Joey Dunlop - a short Biography ...... cont'd (3)

As to actually competing, Joey himself once told me that he began racing in 1969, at Maghaberry, riding a Triumph Tiger Cub bought with £50 of borrowed money. Ivan Davison, road race convener to the Ulster centre of the MCUI, also believes Maghaberry was the place. A Maghaberry programme certainly exists from April 1969 listing J Dunlop amongst the entries. Yet Brendan is ‘1000 per cent sure’ that the meeting in question was at Kirkistown on Easter Monday 1969, and he should know because he helped pay for the bike. He thinks Joey finished ‘about sixteenth’. The Tiger Cub was a simple 199cc push-rod single developing perhaps 10 horsepower. Although scarcely a device for giving anyone a taste for genuine speed, it had enough about it to get the young Dunlop hooked.

The Motor Cycle Road Racing Club of Ireland ran three meetings that year at Maghaberry, a former military airfield that would later become a prison. In the first two meetings, the 200cc event was won by Ray McCullough, already a star and destined to become Joey’s foremost rival in the mid-Seventies. Joey himself failed to figure in the top six, and it would be another two years before he’d reach such giddy heights. In one of those races, on board another Cub, was Davy Wood, who would later become Joey’s unofficial manager: "It was around June. All I can remember is that we both finished. The stars were long gone."

Merv Robinson’s own career had begun, according to Brendan, with ‘just one or two meetings in 1967 on a 197cc Villiers borrowed from Frank Kennedy. In 1968 he built a 175 Bantam. He was a good engineer and it was a really special machine, with a one-off frame made from Reynolds 531 tubing, disc-valve induction and driving through a Tiger Cub gearbox. But he only raced it about twice that year, and once in 1969, then swapped me for the Tiger Cub. Its first meeting was at Temple.’

If the start of both men’s career was downbeat, the reason was as much poor equipment as slow-burning talent. When Robo acquired his own Tiger Cub, their budget was so feeble and spare parts so scarce that, as Helen remembers, ‘they were struggling to qualify. Often they had to go in different heats because they didn’t have enough parts to make two complete bikes, so they had to swap some bits over.’ With only one serviceable machine between them, whichever qualified better got to race.

But though he may have lacked for parts, support was a constant. "Joey was always very close to his dad," explains Linda, "and took him to the races every weekend. His dad played a big part in his life." In those early days, fettling the machine was initially down to Willie, who recalls his first faltering attempts at tuning for speed. "‘We skimmed the head to raise the compression, and bolted on a different carb. We ended up building up the piston crown with weld, then Robo machined it down on his lathe. It was good for 100mph, downhill at Mid Antrim."

Jackie Graham, shortly to join the Dunlop entourage, remembers the Triumph as "a pretty rough thing, with bits and pieces welded to it where the frame broke, and a footrest. It was a fairly tatty wee bike. Joey had a Mini Traveller. To get to meetings he’d take the wheels out of the bike and shove it in the back." But there were signs of the loner then too. "You weren’t always sure Joey wanted you there in those days. He didn’t want you seeing him make a mess of it. So he and his father tended to sneak away to the races."

Far from being the emerging road racer, "his early races were on the shorts," says Linda, "Aghadowey, about five miles from here, and Bishopscourt. Och it was just a bit of fun. We didn’t take it seriously – it was just one big friendly family having fun. But he always put his all into it, even when we had nothing. He never gave up, even if people were laughing at him. They were very poor days, Minis and trailers, doing without to pay for the bikes. There was no sponsorship."

Support was mounting, however, as more friends and family joined in what was still as much a social as a competitive pursuit. Sister Virginia, six years Joey’s junior, was a fiercely loyal member of this growing army who came close to fist-fighting rival fans at Temple one year. Not that there was much of a reputation to defend initially. "‘I remember early on at Kirkistown when Brian Steenson and Cecil Crawford came first and second," she chuckles, "and we had to wait about 15 minutes for Joey and Merv to appear. It seemed like forever – like two different races. But we loved it. Until our kids arrived, we’d go to the races every weekend."

The trade-mark yellow helmet had also yet to appear. Joey raced initially wearing a primitive pudding-basin lid with an ivy leaf motif on the front, in tribute to his hero, the late Bill Ivy. Brendan McMullen remembers it well: "It was silver grey, and we were up until about 4.00 trying to draw that ivy. In the end we used a sycamore leaf as a pattern. You have to remember that Merv was a big Phil Read fan, so that made for a bit of fun between the two of them." In the mid-Sixties, there was no greater racing rivalry than that between Yamaha team-mates Ivy and Read.

A bright yellow open-face ‘jet’ design helmet followed in 1971. The first full-face was a yellow Boeri donated by John Boyd, a Suzuki dealer from Ballymena. Although some friends recall that this had a seam down the middle which was covered with tape, contemporary photographs clearly show the stripes to be factory applied. Whatever its graphics, it was "a really sloppy fit – he had to put some extra foam inside to stop it wobbling about". The first of several Kangol lids seems to have appeared in 1978, initially plain yellow but with a black stripe from 1979. In March 1982 Joey signed with Top Tek (Kangol’s successor), before donning the familiar Arai in 1983.

Joey’s first road race, also on the Triumph, came at the Temple 100 in 1970, riding number 32 in the 200cc handicap event. His earliest surviving trophy, a small, slightly battered silver metal cup, sits on a table in the sitting room. The engraving reads: ‘Mid Antrim 5th place 1972 200cc class.

’In the room next door in the house on Garryduff Road, a couple of miles outside Ballymoney, are later, loftier spoils. Five FIM plaques, awarded for Joey’s World Formula One titles, grace the left-hand wall, along with an Irish Post Special Millennium Award for Sport. On the dining table is daughter Donna’s half-finished jigsaw puzzle of the Southern 100 races, her father’s unmistakable yellow helmet centre picture. The spiral staircase to the upper floor was inspired by one in the hotel at Belgium’s Zolder circuit, where dad clinched his third world title in 1984. Between that modest battered cup and the jigsaw lies the greatest career that motorcycle road racing has ever seen.

Mac McDiarmid

"The rest is history", as they say ................

Joey Dunlop - The Authorised Biography

Joey Dunlop - His Authorised Biography.

Extracts of this book by Mac McDiarmid and published by Haynes Publishing are used throughout this website.

Recommended retail price: £25.00

ISBN 978 1 84425 940 3

Many thanks to Mac & Haynes Publishing.





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