Northern Ireland

North West 200 roars to its 90th year

Big crowds watch riders racing in the North West 200 Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The North West 200 consistently draws crowds to the north coast for racing action

When the North West 200 was first held, the winning riders averaged a dizzying 63mph (101km/h) round the course.

Ninety years on the bikes regularly top 200mph (322km/h) and what started as a race for diehards is now Northern Ireland's biggest annual sports event.

This week about 100,000 spectators will watch transfixed as the high-pitched roar of 100 machines echoes around counties Antrim and Londonderry.

In 1929 each race covered 200 miles - hence the name of the event.

An 11-mile (17.7km) circuit started in Portstewart, went along the promenade, then towards Coleraine across to Portrush and back to the start/finish along the coast road.

Image caption Joey Dunlop became a North West 200 circuit legend

Today, the circuit is somewhat shorter at 8.9 miles (14.3km) and the fastest races cover over just a quarter of the original distance in the blink of an eye.

The start/finish area is now on the north coast with the circuit sitting inside the triangulation points of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush.

Superbike races are run over seven laps, clocking up a modest 67.2 miles (108km).

Home-grown heroes

Nowadays Northern Ireland stars like Alastair Seeley, Glenn Irwin and Michael Dunlop dominate.

Back in 1934 Jimmy Guthrie had four consecutive 500cc wins and set the first lap record of 80mph (129km/h).

In 1957, Jack Brett broke the magical 100mph (161km/h) barrier on Lord Montagu's Norton bike on route to winning the 500cc race.

The last North West 200 to be run over the old circuit was in 1971 when John Cooper (500cc), Paul Smart (350cc) and Derek Chatterton (250cc) won the three classes.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Onboard cameras give road racing fans a rider's-eye view of the fast-paced action

Tom Herron recorded a lap of 127.63mph (205km/h) during the Superbike race in 1978, the fastest on any UK race circuit and a record that amazingly stood until 2003.

On the event's 50th anniversary in 1979, Joey Dunlop won his first race round the Triangle circuit.

Then between 1999 and 2004, Ian Lougher set another record by winning every 125cc race.

Michael Rutter made another slice of history in 2004 by becoming the first rider to record a straight line speed in excess of 200mph during the penultimate lap of the second Superbike race.

BBC Sport NI commentator Phillip McCallen is also a former winner at the North West 200 with five wins from six starts in 1992.

He remains heavily involved in the sport and has seen big changes around the course, not least the introduction of chicanes.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Phillip McCallen has seen major changes to the North West 200 since he started racing

"People think they are solely to slow the bikes down but that's not altogether true," he said.

"They also act as vantage points and reduce the strain on tyres, meaning they don't delaminate and are safer for longer.

Technology, he said, has also changed.

"Tyres are designed for a mostly left-hand turn or mainly right-hand turn circuits and with high compression engine efficiency and improved suspension, less fuel is used.

"At about £10 for five litres (1.1 gallons) and with about 20 litres (4.4 gallons) used per race and per practice session, it's a big saving."

Mobile garages

Paddocks have also changed greatly, according to Phillip.

"In the early days riders lived in caravans and used the awning to work on their bikes.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Improvements in bike technology have made the machines faster and more efficient

"Nowadays it's completely different - they pull-up in liveried commercial trucks with built-in, fully fitted workshops."

And Phillip does not see the North West 200 resting on its laurels, predicting larger paddocks and expanded corporate hospitality.

As the speed increases so does the need for emergency medical cover and a safer circuit.

Emergency services cover is essential for an event the size of the North West 200.

At the beginning there might have been a doctor in the paddock area but as races got faster and crowds swelled, the medical teams also grew in size.

Expanding medical support

In the early 1970s there would have been 16 ambulances around the circuit, supported by just over 50 medical volunteers.

For this year's event there will be more than 150 medical and amateur radio personnel on the ground.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption About 100,000 spectators will watch the racing at the North West 200 this week

And the team has expanded to include doctors, paramedics and first-aiders.

They will be supported by 18 ambulances and two fully-equipped medical vans.

And, if needed, the Air Ambulance Northern Ireland helicopter can be called upon.

Adding to the safety measures there will be more than 800 other volunteers including flag, road and travelling marshals and the public will be in four grandstands or behind 2,000 lengths of fencing.

Also in place will be 1,100 safety bales making the circuit as safe as possible for the 100 riders risking it all to be crowned a champion.

The first practice session for this year's event starts on Tuesday morning (14 May).

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