Robert Dunlop, Road Racing And Me
BlackStaff Press 2016
Liam Beckett was born in Ballymoney, County Antrim. A plumber by trade, he played football for Crusaders and Coleraine in the Irish League, as well as for Drogheda in the League of Ireland, before moving into management. In 1988 he became Robert Dunlop’s mechanic, manager and mentor, a partnership that ended with Dunlop’s tragic death at the North West 200 in 2008.
My late brother Paul took me to a few motorcycling events, several times to the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod and once to the North West 200. This was back in the 1960s, the era of Tommy Robb, Phil Read, Giacomo Agostini, John Cooper and many others. Paul loved the bikes and I loved the noise, the smell and the excitement. The big scoop was getting a team cap from one of the Japanese Honda team’s engineers. I have a vague recollection of Tommy Robb coming off his bike and bouncing along the road on his backside and of John Cooper wearing yellow leathers. Maybe so, maybe not. It was and is an exciting albeit dangerous sport. In later years, I didn’t go to any events except for a memorable day a couple of years ago to watch Valentino Rossi and his contemporaries battle it out at Donington Park. The noise, the smell and the excitement were as thrilling as I remembered.
These things came back to me as I was reading Full Throttle by Liam Beckett, the story mainly of his adventures, shenanigans and successes on the road with motorcycle ace Robert Dunlop. There is a line in the book as LB (the nickname) writes: “This wee guy called Dunlop from little Northern Ireland was special…..” As the story unfolds, those words are true enough but also an understatement when you read of his tireless commitment, perfectionism, passion and guts as well as his outstanding tally of racing victories. With Liam Beckett at his side on the road and in the paddock, sometimes living on adrenalin and spuds, the pair made a formidable duo through thick, thin, scares, setbacks and broken bones.
Liam was two years old when his father died. His mother, in her early twenties, assumed sole responsibility for him and his six-year-old brother. Money was tight and life was a struggle at times but the family pulled together and pulled through. Liam was a nifty and successful footballer and he always had his plumbing trade to fall back on to earn a crust.
In 1988, he met Robert Dunlop, a young man keen on racing and machines but with no room at his cottage home to tinker about with motorbikes. Liam offered some workshop space and a 20-year partnership was born. Robert was the brother of another motorcycling superstar, Joey, and in their races together they were always competitive but never contentious. For a time, Robert operated in Joey’s shadow but he was soon to reach a comparable level of skill and success. Liam Beckett had to work hard to convince Robert that he had the right stuff to be a motorcycling great.
They practiced and raced whenever possible but always had their eyes set on the North West 200, the Ulster Grand Prix and the Isle of Man TT, the big three events. The self-belief got stronger, the wins became more frequent and Robert Dunlop became the star that Liam Beckett knew he would be. “After years of scrimping and saving, sacrifices and hand-me-downs, Robert was now (1990/91) a world-class road racer in his own right and, at last, he knew it.”
Success attracted sponsors, the weight of responsibility and the need for a more professional approach to the work. But never far away from anyone’s mind was the danger and the chapter “Crashing Out” is a harrowing read as it details Robert’s horrendous accident on the Isle of Man in 1994. He had suffered life-threatening wounds after crashing into a brick wall at 140mph. He was at death’s door but remarkably, miraculously, his health improved although his body never fully recovered and, bizarrely, his passion for motorcycle racing was still there. Within two years, he was back in the saddle, re-learning, with his career-changing injuries, how to ride and race again. Liam Beckett writes: “Robert had been through so much to get back on a bike and there was no way he was going to throw in the towel after his latest demoralising setback – such was the tenacity and defiance of the most remarkable and toughest sportsman I have ever encountered.” He was, described Liam, bolted together like a Meccano set.
The accounts of Joey Dunlop’s death in 2000 and Robert’s in 2008 are written beautifully and I confess to wiping more than a few tears away. The heartbreak, grief and loss come across very strongly. Two heroic and quite brilliant Dunlop racers had gone but, on a positive note, two heroic and quite brilliant Dunlop brothers, Robert’s sons Michael and William, still race today.
Liam Beckett has written a wonderful account of his life, his close relationship with Robert Dunlop and his passion for motorcycle racing. The story is touching, funny and ultimately tragic but above and beyond anything else, this fine book is a love story.
