History of the North West 200

For over 80 years, the North West 200 has played a major part in the road racing calendar and a look back through the history books will more than illustrate the importance it’s played throughout the motorcycling spectrum.

Now a fully fledged International meeting of the very highest calibre, the North West, like North West 200 Mapall meetings, had a humble beginning and those original pioneers will have had no idea how the event would grow or how it would produce such a multitude of record breaking feats, so many defining moments, controversy, triumph and tragedy in equal measure, races of the highest order, and launch so many racing careers.

The event, which was initially a 200-mile race over an 11-mile course, has witnessed numerous changes over the years but one thing that’s remained has been its significance not only as a stand-alone meeting but also as a vital fixture for the motorcycling fraternity. Whether you’re a racer, a fan or a promoter, it’s one of the dates you always look forward to and its value cannot be underestimated.

1929

The meeting was originally due to be held on roads close to Maiden City but was eventually held on the roads between Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine with the original start/finish line located near Magherabouy before moving to Portmore Road in Portstewart in 1930.

That first race, on Saturday 20 April 1929, saw legendary names such as Stanley Woods, Percy ‘Tim’ Hunt and Ernie Nott all in the line-up but it was W J McCracken who was victorious in the handicap race, his race winning time on his 348cc Velocette being an arduous 3hr8m35s.

From the small acorn that was planted back then, a mighty oak has since been formed and we’ve seen everything possible from a road race meeting and as unknown riders have become household names, the racing has seen some of the best anywhere in the world.

Second World War

Racing has continued ever since 1929 although no races were held between 1940 and 1946 due to the Second World War. Racing resumed in 1947 but no sooner had it done so then the 1948 meeting was scrubbed due to the unavailability of fuel supplies. The organisers increased their efforts to ensure the race was back up and running for its 20th Anniversary in 1949 and it received its largest entry thus far, with an encouraging 113 entries.

Such was the progress of the event though, actually running it was becoming harder and harder and the logistics and financial strain eventually proved too much for the host Northern Ireland Club and the 1963 North West 200 was cancelled. Trade support had disappeared and attracting a quality entry proved difficult so much so that the organisers felt crowds would stay away.

Take in the 360 view of the North West 200!

1964

Racing resumed in 1964 and the next issue came in 1972 when the political situation in Northern Ireland was very much on a downward spiral. The Northern Ireland Government considered any large scale public event to be a potential problem and they put pressure on the organisers to the extent that they had little option other than to cancel the meeting.

Some eleven miles in length, it wasn’t until 1973 when the first major changes to the layout of the course took place and these included the exclusion of the Promenade at Portstewart and the moving of the start/finish line to its current location between Juniper Hill and Millbank Avenue. These changes meant the route used Station Road (B185) for the first time and saw the introduction of York Corner.

Even in the 1970s, riders were recording speeds of close to 190mph on the high speed straights although tyre wear was a major issue as the technology of the rubber couldn’t keep up with the speeds of the motorbikes. On more than one occasion, riders had to slow or retire due to strips of rubber being torn out the middle of their slick tyres.

New lap records set

But in 1978, Tom Herron set a new outright lap record of 127.63mph which remains the fastest ever lap seen at the North West 200 due to subsequent circuit changes implemented to slow speeds. Herron had the aforementioned tyre issues and dropped back to sixth but his lap remained the fastest ever seen in the British Isles until Adrian Archibald went quicker at the 2003 Dundrod 150 meeting.

Shell Hill Bridge, an iconic part of the original course was used for the last time in 1979 with a new link road, from University Corner to Ballysally Roundabout, being introduced for 1980. Three years later, a chicane was introduced just before the approach to the Juniper Hill corner and in 1988 a second chicane was added, this time at the start/finish in order to reduce speeds around Primrose Hill as well as allowing safer access to the pitlane.

