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