Coronavirus: we’d never heard of it until a few weeks ago. Now it seems to have turned the world into a global version of Dad’s Army. On the one side we have Lance Corporal Jones shouting “Don’t panic, don’t panic” and on the other Private Frazer growling “We’re all doomed!”
What has that got to do with motor bike racing? Not a lot except there seems to be certain elements of it to be seen from MotoGP to road racing. To be fair they are being told what they can or can’t do by outside forces and it will damage the takings of the professional promoters and the circuits who have to pay them large amounts to put on the show.
And be damned inconvenient, and perhaps costly, for the fans the short circuit series will series will survive because the fans have to pay. But will road racing?
This extreme sport from which all present racing began, is run and, to a sizeable degree, financed by enthusiasts. Volunteers. The challenges they face whether it be weather, insurance costs, spectator revenue or lack of it would, to any outsider, seem insurmountable. Not forgetting, in this increasingly risk averse world, safety.
And now with virtually every race either cancelled or postponed for this year, the question must be asked: Can road racing as we know it survive? There are plenty of believers including Mick Grant who, together with Eddie Roberts, has rejuvenated England’s only road circuit at Scarborough. He says: “Yes, it can.”
Nobody doubts that the TT will recover. It has been there before on two occasions. In 1966 when a seaman’s strike caused the race, a world championship then, to be postponed until August and in 2001 because of foot and mouth disease.
At the time the islands two big industries were tourism and farming.Now it is finance and gambling while a worldwide TV audience brings in big time sponsors like Monster to back up the Tourist Board’s investment in an event which brings in 30,000 visitors.
Nor is the North West 200, although less secure, in danger under the able stewardship of Mervyn Whyte. He works tirelessly to raise sponsorship money and support from local authorities. This year’s postponement will cost the region some £12m in lost revenue from an event which draws some 100,00 fans to Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine. Unfortunately, the majority don’t pay other than through the sale of programmes.
But others are not faring so well.The great Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod, host to world championships in the sixties with riders such as Mike Hailwood and John Surtees, and claiming the title of fastest circuit in the world - Peter Hickman lapped at 136.415mph last year - is bust and highly unlikely to run this year. Other meetings which have been cancelled or postponed include Tandragee and Cookstown.
Owing an estimated £300k, the Dundrod and District Motorcycle Club has appealed to the Northern Ireland government and other local politicians but, so far, without success. A statement from the club said: “The difficulties facing the Ulster Grand Prix and other road races in Northern Ireland have made headlines in recent weeks. If the sport is to survive and flourish it will require similar financial support from government that other sports receive.”
“Road racing is a part of Northern Ireland’s sporting culture and brings major financial benefits to the province and local communities. Only a small fraction of the sums provided to many other major sporting events would make an enormous difference to events like the Ulster Grand
Grant, a multiple TT winner, said: “Road racing is different. BSB draws good crowds because, even though all the bikes look the same and sound the same, as they have for 20 years, British fans love racing of any sort. But road racing is totally unique and there’s a variety of classes and at least at Scarborough we’re giving people something very different.
“Yes, the TT and the Irish races do have problems but the advantage we have is that so far we haven’t cancelled races we have just postponed them. We have flexibility which the others don’t. We also have paying spectators and now have a relatively safe circuit, an ACU man said it was the safest road circuit he has seen.
“We’re in a risk averse world so it does make road racing questionable.But to go back to when I was racing in the TT, Scarborough and places they last thing in the world I wanted was someone to tell me that I shouldn’t do it. Racing motorbikes is in your system and I can justify being involved now because Eddie and I have made this circuit as safe as it can be.
“Barry Sheene had one bad experience at the TT and didn’t ride there again. But I know, after many battles with him at Scarborough, that he wasn’t frightened of road racing. And he still holds the lap record at the old Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium at 137mph. And Spa was a circuit that frightened the life out of me. Never ever say Barry was frightened of road racing ‘cos he wasn’t!
“The Irish races do have problems because they have to get money from a bit of sponsorship and programme sales. The Ulster has obvious problems, the North West seems to manage its affairs better. Is road racing doomed? No because it is unique and, yes, we do live in a risk averse world but the difficulties, as we have shown, can be overcome.”
Peter Duke, owner of the website iomtt.com and a tour operator who ships and accommodates three thousand people at the TT every year, described the situation as “challenging”. But recalling the two previous cancellations when the TT was less healthy as an event he was confident it would recover. The Isle of Man government is injecting £40m into the economy but that might not lessen the threat to either the Southern 100
Both the TT and the North West had stretched their budgets to secure a dream combination, Paul Bird’s BSB winning Ducati Panigale and Ireland’s Michael Dunlop to inject much needed excitement into the Superbike races hitherto dominated by Peter Hickman. Sadly Coronavirus got in the way.
Bird, a road racing enthusiast and one time backer of John McGuinness, said: “Road racing doomed? Not on your nelly. It’s like trying to stop people climbing Everest. There’s no excitement, for the riders or the fans, quite like it. One or two of the smaller meetings might suffer but it will survive. It’s unique.”
Barnsley’s Mick Chatterton, a successful competitor on the track and the road, admitted there were some problems but none related to the present situation. He put it this way:
“The main threat to the survival of the sport remains the astronomical insurance costs needed to run a meeting sand the lack of finance coming in to cover those costs. The present situation with the Ulster GP, in my opinion the greatest event and circuit in road racing - apart from the TT - proves just how easy it is for even a big event to fold, hopefully temporarily, to spiralling costs.
“Road racing will survive in Ireland, north and south, because of the tremendous enthusiasm of the volunteers who give up all their time to make it possible.And also because of the tremendous popularity of pure road racing at present across a much wider range of competitors. But until more money can be injected into the sport it will remain difficult for clubs and promoters to keep their heads above water.”
Increasing costs are causing problems for motor sport all over the world. Every circuit which stages F1 or MotoGP, with the exception of Silverstone, receives state support. Without it there would be no race. The Dundrod and District Motorcycle club has a point.