The tiny Isle of Man, floating between Ireland and Britain in the Irish sea, is a unique place. As a self-governing Crown dependency, it boasts the oldest continuously serving parliament in the world; with Manx, it has its own language set apart from Irish and Scots Gaelic. Its people are British citizens and the head of state is the Queen. The roads? They’re still ruled by a king.
William Joseph Dunlop, better known as Joey, was born Feb. 25, 1952, in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, in a cottage without running water. His home was a few miles from the village and in many ways Dunlop never left the country and the country never left Dunlop. But in 1969, at a race at the former Maghaberry airfield, he threw his leg over a 199cc Triumph Cub and took his first step towards becoming motorcycle racing’s greatest hero.
“I had gone down to see Ray McCullough, who was everyone’s hero at the time,” said Tim Allen, who became the main Honda motorcycle dealer in the area, delivering Dunlop his racing bikes. “And there was this wee lad giving Ray some trouble in the race. I saw him walking up the paddock, all scruffy and long-haired, like an oil slick in racing leathers, and asked, ‘Who’s that?’ Ah, it’s your man Dunlop, like.”
“Yer Maun,” as Dunlop came to be affectionately known in the Northern Ireland patois, would go on to win 26 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy races, more than anyone else, ever. He dominated the Formula One motorcycling championship, winning for five consecutive years from 1982 to 1986. He was also crowned victor of the Ulster Grand Prix 24 times and won the North West 200 race 13 times.
In his final appearance racing here at the Isle of Man in 2000, he was 48, greying and cheerful. That year he won three races, including the Formula One race, his third hat-trick at the TT. He remains the only rider to have done so and the award given every year to the most successful rider at the Isle of Man races is called the Joey Dunlop Championship TT. People called him the King of the Roads.
Joey Dunlop is a name that should ring in the halls of victory with the same grandeur as the likes of Schumacher, Stewart, Moss, Senna. In motorcycling circles it does, but Dunlop was never one to enjoy the limelight. “I never really wanted to be a superstar,” he said after what would be his final TT victories. “I just wanted to be myself. I hope people remember me that way.”
What’s remembered today, nearly two decades after Dunlop’s death on July 2, 2000, in a racing accident in Estonia, is a quiet, intensely shy man, who was used to doing things his way. In those early days he would often sneak away to races with his father, the racing bike crammed into the back of an old Mini Traveller van. Money was short – there were no sponsors yet – and Dunlop had to mend and make do.
Yet, cobbling together a racing bike with no budget was the sort of thing Dunlop’s childhood had prepared him for. His father, Willie, was a mechanic by trade and had even rigged the Dunlop family home with a makeshift windmill to provide electricity. The pair would work long hours in the garage, coming in late with oily hands and grease trapped under their fingernails.
Dunlop’s two great friends in the early days were Mervyn Robinson and Frank Kennedy. The three had met picking potatoes and all soon became involved in motorcycle racing. Robinson and Dunlop were so short of funds that they often entered in different heats so they could share parts to get their bikes to run. Along with Dunlop’s younger brother, Jim, the group was referred to as the Armoy Armada, a reference to the nearby village and a dig at a nearby rival team of riders.
Road-racing is as different from circuit racing as Formula One is from rally. The consequences of crashing are huge: broken bodies and the ends of careers and lives. Riders jokingly refer to fences, trees and ditches as the “furniture.”
If the Isle of Man is the crucible of speed in motorcycle road racing, then Northern Ireland is its cradle. The locals like to say there’s something in the water, but the truth is that the countryside lends itself to the sport. Riders grow up on roads that are narrow, twisting, grown-over by trees and lined with stone fences.
The people are tough but warm, a curious co-mingling of sardonic Scot and welcoming Irish. Northern Ireland is, of course, known for The Troubles, long years of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. But when Dunlop’s fans came to watch, there were no dividing lines, no walls between the people. Dunlop rode for himself, but carried the hearts of all of Ulster.
His big break came in 1977, on a Yamaha TZ 750 sponsored by Rea Haulage. John Rea was a family friend of the Dunlops and both his son and grandson would both go on to successful motorcycle racing careers. His early support in the 1970s allowed Dunlop to eventually record his first TT win at the ’77 Jubilee Classic.
Then Honda came calling. My father remembers seeing British rider Mike Hailwood show up at the Ulster Grand Prix on a Honda in the 1960s and put the boots to the established Italian bikes. Soichiro Honda had started his company with motorcycles and by the 1980s, Honda bikes were a force to be reckoned with.
The difficulty was that Joey was still Joey. He insisted on working on his own bikes, quietly tuning and improving them. He trusted the work of his own hands and of the mechanics he knew. The shining spotlessness of a modern racing team was foreign to him.
The Japanese, for their part, were bemused by this long-haired Ulsterman who was far too quiet in front of the cameras to be much of a PR person. Eventually, however, they had to relent, sending motorcycles to Allen’s Honda where Dunlop could take them home and add a bit of himself to the machine. Because he could ride. It wasn’t recklessness, it wasn’t a lack of fear. It was just that Dunlop, the plain-spoken country man from Ballymoney, housed within himself raw, burning talent. His racing was fast, pure, clean-lined and joyous. Off the bike, he mumbled; on the bike, he flew.
The legends surrounding Dunlop are endless. The time he was shipwrecked in a fishing boat on the way to the TT, then won on a bike pulled from the bottom of the sea. The countless humanitarian trips he made to Eastern European orphanages, driving his own van loaded with food and supplies.
The crash that broke his pelvis and collar bone and took his wedding finger off – but that he came back from to win again. His superstitions and lucky charms; always riding wearing a red T-shirt and yellow helmet, waving to the magpies in the hedgerows when driving his van. The time he was invited as a marquee guest to the largest motorcycle show in Birmingham, England, and fellow racer John McGuinness spotted him politely waiting in the queue to buy a ticket to get in.
“He was just an ordinary person,” Allen said. “He had undeniable talent, but if you saw him in town he would stop and have a cup of tea with you. Even when he was racing, I think he was just happy to be among his people.”
Road-racing of the type mastered by Dunlop is incredibly dangerous. It killed him, it killed his friends, it killed his brother, Robert. Just last month, Dunlop’s nephew, William Dunlop, was killed in a crash at the Southern 100 in Ireland. He was only 26.
But the statue here that looks down on Bungalow Bend on the Snaefell mountain course that Joey Dunlop loved so well is not a tribute to a daredevil's need to tap into the adrenaline of a momentary rush. Nor does it pay homage to a hero who fell while striving to achieve fame and glory.
No, the real reason Joey Dunlop is and shall evermore remain the king of the Isle of Man is that he was an ordinary human being who achieved extraordinary things, but remained true to himself. Out on the course, engine revved past 11,000 rpm, heart beating to match, fences and trees flashing past.
Crest the hill over the bridge, feel the steering go light and the bike taking flight. Soaring beyond this earthly plane. Superhuman, but still a man. Still our Joey.