Keith Amor at Primrose Hill

In 1996, a third chicane was added at Magherabuoy, designed to slow riders on the high, and long, speed run from the roundabout to the Metropole. The course layout stayed the same until 2010 when fourth, purpose built chicane was added at Mather’s Cross in order to reduce speeds at the corner. The course now measures 8.970 miles with a distance of 8.834 miles being covered on the first lap of every race due to the location of the start line.

Trouble-free run until 2001

After the problems in 1972, the NW200 had a trouble free run until 2001 when the foot and mouth epidemic that was sweeping the UK intervened and resulted in both the North West and following TT to fall victim to the disease. Aside from that, the only other year when the races suffered a major problem was in 2011.

Poor weather conditions were already coming into play when significant delays, resulting in the evacuation of the paddock, were encountered due to a hoax bomb alert. A major oil spill on the track then meant the racing was cancelled after the completion of just one race.

Meanwhile, significant changes took place in 2010 with daytime practice for the first time whilst 2012 saw the introduction of races on Thursday evening, the first time they had been held other than on the traditional Saturday race day.

One significant note about the North West 200 is that a sidecar race has never been held.

Milestones

With the first ever race meeting held in 1929, check out the massive milestones of the North West 200…

  • 1929 – The first meeting, organised by the City of Derry & District Motor Club, took place with a handicap race of 200 miles being held.
  • 1930 – The start and finish was moved from to the Portmore Road in Portstewart.
  • 1934 – Jimmy Guthrie wins the first of four successive 500cc races and sets the first ever 80mph+ lap in the process.
  • 1939 – The last meeting before the outbreak of the Second World War.
  • 1947 – Racing resumes on the Triangle circuit after the end of the Second World War despite shortages of fuel and tyres.
  • 1948 – No racing held due to the unavailability of fuel supplies.
  • 1950 – Artie Bell gave the legendary Featherbed Norton its first International victory when he won the 500cc race.
  • 1953 – Gilera make their debut at the NW 200 ridden by Dickie Dale and Reg Armstrong.
  • 1955 – Alan Lyons wins the 250cc race – Alan and Ernie Lyons are the first brothers to win races at the NW200.
  • 1957 – Jack Brett sets the first ever 100mph lap of the course, winning the 500cc race on his Norton.
  • 1958 – Mike Hailwood makes his one and only appearance at the North West 200, finishing second in the 250cc race.
  • 1961 – Bob McIntyre takes a 350cc and 500cc double.
  • 1963 – No racing due to logistical and financial constraints.
  • 1964 – The first year the Coleraine and District Motor Club organised the event, doing so ever since.
  • 1964Honda claim their first victory with Ralph Bryans winning the 250cc and 350cc races.
  • 1965 – Dick Creith wins the 500cc race for the second year in a row riding Joe Ryan’s Norton.
  • 1965Yamaha take their first win with Rod Gould taking victory in the 250cc race.
  • 1970Suzuki claim their first victory with Stuart Graham winning the 500cc Production race.
  • 1971 – The final year the races were held over the original circuit, which ran along the length of the Portstewart promenade. Race winners were John Cooper (500cc), Paul Smart (350cc) and Derek Chatterton (250cc).
  • 1972 – No meeting due to civil unrest in Northern Ireland.
  • 1973 – The start and finish moved to its current location between Juniper Hill and Millbank Avenue.
  • 1974 – John Williams became the first rider to record a hat-trick, winning the 350cc, 500cc and 750cc races.
  • 1975 – Mick Grant records the first ever 120mph+ lap on his 500cc Kawasaki, setting a new lap record of 122
  • 1977 – Ray McCullough and Tony Rutter (both Yamaha) cross the finishing line together at the end of the 350cc race, the only dead heat in the history of the event.
