What does the future of road racing look like?

| | TT and Roads
Picture: Impact Images

Mervyn Whyte, former North West 200 head honcho, has described the future of road racing as bleak following the cancellation of the 2021 TT, North West and most of the Irish nationals.

But on the famous other hand, ex-riders like Mick Grant and Mick Chatterton remain positive and enthusiastic about the prospects, confident that when the pandemic is defeated this unique spectacle will come back stronger than ever.

By no means one of the ‘we’re all doomed brigade’, Whyte is realistic about the problems facing road racing:

“I think the actual year in Ireland north and south is certainly bleak for 2021. There’s no doubt about that. You only have the four road races in the north of Ireland now. Cookstown, Armoy, Tandragee and then the North West. Then you have your six, seven road races in Southern Ireland. Down in the south, as you know, they have cancelled everything except Skerries. Here, the Tandragee is cancelled too,” Whyte told Bikesportnews.com.

“We’ve been sort of reviewing and reviewing over this last number of weeks and taking everything into consideration. So I think the picture for 2021 is bleak. I think all we can do is just sort of sit tight and see how things progress.

“This virus is not going to go away soon. The vaccine will be rolled out, but as you know yourself, it’s going to be up to March before everybody is vaccinated, and then a further vaccine.

“The government is not going to snap their fingers and say, ‘Okay, folks vaccine’s done get back to normal’. That’s never going to happen. There’s going to be a long period of time before we’re ever back to normal. We have to forget the way we were before.

“Things are going to be difficult after this. Even when we get this year out of the way sponsorship is going to be very difficult and that’s going to be a challenge in the future.

“Businesses who have been putting money into sponsorship may not have the money. If they have been furloughing or paying off their employees, and or one thing or another, they’re not going to be firing money at sponsorship unless things have been going extremely well for them at the end of the day.

“But I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Events are difficult to run particularly the likes of the Northwest which is free to view. We’ve talked about this for years and years. People take it for granted.

“It’s not like Brands Hatch or Oulton Park where people have to pay to spectate with no issues. The Northwest is free, all road races are free. A percentage of the general public will pay something but you get a big percentage of people who just don’t bother themselves and and come to watch free of charge, because at the end of the day that’s the way they’ve always operated.

“It does need income. There’s no doubt about it. It needs more support, and actually more from the government and from the Executive here in Northern Ireland to keep them going.

“I’ve been talking about this for years and years but it does seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the past. There may a day of reckoning when they just have to or lose them completely.

“Should people have to pay? It is difficult. Most of the road races are completely different to the Northwest because the Northwest as you know is a highly populated area. You can’t charge your road races which are held out in the country where you have less people living on or near the course.

“While at the North West it’s the challenge of having two-and-a-half thousand people living round the course, managing their passes, getting them in and out under the road closing orders etc. There’s just so much to take into consideration, and that’s a problem. It’s difficult.

“A lot of spectators just don’t realize that these events, unless they get an income, are hanging on knife edge. That’s a big issue, a very big issue.

“To run the Northwest 200 costs us slightly under million pounds. Our books show that the this year we’re up on 950-odd thousand pounds. That’s a massive amount of money to bring in. I don’t think people realise that

“I’ve worked and worked with that for years and years, trying to get money through the local councils, through the Tourist Board here in Northern Ireland, the general public paying and then sponsorship.

“From a sponsorship point of view, I’ve been very, very lucky over the years to have a lot of good, loyal sponsors and new sponsors coming on board. But it’s a massive amount of money to try and run and event. With that said, the North West 200 has to be run as as business.

“Gone are the days when you could just throw them a few grants, throw in a bit of hospitality and go ahead and run motorbikes. It’s all completely changed now. Safety plans, everything has changed over the last couple years.

The Sheffield and Hallam impact study in 2017 showed it brought in two a half-million into the local economy. There were 70,000 spectators there throughout the week of the event, 84,000 race day fans.

“The figures are all there to back it up, but it’s getting more and more difficult at the end of the day to make ends meet, your expenditure and to cover your income, and vice versa. I think this year is going to be difficult. It’s going to be bleak. I don’t think you’re going to see too much happening in 2021.

