Heroes: Joey Dunlop

We regularly bow down before all the great personalities, heroes and legends of racing. It has already been more than 15 years since we said goodbye to one of the most successful road racers of all time. In Joey Dunlop, we lost a fine human being, who is still revered as an unforgettable role model.

Even now, the KTM BLOG can find nothing more to add to the moving obituary of the Irish legend that appeared in the September issue of “MO” magazine’s millennium year.

He was the most successful road racer of all time. And he will remain so. Forever.

Real heroes make do with very few words. Real heroes are all about action. They carry children from burning buildings, they don’t worry about share prices, they don’t dye their little beards and fool about on-camera, and they don’t die of heart failure having stuffed their faces in a luxury brothel. Joey Dunlop was a hero. He was a road racer, perhaps the last and greatest of his fraternity. He only had a vague interest in safeguards, courage was what mattered to him. He didn’t mess about with risk, risk was simply part of the game. He had no time for all the marketing drivel earnestly put forward for publicity purposes by protagonists wanting to advertise Motorsport.

Honda Joey Dunlop

Joey Dunlop liked to win, and he had a weakness for Honda motorcycles. He had been riding this brand of bike since 1981, and in 1983, won the TT Formula 1 World Championship on an RS 920. In the final and deciding race of the Ulster GP, only two points separated him from his strongest adversary, Rob McElnea. Whoever won at Ulster, would also become World Champion. As you would expect in Ireland, it was raining on race day. It was pouring. Dunlop took the lead on his home track on the very first bend, and was timed at 272 km/h as he surged down the finishing straight. Joey Dunlop was unbeatable under these conditions. The legend of the King of Road Racers was born on this day. Overall, he was a five-time winner of the Formula 1 World Championship – which is looked on as the forerunner to Superbikes. Bonds were forged. Today there are still three bikes in his garage with the wing emblem on their tanks. He also had these three machines with him when he set out for Tallinn, in remote Estonia, for a race that was to be his last.

He was 17 when he rode his first race. On a Triumph Tiger Cub. His first street motorcycle was a 250cm3 BSA. Money was tight when he started racing. It was John Rea, a haulage owner and former sponsor of Dunlop, who brought the man from Ballymoney to the Isle of Man. This was in 1975. He and both his 2-stroke Yamahas were ferried across on a fishing boat. He enjoyed his first sight of the island from the back of a delivery truck. “I was on the back, holding on tight to the two bikes,” he remembered, “the delivery truck no longer had a tailgate, but I still couldn’t see much. The first practice session was on the Monday morning, and I had no idea which way to go. In the first circuit, I got to the Ballacraine Crossing and stopped to wait for a rider to follow. When he disappeared from view, I eased up on the throttle again and waited for the next one, until he too disappeared into the distance. Now I drive the route in the car before the practice sessions, so that I can check whether anything has been done to the road surface or the bends.”

Honda 1995 IOM TT JoeyDunlop RC45

Joey Dunlop really rated the Isle of Man circuit. That year, he was celebrating 25-years of racing on the island. It is questionable whether he really liked the ultra-fast, almost 60-kilometer TT circuit. But the high-speed dance between manhole covers, houses and sharp-edged natural stone walls suited his style of racing, in any case. His sport was the struggle with the secrets of the track, rather than hard braking maneuvers heading into the bends. Tough street circuits were perfect for him. He was one of those riders who understood being on the road with at least 90% of the options, whatever the circumstances. Sort of race-like touring. Unspectacular, but if, like him, you can keep your concentration for a long time, then you can get some really outstanding lap times under your belt. Anyway, a Formula 1 race in the TT lasts for around two hours. Many up-and-coming riders were seriously exasperated by the ease and composure of Dunlop’s riding. He was one of those riders who had mastered the trick of hitting the proverbial beermat on a 200 km/h bend. And not just once, but on every lap. His riding wasn’t daring, it wore you down. Bend after bend was taken like clockwork. The precision that marked his riding style was obvious to those riding with him. Where others took fright after the fourth bend, he remained resolutely on course, as if guided by a higher power. Once he admitted frankly: “The established stars will beat me on every Grand Prix circuit. But I come out on top on every tricky street circuit.”

BuenosDias 1985 TTF1 Assen JD-Roger Marshall

Away from the track, Joey Dunlop was a pub landlord in Ballymoney, where he was born. He was a heavy drinker and smoker, purely because of his job. Under these circumstances, it seemed inevitable that his hobby would be playing darts. In recent years, admittedly, the father of five tried abstinence to revamp his barkeeper image into something more befitting a responsible athlete, but his fans and admirers still saw in him the man who liked a drink, and could race at a mind-boggling speed. Definitely not a bad image for an Irishman. After all, Rory Gallagher only played the guitar really well if he had a bottle of whiskey. Which is why the people loved him. He was one of their own. He stepped into the breach for them. He showed the smarmy idiots with their lank, oily hair that he was both a loser and a winner. He was “yer maun”. He was a curious mixture of full-time racer, mechanic, and full-time pub landlord in the railway station at Ballymoney, the town of his birth. The pub’s official name is The Peg, corresponding to the bung in the cask, but to the locals, it is only ever known as Joey’s Bar. In England, he was one of the most famous sportsmen, at home in Northern Ireland, he was a hero, an idol, a legend and a superstar, as well as being the nice and sometimes shy guy-next-door. He was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his sporting success. He was also awarded the highly respected OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his charity work and the relief campaigns he conducted himself in Bosnia and Romania. Without making a fuss about it, of course. That simply wasn’t his style. He rarely let himself get carried away, limiting his comments to nothing more extravagant than “nice place” or “good race”, so there was plenty of room left for the legends. Such as the one about the man who traveled to the Isle of Man in late autumn, to chase round the circuit at night in a hire car with the lights off. Or the one who in his final successes, grabbed his race bike at night, to perfect his art of committing to memory the last, dark hiding places. Or the one who got stranded with an empty tank, who collected a little gasoline for his 125cm3 bike in a paper cup, then added a shot of fork oil for mixture lubrication, meaning that he still managed to make the timed practice session for the next class. Also doing the rounds was a story about a business acquaintance with money problems. He wanted to borrow a large amount from Dunlop, who turned him down. After that, the business partner took his own life. The troubled Joey Dunlop took refuge in oblivion. He traveled to Estonia, to ride races, to forget. His racing fortune deserted him, or he staked everything on the one card. With the benefit of hindsight, there are many possible ways to view what went on. He really just fell victim to the wrong tire choice. A mistake, an account inexorably paid for all time.

Honda IOM TT Dunlop-Denkmal

He knew the circuit in Estonia, and after winning the first two races, he banked on the track drying slightly, and put on an intermediate rear tire. The rear wheel of his 125cm3 bike skidded as he accelerated out of a difficult combination bend, and Dunlop was hurled into some trees right next to the track. He died instantly. What would, on a regular Grand Prix track, have resulted in a throbbing head and contusions, cost Dunlop his life. Quick, dramatic, final. He died a hero’s death. We would have all liked to have seen more of him on the Isle of Man. And eventually, in the distant future, he would simply have disappeared. In the low ground of Bray Hill, the road would simply have swallowed him up forever. No longer would he be seen elegantly taking the bend at Quarter Bridge. He would have stayed on the Isle of Man forever. A flying racer in the middle of the Irish Sea. He is bound to be back on the Isle of Man next year. You will see a little, gray-haired man out of the corner of your eye. He will be holding a paper cup of beer, and the pinched off butt of a cigarette. And there will be those who swear that they heard him mumble a quick “bloody idiots”.

Photos: Buenos Dias | Honda