Joey Dunlop: Remembering the extraordinary ordinary man

It takes something special to win the world’s oldest motorcycle race, and even more to do it more times than anyone else. But to claim a third career hat-trick at the age of 48 years old, that takes something extraordinary.

This is the story of the extraordinary ordinary man and his 2000 heroics: Joey Dunlop, a pub owner from Northern Ireland’s Ballymoney iwho raced bikes and was fairly good at it – so much so he went on to become a multiple world champion and factory Grand Prix rider for Honda. But 20 years ago today, just two weeks after his stunning triple TT victory, Dunlop was killed in a crash while competing in a low-key race in Estonia.

Dunlop’s death left not just a sport in mourning, but an entire nation. More than 50,000 attended his funeral and many more watched on television. Northern Ireland had lost its favourite son at the time, and the sport had lost one of its greats.

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It was not just the success that made Dunlop so idolised. Of course having 26 TT wins under his belt helped, but it was his quiet, unassuming and reserved nature that left so many of his fans intrigued by his personality. Even his peers were perplexed by his private demeanour – many never knew whether he actually liked them or not when he passed – but for those who did, having his trust and respect meant an awful lot.

Rarely does a conversation about the TT pass without the Dunlop name being mentioned, thanks to Joey’s legacy and that of his brother Robert and his sons Michael and the late William. Yet the stories that made Joey Dunlop so special rarely get told in full detail, so 20 years on from his final TT, we sought to find out about his finest achievement from those who witnessed it first-hand.

John McGuinness, Michael Rutter and Ian Lougher have all forged their own successful reputations in the sport, but over that fortnight they could do nothing about stopping Dunlop from romping to success (along with David Jefferies, who equalled Dunlop with three victories that week). For some he was a rival, for others a friend, but for most he was a hero, and here is how they saw Joey Dunlop’s greatest week through their own eyes.

“We were quite good friends, we got on as much as you could be a friend with someone like Joey,” said Lougher, a 10-time TT winner who stood on the podium with Dunlop that week and enjoyed more than his fair share of battles with him.

“He was a very private person as everyone says, but when you’re one-to-one with him or only a couple of people that he liked were around him, you could get a good conversation going and a bit of banter out of him. You know, he was quite good fun.

“But as soon as he came into a circle that was a little bit unknown to him or whatever, he would clam up. He was a really strange sort of person, but really when he died it was like I didn’t miss Joey just for the millions of battles that we had on the 125s and 250s and whatever, but I missed him for his personal side. He was a human being, and that’s what you missed because he was so kind and a good honest person. There was no bad side to him at all, he was a lot brighter than people thought and he wasn’t stupid by any means. People said if he felt like it he could drag a bike out the back of a van and go and beat you, but he wouldn’t. He put a lot of time and effort and work into it and I got to see that as well.”

A native Welshman now living in Dunlop’s homeland across the Irish Sea, Lougher grew to know him as well as any rider in the TT paddock could realistically achieve without being either his brother or among his close circle of friends back home. He recalls many stories about their time riding together, so many in fact that as he remembers one, another quickly pops back into his head.

It’s evident that the moments he cherishes the most are the ones they shared off the track, talking about what had just happened on it, which often took place over a beer or in the pub as was common in their day. After all, professionalism has taken a long time to infect the TT, and after racing at breakneck speeds nearing 200mph for 37.73-miles per lap, a pint is the least they deserve at the end of the day.

It’s in these private chats where Lougher got to see the real Joey Dunlop: not the humble, silent and cheery rider the rest of us witnessed, but a man filled with emotions, with passion and – on the odd occasion – raw anger. He saw that most in the hours after Dunlop’s penultimate victory on the island, his 25th win that came in the Lightweight 250 TT that fateful year, when a jubilant Dunlop was anything but.

“I finished in third and John McGuinness was his main rival for that one because they had the two semi-works bikes from Honda and I was on a privateer one,” Lougher said.

“But when he came in I saw him after the race after losing to him, and then saw him again later on and I said ‘alright Joey?’ and he bristled ‘I had to win that 250, that boy McGuinness rattled me’ or something very similar. ‘He annoyed me,’ he said.

“I said ‘oh why, what happened?’ Joey said ‘in practice he came past me pulling a big wheelie trying to be smart, so I just showed him’. That was the side that most people don’t get to see or hear because he was so switched on, and that had rattled him and when he was rattled he was angry, he was like a snake, you know? So there was that side of him who could just turn it on when he really got angry.”

It is a story, rarely spoken, that McGuinness does not enjoy reflecting on.

“I passed him somewhere on the 250 and I niggled him, going into the Kerrowmore area, and do you know when I went past him, my heart sank,” McGuinness said. “I wasn’t Jack the Lad, but I wanted it and it just made me grow up a little bit because I passed him and I thought ‘that was a bad thing to do’ straight away.

“You know when you do something and you regret it immediately? You shouldn’t do that to a God, you should always respect people on the track at the TT, and after that day I will always respect even the slightly slower riders, you pass them with care and you pass them with safety.

“I got quite close to him and it was disrespectful and I thought ‘what a prick’ I was, and then he smoked me in the race. I just thought fair enough. I mean he was 48 wasn’t he!

“I see kids now when they’re young and they do and say things and it winds you up a little bit, and it does give you the motivation. It did with me when Guy Martin roughed me up a bit at the North West and I beat him at the TT, and you do sometimes need that little bit of focus. It was never anything personal, Joey was always my all-time absolute hero, but you should never do things like that to anybody on track. It was a bit close and it was too close, and obviously it hit a nerve and that was all right.”