As an extra to this post, some time ago I reviewed a film called "Road" about the racing Dunlops:
As an extra to this post, some time ago I reviewed a film called "Road" about the racing Dunlops:
ROAD - A FILM ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE RACING DUNLOP FAMILY
A Doubleband Films Production
Directors/Producers/Writers: Dermot Lavery & Michael Hewitt
Director of Photography: Mark Garrett
Sound Recording Supervisor: David Kilpatrick
Music Composers: Mark Gordon & Richard Hill
Executive Producer: Justin Binding
Narrator: Liam Neeson
For two generations the Dunlop family from Northern Ireland has dominated motorcycle road racing. Narrated by Liam Neeson, this documentary is the dramatic, tragic and inspirational story of two sets of Dunlop brothers - Joey and Robert, William and Michael. Brothers united by success, and united by loss.
(BBC NI website)
“The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present. He is outside of time, he is in a state of ecstasy, he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.” Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
The quotation forms the opening screen words of Road, an extraordinary film about motorcycling and all of its thrills and emotions, but more importantly, a film about people and their passion for racing to the limit, and sometimes to that place of the unknown beyond it. For motorbike racers, particularly road racers, there was, and perhaps still is, “an addiction to speed that they cannot resist”. As deadpan but perfectly paced narrator Liam Neeson told us, it is also a job.
William Dunlop (born 1985) and his brother Michael Dunlop (born 1989) are the sons of Robert Dunlop (1960 – 2008) and the nephews of Joey Dunlop (1952 – 2000) – a family immersed in and affected by one of the most dangerous sports in the world – racing at breathtaking speeds on public roads.
Joey Dunlop won five TT world championships, amongst many other successes. He was killed at 48 in a race. Robert Dunlop stood on the TT podium fourteen times. He too was killed at 47 in a race. His sons William and Michael are racing today and achieving impressive statistics in their own rights. The Dunlop family has experienced the ecstasy and agony of triumph and tragedy.
Murray Walker observed that if motorcycle racing wasn’t dangerous, most of the riders wouldn’t do it. The challenge of confronting and overcoming danger is a powerful magnet. Walker appraised it as a knife-edge between safety and disaster. Road racer John McGuinness said that from the outside it looks insane but when on the bike a rider feels in control. William Dunlop took a cool approach: “It’s a great life, being on the edge the whole time, having no worries…if something was to happen, I don’t care.” Michael Dunlop acknowledged the selfishness of being a totally absorbed racer, the bike thing all-consuming.
I watched “Senna” (2010) another documentary about fast racing and I thought I would not see anything like it again. Even though, we knew the ending, it was gripping cinema. But “Road” equalled “Senna” in telling a story in a compelling manner, but surpassed it with highly emotional contributions from Dunlop family members, friends, mentors and others. The personal aspects of the documentary took the story to another level. I was drained at the end of it. There were parts that impressed, parts that made me smile, parts that made me proud to be from Northern Ireland and parts that made me cry. At certain points, I was aware that I had stopped breathing as I watched some of the more exciting archive and up-to-date camera work.
The participants took a calm approach to road racing with comments about belief, courage, talent and, especially, luck. “You can make road racing safer but you can never make it safe, ” someone said, and another emphasised the rider’s absolute, unbreakable trust in the machine. It wasn’t just about the prize money and the trophies. It was more for the thrill of racing. As Liam Beckett mentioned, bikes were converted into missiles. It was about speed.
“Road” is a tremendous achievement on so many levels, a monumental tribute to Northern Irish racing legends and their successors; a beautifully crafted film expertly and lovingly produced; and a template for future documentary-makers in how to tell a story.
Everyone involved should be applauded enthusiastically for the end result – the narration, the writing, the camera work, the music, the direction - the sheer quality of it all, outstanding. It was also a great pleasure to see names of friends in the credits – Mark Garrett, cinematographer extraordinaire, Davy Kilpatrick, sound man in all respects, alongside Michael McKnight, Michael Quinn and Conor Kilpatrick – a standing ovation to each and every one.
I hope “Road” makes it to the top of the podium at awards ceremonies. It is an unforgettable 90-minutes.