My battered iPad was balanced precariously on my lap, my fingers clutched at its edges as I screeched. First there were two racers side-by-side on that narrow road. Then there were three. “Eeeeeeee,” I screeched, as the commentators chattered loudly, rapidly, in the background. Then, another rider inched his way up, coming up on the three, until all four of them were next to each other, side by side, riding at almost 200 kms. I stopped breathing and squeezed my eyes shut.
Yes, you need guts to race the North West 200. And you need a little guts to see the race as well, even if it is streaming live on your iPad.
This was the first time I was watching a roadrace, live as it happened, and each moment left me breathless, gulping for air, pulse racing as I tried to ignore the lump in my throat.
I stopped typing and looked up and around at the coffee shop I was in. It was business as usual around me, muted chatter and the clinking of coffee cups against plates. Yet, my heart was pounding, my brain racing, reliving the fantastic racing I had seen just a little while ago. I was in between races, waiting for a re-start. It was Saturday, May 14, and there was still a lot of racing to be done.
As the news trickled in, the reality of roadracing sank in.
Twenty-year-old Malachi Mitchell-Thomas had died after crashing his Burrows Engineering Kawasaki, on the approach to Black Hill, on the third lap of the Supertwins race. He was immediately treated by the medical staff but succumbed to his injuries at the scene. Just a day earlier, on May 13, Ryan Farquhar (KMR/SGS Kawasaki) and Dan Cooper (Dan Cooper Racing Kawasaki), crashed at almost the exact same spot, during the first Supertwins race. Farquhar and Cooper are both recovering from their injuries.
The news of Malachi’s death was followed by an announcement that racing had been abandoned for the rest of the weekend.
Those questions of racing, especially roadracing, are inevitable. They come with the territory, every single time. Stories are written and couch-racers, all experts (much like myself), bandy about opinions as if we know.
And then there are the ones who really do know. Like Kevin Thomas, Malachi’s father, the man who took his son to the races, camped out with him in a caravan, supporting his son as he lived his dream. “There are risks in everything you do,” Thomas told BBC. “Mal got knocked off his bike by a car when he was six — he could have been killed then. Yes, it is a dangerous sport, but so are other forms of motorsports. So is horse racing.”
“I have lost my best friend—I have lost my son, but he died doing what he wanted to do”
– Kevin Thomas
But it was what he said later that gave me some pause. It should give us all some pause. “He (Malachi) had been doing great things. We did not come here as a big business with a big bank account. We came here through hard grit, determination and mostly a desire to win races. I have never seen desire like he had,” Thomas said.
This desire, this drive to succeed runs through these roadroacers’ veins.
You could see it in Michael, Robert Dunlop’s son, as he took the Superbike victory on his hawk Racing BMW while breaking the outright lap record.
And in Ivan Lintin who took the win for both the Supertwin races.
Then there is Ian Hutchinson whose battle to race is a testament of determination and passion. The Bingley Bullet took the Superstock victory by blazing a phenomenal trail, vying for the first spot with 6 other riders and then a last-minute battle with Seeley.“The last thing I was going to do,” Hutchy said, “was leave myself open to getting nicked at the end. I rode totally different this year, and I was able to do that because the bikes were so strong. I knew what I had underneath me for the last lap, and I knew I could make a plan and make it work.”
You could see that drive in the moment Alastair Seeley passed legendary racer Robert Dunlop’s stupendous record to take 16 wins after winning the opening Supersport race. It was there in his voice, as he said, “As a boy everybody has dreams and this is a dream come true for me. It is unbelievable to be named in the same breath as the Dunlops.” Seeley also managed to grab another Supersport win and adding a new 600cc lap record on that Saturday.
It is true, I realized, as I watch a re-run. It is true.
This sort of racing is different. This is racing at its rawest, a display of sheer form, of instinct, tenacity and a single-minded focus.