“Then there are other matters, like insurance for instance. If there’s an opportunity for some guy to make a claim, then he’s going to make a claim and nothing wrong with that. That’s the way things are going, completely changed compared to 20 years ago.

“Now everything needs to be a hundred percent in your risk assessment and your write-ups and your event safety plans and your meetings, all that type of stuff.

Everything needs to be documented and be a hundred percent right so nobody can come back and point a finger and say, you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that. That’s a fact of life nowadays and we’re just going to have to live with it.

Insurance is a problem, no doubt about it. Very few companies that will take on the responsibility and it is definitely going to be an issue in the future. Insurance for the North West for £30 million cover is £35,000 pounds.

“I think things will come back again. You’ve got to put your whole organization structure in place again. Part of the problem is some of the guys you’ve had in your organization are a little bit older and are moving on. But if there’s a will there, and I am sure there is, I think things could come back again in 2022. I would be reasonably hopeful for that,” Whyte continued.

“Yes, people have been starved of it for a period of time and over this last nine months life has changed completely for many. But I would agree with Mick Chatterton when he says it is also a way io life for many. I think you will see a return again.

“If the virus is out of the way, I think that you will get the support because they have been starved for events like this and I think you will see an increase in numbers coming back.”

There is general agreement that things have to change but what and when. Mick Chatterton, competitor and spectator at the TT and Irish races since the fifties, has a very pragmatic but optimistic Barnsley view:

“Nothing can change until we are free of this pandemic but things will start to return to normal in 2022 when I think the TT will come back bigger than ever. But this is from a riders point of view and a large number of fans who wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“The problem with the Southern Irish races is that they are all relatively small affairs but they still taken a lot of money to put on. And you have got to make a decision early on as to whether they are running or not. In the North the Tandragee has been cancelled, Cookstown which is normally in May are promising to go ahea and Armoy seems uncertain.

“But I think there is a lot of pent-up enthusiasm which will be even greater after two years. It’s like saying people won’t go to football matches again. They will. I accept that a two-year break may mean some people lose the habit or have found something which fills the gap. But missing the TT, and this certainly applies to the riders and people like me, is just a huge gap.

“Getting spectators to pay is difficult. There are still those visiting the TT who complain when, at certain places, they are asked to pay. But people are desperate to get back to the Isle of Man, there is great enthusiasm for it.

“Remember when the TT lost its world championship status in 1976 it was thought to be the death of the TT. But the TT has risen in stature since then. It was the start of the TT as we know it now. It stands on its own and the reason for that is the circuit.

“It is unique. It may have been a bigger event then in the eyes of the general public with riders who were household names taking part but far more people arrive with motorbikes than they ever did before.

“When it is certain that it is returning I think the demand will be enormous. What the Isle of Man authorities have to think about is getting to and from the Island, accommodation on the Island and providing more off course entertainment for those who come not just to see the races.”

And Mick Grant, seven times TT winner and Grand Prix star in the seventies, is even more optimistic: “Motorcycling is like a drug, it’s an addiction. All through my career I’ve seen times when the economy has been really bad and people have still found money to go racing motorbikes.

“And there is a tendency to think road racing is a niche sport and in some places perhaps it is but the two years we had at Olivers Mount amazed me in the number of riders who wanted to do something different, away from the Oulton Parks and Brands Hatches. Road racing will not fail, it will continue.

“The spectators even more so. Scarborough or some of the Irish meetings and you can actually feel the draft of the bikes going past. At Silverstone you need a pair of binoculars. And as far as paying is concerned, yes Scarborough is lucky in that it is enclosed.

“Even though we were limited in spectator numbers we still made money. And most motorcycle racing is run by enthusiasts especially in Ireland. As long as that continues racing will still happen. And I absolutely do believe it will come back stronger than ever. But the TT is the lynchpin to the future.”

The insurance issue is highlighted by Sean Bissett, President of Motorcycling Ireland who said of the one surviving event in the south, the Skerries: “I can’t see that race happening because the problem will be insurance, difficult to buy as a one-off.”

Governing bodies of every sport have to be looking at costs, not so much at the top end but at the grass roots where regulation should control the costs and preserve the future. What are they doing about it?