  • 1978 – Tom Herron sets the fastest ever lap seen at the NW200 with a speed of 127.63mph.
  • 1979 – Joey Dunlop wins his first races on the Triangle circuit in the events 50th anniversary year.
  • 1980 – The link road from University Corner to Ballysally Roundabout was first used.
  • 1982 – New Zealander Stu Avant becomes the first overseas rider to win a race at the NW200, taking victory in the 500cc race.
  • 1983 – The Juniper Hill chicane is added in the wake of the fatal accidents of Tom Herron (1979) and John Newbold (1982).
  • 1986 – Robert Dunlop beats Gene McDonnell in the 350cc race to take his first NW200 victory.
  • 1987 – Joey Dunlop takes a hat-trick of wins with victory in both Superbike races and the 750cc Production race.
  • 1988 – A chicane is added at the start and finish.
  • 1988 – Joey Dunlop takes his last ever NW200 victory, winning the 750cc Production race.
  • 1988 – Steve Cull upstages Dunlop with a hat-trick of wins in the first 250cc race and both Superbike races.
  • 1989 – Steve Hislop wins his only races at the North West 200, the 750cc King of the Roads race and the Superbike race.
  • 1990 – Robert Dunlop takes a hat-trick of wins, both Superbike races and the 125cc.
  • 1992 – Phillip McCallen won five races in a day – 400cc, 600cc, 250cc and both Superbike races – the only rider to achieve such a feat.
  • 1993 – Robert Dunlop records his third hat-trick with a 125cc and two 250cc wins.
  • 1994 – Robert Dunlop gave the Honda RC45 its first ever International victory, winning the first Superbike race and then going on to complete the double. He one again scores a hat-trick with a 125cc win also.
  • 1996 – The Magherabuoy chicane is added to curb speeds on the run in to the Metropole.
  • 1997 – Michael Rutter opens his NW200 account with wins in the 600cc and Superbike races.
  • 1997 – Phillip McCallen wins his 11th and final NW200 race.
  • 1999 – David Jefferies takes a treble at the meeting with a 600cc win and victories in both Superbike races.
  • 2000 – Joey Dunlop competed in his last ever NW200 meeting, lining up in pole position for both Superbike races.
  • 2000 – Michael Rutter takes a hat-trick with victories in the 600cc and both Superbike races.
  • 2001 – No meeting held due to the Foot and Mouth epidemic.
  • 2002 – Bruce Anstey made his debut, setting pole position and then winning the Production race.
  • 2003 – Ryan Farquhar takes both Supersport 600cc wins for Kawasaki.
  • 2004 – Ian Lougher takes the 125cc race win for the fifth successive year.
  • 2004 – Michael Rutter makes history after becoming the first rider to go through the speed trap at more than 200mph.
  • 2006 – Steve Plater takes his first wins, taking victory in both Superbike races, eleven years after making his debut in 1995.
  • 2006 – Robert Dunlop scores a record breaking 15th victory, his final win at the NW200.
  • 2006 – Nigel Beattie becomes the first and only rider from the Isle of Man to win a race, taking victory in the 250cc.
  • 2007 – Bruce Anstey takes a hat-trick of wins.
  • 2008 – NW200 legend Robert Dunlop loses his life after crashing at Mather’s Cross during Thursday evening’s practice session.
  • 2008 – Less than 48 hours after the death of his father, Michael Dunlop wins the 250cc race.
  • 2008 – Alastair Seeley takes his first NW200 win.
  • 2009 – The event celebrates its 80th anniversary.
  • 2010 – The Mather’s Cross chicane is added after the fatal accidents of Robert Dunlop (2008) and Mark Young (2009).
  • 2012 – Daytime practice is held for the first time.
  • 2012 – Alastair Seeley takes his first hat-trick.
  • 2012 – Martin Jessopp records the fastest ever speed recorded through the speed trap at 208mph.
  • 2015 – Alastair Seeley takes another hat-trick and equals Robert Dunlop’s record tally of 15 wins.

Next up, everything you need to know about the North West 200 course.

Now you know the full history and milestones of the North West 200, why not test your knowledge with our quiz… 

Words by Phil Wain.