towers the late Joey Dunlop, winner of 26 Isle of Man TT races, the gold standard; his nephew Michael won his 25th this year.
Road racing made Davison a photographer, his creativity drawn in by both the people and the place, by the thrill of speed and the drama of the spectacle. “Whilst it was dangerous, there was a beauty in it.”
His pictures are beautiful. Rural meets modern as a bike snakes its way past a country phonebox; there is triumph on the podium, and tragedy as bikers wait for the remains of Joey Dunlop to be brought home after his death in a crash in Estonia in 2000.
It is the road that makes this type of racing so dangerous. Everything we pass without thought when driving, from trees and telegraph poles to kerbs and lamp-posts, becomes a potentially lethal hazard, guarded by little more than a bale of hay — “no protection, really, if you come into contact with it at speed”.
In the South, there was “not a wheel turned” in road racing this year because they could not get public liability insurance; the North and the Isle of Man are among the few places it persists. “The future is uncertain. It hangs in the balance.”
In many ways, says Davison, road racing is “a throwback … it’s out of time. The oldest races in Ireland are 100 years old, and some of those courses were still being used.
“A lot of things have been done to improve safety but the risk is still huge, obviously, as no one knows better than the Dunlop family, who have lost Joey, [his brother] Robert … and Robert’s son William”, as well as countless other friends and relatives.
“When people are killed or there are injuries, it’s something you do question.”
The racers know the risks better than anyone; why, then, do they keep racing? Davison has only known the buzz, the adrenalin rush, as a spectator. “If that’s what it’s like when you’re standing watching it, what is it not like to be on the bike, to be out there doing it?”
The play, The Safety Catch, which premiered in the Glens Arts Centre in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, last year, explored the dilemma faced by Michael Dunlop as he decided whether to return to racing following his brother William’s death.
It casts his choice as the great classical dilemma, that of the hero Achilles, who knows that tragedy is often the price the gods exact for glory.
Davison’s own comparison is with mountaineering, with those who climb Everest and take on the most extreme challenges. “To me, that’s the same space that road racing occupies at its highest level. It’s the saying, why do you climb a mountain? Because it’s there.”
- The Dunlop Dynasty: The World’s Greatest Road Racing Family by Stephen Davison is available now from Merrion Press.