'They see me as a racer, not a girl' - Melissa Kennedy reflects on historic Killalane triumph

Melissa Kennedy
Melissa Kennedy in action at the Killalane road races

When Melissa Kennedy became the first female rider to win an Irish National road race at Killalane last weekend, among those enjoying her victory most were two of her regular rivals in the Moto3 class.

Kennedy's boyfriend Gary Dunlop, son of late road racing legend Joey, finished third at the event to secure the Irish Championship title, while her brother Wayne, another habitual competitor in the Ultra Lightweights, was unfortunately unable to race after crashing unhurt in practice.

"I felt a bit guilty because I kind of stole Gary's thunder by winning, whereas him winning the championship was really a much bigger thing," Kennedy said.

"I think Gary would rather I stopped racing as he worries about me and before a race is always telling me to take it easy and not to go mad.

"He says it's better that he's out there racing with me though because if he had to stand and watch at the side of the road he'd be even more nervous.

"Wayne started racing before me and I looked up to him, I guess you could say he was a bit of an inspiration. My whole family have always been very supportive of me and I'm lucky to have Gary now too."

'Some of the guys didn't like being beaten by a girl'

Now 28 years old, Kennedy has been racing for 13 years, mainly on short circuits during the early part of her career, and latterly mostly on roads.

She said: "My dad always had a road bike and I thought that it was class, him putting on his leathers and going off on his bike.

"He bought me a motorbike for my 13th birthday and then I started to race, first on a 125cc Aprilia, then a 125cc Honda and now on a Moto3 Honda.

"Some of the guys on the circuits didn't like being beaten by a girl but I don't encounter that sort of attitude at the road races.

"We are all competitive when we're on the track but in the paddock everyone is friends with each other. They see me as a racer, not a girl."

Gary Dunlop and Melissa Kennedy
Gary Dunlop won the Irish road race 125/Moto 3 Championship with his girlfriend Melissa Kennedy second

The 2019 season has proved to be Kennedy's most successful to date, something of a breakthrough year, with her victory at the East Coast Race Festival at Killalane being preceded by four rostrum finishes - second places at Skerries and Faugheen, and third positions at Armoy and Kells.

That series of results was enough to clinch runner-up spot in the Irish Moto3/125 Irish Championship and the Fermanagh woman also claimed a maiden international podium by taking third behind Michal Dokoupil and Christian Elkin at the Ulster Grand Prix in August.

She said: "I couldn't believe that. To stand on the podium at an international was something special. I had been pipped for third there the previous year so I was chuffed to bits to make it this time."

'I felt more nervous than normal'

Her first roads success at the north county Dublin course was no surprise, therefore - though it proved to be a hard-fought triumph, as she edged out Sam Grief by four tenths of a second, with boyfriend Dunlop third in the five-lap race.

She said: "I qualified in pole position on Saturday and as a result I put some extra pressure on myself. I felt a lot more nervous going into the race than normal and I didn't really think that I'd get the win.

"I led for the first three laps but then Sam passed me and I thought that was my chance of victory gone, that I'd let it slip away.

"But I managed to pass him on the last lap on the way into Kennedy's Corner and after that I just kept my head down, tried to push on and concentrated on not making any silly mistakes.

"I was waiting for Sam to come back at me, to come alongside me again somewhere, but thankfully that didn't happen."

Melissa Kennedy
Melissa has been a regular podium finisher at the Irish road races in 2019

After the race, Kennedy received congratulatory tweets from MotoGP television presenter Suzi Perry, international road race competitor Maria Costello and Carolynn Sells - who was the first female competitor to win a race on the Isle of Man Mountain Course in the Ultra-Lightweight class at the 2009 Manx Grand Prix.

"After the race I was overwhelmed by the number of people congratulating me. It is so surreal to have the reaction that I have had. My phone hasn't stopped since," Kennedy said.

"To have the likes of Suzi, Maria and Carolynn sending me messages on social media means a lot."

Not one to rest on her laurels, Kennedy is hoping to build on her victory with more of the same next year.

She said: "I had a rough year in 2018 but this whole season has been fabulous - something has just clicked, I can't really explain it.

"I'm not working at the minute so I've been more relaxed, with more time to stay focused on my racing.

"I'm comfortable on the Moto3 bike so I think I'll stick to what I know. I've got a taste for winning now but just enjoying some good safe racing is my main aim."