Three years after the checkered flag fell in the final North West 200 race, Northern Ireland‘s first motorcycling showpiece will deliver a high-octane shot in the arm to the sport after two seasons thwarted by the pandemic of coronavirus.
he Cookstown 100 was the only national meeting that took place in 2020 and 2021, and although the Armoy ‘Race of Legends’ also took place last summer, all the other Irish road races – plus the iconic Isle of Man TT – have been canceled due to Covid -19 restrictions.
However, the bikes are back in 2022 and the Cookstown and Tandragee 100 meetings last month whetted the appetite for the return of the North West, which is the first major road race to take place since the Macau Grand Prix in November 2019.
The Portrush paddock – the beating heart of the jewel in Ireland’s motorcycling crown – is already starting to fill up as the world’s best road racers and their teams make a much-anticipated return to big road racing.
And with the debt-stricken Ulster Grand Prix canceled for the third consecutive year after an £800,000 government funding scheme for Ulster motorcycling failed in March, the North- West takes on even more importance.
Crowds of over 80,000 attend the event, generating a huge £12million boost to the local economy, and the unique appeal of the historic race has been sorely missed in recent years.
A man who knows more than most about the North West 200’s status as one of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated sporting occasions is former longtime race manager Billy Nutt, who has resigned his post in 2000 and handed over to the current race manager. Mervin Whyte.
“It just has a completely different buzz, even compared to the Ulster Grand Prix,” Nutt said.
“The North West has something special and so does the TT. It’s a unique course because there are three big straights and the speed is amazing. There was such a buzz around the place during the week race.
“We had guys like Steve Parrish who came in and rode the course in his Rolls Royce and then you had Tony Rutter who came in his little transit van with a few bikes and came out and beat them all – except Raymond McCullough!
“The racing has always been absolutely brilliant and the location really sets the North West apart with its location on the coastal road,” added Nutt.
“There is a holiday atmosphere in the event and you have all the restaurants, bars and nightclubs; and in my time, everyone came to party.
“Saturday was the serious business of race day, but Saturday night was party time and once everyone had sobered up they went home happy on Sunday.”
Road racing legend Phillip McCallen’s name is synonymous with the North West, where “Supermac” won a record five races in one day in 1992.
The Portadown man is an 11-time winner of the event and is now part of the BBC NI broadcast team at the race, which marked its 90th anniversary in 2019.
“I think it’s great to see the race again and I don’t think people can believe it’s actually happening again,” McCallen said.
“I think everyone is excited and we’re just praying for reasonable weather next week. The riders are thrilled and just want to come back, as are the fans because it’s also a huge social occasion.
“I don’t think the fact that the race hasn’t been held in recent years will make a difference to the riders because the top riders have raced every week in the British Superbike Championship or elsewhere.
“They are all already connected and it will not be a problem for them. Those early rounds on Tuesday will just be a matter of getting a feel for the place and after that it will be like they never left,” he added.
“Some of the guys lower down the order, who don’t have the advantage of racing as often as the big names, might need a few more laps to adjust, but overall it won’t be not a problem.
“Our own runners who travel the Irish roads have been to Cookstown and Tandragee, so they’ll be connected as well and they’ll be up to date in no time.
“Everything is ready and like everyone else I can’t wait to get back up to the North Coast next week because it’s such a fantastic event.”
Roads are closed for the opening practice sessions on Tuesday from 9:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. and again at the same time on Thursday for final qualifying.
The first three races in the Supersport, Superstock and Supertwin categories will take place on Thursday evening, when the roads are closed between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The roads will close next Saturday from 9:15 a.m. for the five-race main program and reopen no later than 7 p.m.
The showpiece Superbike races are headlined, when Carrickfergus man Glenn Irwin will look to extend his unbeaten run in the category after winning the last four races on Ducati and Kawasaki machines.
Irwin lines up for the Honda Racing UK team this time alongside 23-time Isle of Man TT winner John McGuinness, who returns to the Honda fold as he prepares for a 100th TT start in June.