News that the Ulster Grand Prix was battling for survival under a mountain of debt would have come as a shock, but not necessarily a surprise, to road racing fans all over the UK. And not just because it has happened before.
But to be followed up, days later, by the news that the 2020 Enniskillen races had been called off was a body blow. And the statement from the Enniskillen club summed up the challenge facing road racing:
“The cost of running a road race is high and despite our best efforts to try and keep costs down we have found that excessive cost and logistics of hiring such as safety bales, rising medical costs and the like.
“Along with the fact that a trend of spectators choosing not to contribute by buying a programme or contributing towards the event means that not only Enniskillen, but the sport in general, is suffering, something that clubs cannot sustain in the long run.”
True road racing - and the Ulster, the riders’ favourite, is one of the greatest - is threatened by a multitude of challenges, the weather being one of them. And while the weather may not have got worse, although those living in Sheffield or Doncaster right now would say it has, it exacerbates problems like the cost of insurance. And revenue from attendance although the Ulster is just about the only circuit where people pay.
Perhaps the biggest of all, however, is the general aversion to risk which has changed the face of many activities, motorsport most of all. This cannot be a bad thing but it does mean that not only do certain costs, track safety for instance rise, but raising money from sponsors is more difficult. They are nervous of associating their brand with a sport which occasionally has tragic outcomes.
But the thought that there might not be a 2020 Ulster GP hardly bears thinking about. The history of this great event, first run on the 20 mile Clady Circuit with a seven mile straight in 1922, is remarkable having attracted winnners like Graham Walker - Murray’s Dad - and in more recent times having switched to Dundrod where as a world championship event it attracted the likes of Hailwood and Agostini. It became the fastest circuit in the world and last year Peter Hickman set a new record at 136.415mph.
What can be done to preserve this great and historic branch of the sport? Well, the Isle of Man has made a virtue out branding, through Monster Energy, the TT as an extreme sport and world wide TV coverage has brought in spectators who are gob-smacked by the lunacy of it.
Efforts are continuously being made to improve circuit safety and speedy medical attention, the employment of a helicopter has saved many lives, but there are clearly limits. Should 200 brake horse power machines be allowed on often narrow public roads?
Many years ago when world championship circuits were equally dangerous, the FIM considered reducing the capacity from 500cc to 250. That was not thought to be the answer and they simply deprived ‘dangerous’ circuits of their world championship status. Again you cannot argue with saving lives. But as James Whitham said recently: “Any sport without an element of risk is not one I could be bothered watching.”
Every road race fan will be hoping, some even praying, that the Ulster will survive. Ask someone like Hickman, a top BSB rider, which circuit he likes best. It would probably not be Silverstone.