If it was anger that drove Dunlop to the 250 victory, it was sheer class and determination that helped him bag the first win of the week – arguably the greatest in the history of the event. At 48 years old, he went into the week-opening Formula One TT against an up-and-coming McGuinness and the equally-promising Michael Rutter, as well as the competitive Lougher and naturally-talented David Jefferies – who had already been touted by teammate Rutter as the runaway race winner if his Yamaha held together.

It had been 12 long years since Dunlop had won the Formula One TT, though he arrived on the island armed with the best machine money could buy after Honda threw everything at the event that year. Having turned down their new Fireblade for James Toseland’s V-Twin SP1 that was being run by Paul Bird’s team in British Superbikes, complete with a few added extras flown over from Aaron Slight’s World Superbike model, and a technical delegation dispatched from Japan to aid his efforts, Dunlop went into the week determined to leave his mark.

“I was No 1 and he was No 3 and when we were going through to Ramsey he passed me, and I knew he was on a mission then,” Lougher remembers. “I could see the thing wasn’t handling very good even though it was fast, but that was just typical Joey. He had it in his mind that he was back on the big bike and you could see by his aura that week that he was just back on it.

“When we were riding around at the North West and we were dicing for third place in the second Superbike race, I remember thinking ‘blimmin’ heck he’s riding well’. So I knew he was riding well on a big bike again. He had been ok the year before, but that year you could just see the determination in him somehow.”

Dunlop is well remembered for thrashing the opposition in that race, finishing just short of a minute in front of Rutter, who relegated McGuinness to third and Lougher just off the podium in fourth. As predicted by Rutter, Jefferies was dicing with Dunlop for the lead when his bike gave up on the fifth lap, though his success would eventually come later in the week with victories in the Junior, Production and Senior TTs. This story could have been very different had Jefferies made it to the finish in the Formula One, but there was no doubting how well Dunlop was riding that year, as teammate McGuinness witnessed.

“I’m on the superbike with a bit of pressure riding for the factory, I’m the new kid and now I’ve got the King of the Roads as a teammate,” said McGuinness. “So off we went to the North West and he stuck it on pole position at 48 years old, and the bike was horrendous. It was really slow, it was really unstable, I hated it.

“But Joey put it on pole so I said ‘how did you get that on pole?’ trying to be all technical, and he said ‘just f****** grit your teeth!’

“We didn’t have the greatest North West, to cut a long story we had a tyre problem, but Joey was on the pace and I was struggling quite bad. We went to the TT and I was still struggling, but the bike wasn’t fast enough and Joey sort of commanded some better stuff, like a factory SP1 engine, which rightly so he deserved.

“Low and behold, the Formula One comes along and he sticks it to everybody. Michael Rutter was second and I was third, and we were there looking at this old boy thinking ‘how the f***’s he done this’. I remember him on the podium, he dropped the champagne, the champagne exploded, the cork flew off and it was spinning round. I remember it like yesterday and it was 20 years ago.”

The Formula One was followed by the Lightweight 250, meaning a swift turnaround for Dunlop, McGuinness, Lougher and Bruce Anstey among the other riders also doubling up. While it had been a five-year wait for Dunlop to claim another Superbike win, he had dominated the 250 class, winning four straight races between 1995 and 1998. But McGuinness was not too shabby on the smaller bike either, and had the form behind him to head into the second race in confident mood.

“I was No 4, he was No 3 and I was the 250 British champion, I was the 250 lap record holder, I was leading the 250 British championship and riding the best I’ve ever been riding my 250,” he said. “So when we dropped the flag I thought I was going to catch him. I thought I was a bit smart, thought I was going to catch him … and I never saw him! He won the 250 race and I was proper scratching my head again. And then he jumped on the 125 and won that.

“Imagine Hicky (Peter Hickman) now, winning the Superbike race then jumping on a 125? It’s a negative, it ain’t happening. He’s too tall, it’s like me jumping on a 125, I’m too fat. Joey the little fella wrestled that big superbike round, wins the race, then jumps on the 125 – a really technical and difficult bugger to ride – and he wins that.

“So it was just all pretty awe-inspiring really, it was special stuff and I was part of it. I’ll never forget it, I’ve had some amazing teammates – I’ve had young Michael Dunlop as a teammate, the next generation of Dunlops – so it was really good to ride with Joey and I saw him do things that were really special and left everybody with their jaws on the ground, and he stepped up to the plate. When Honda stepped up, he stepped up and delivered the goods. It was probably one of his most iconic wins.”

With three wins in the bag and the entire island jubilant with Dunlop’s return to the top with z third career hat-trick in the bag 12 years after his second, he took a back seat as Jefferies took over – with a win for McGuinness in the Singles TT thrown in for good measure. Yet there was still the Senior to look forward to, with Dunlop back on the big SP1.

History will show that it was the day when Jefferies hooked up the R1 and blitzed his way to victory, breaking the lap record in the process. But the story very nearly became Lougher’s, had fate not intervened.

“I had a big tank fitted to my Yamaha so it meant that I only had to stop once for fuel after three laps instead of everybody else after two,” he reveals. “You were allowed that in the old days. We had this tank fitted and of course nobody knew about it, and we set off and Joey passed me on the first lap going through the Gooseneck corner, and then I stayed with him over the Mountain and we did the next lap and a half together and he then pulled in for fuel.

“I carried on going past the pits because I could do another lap, and I came in and had a 40-second lead over David Jefferies, so there was no way that he was going to make that up and I would have won the race but – ‘ifs and buts’ – the gear change snapped as I pulled out of the pits, so David Jefferies won that one.”

It left Dunlop in a battle for second place as Jefferies disappeared out in front, but having been chewed up and spat out earlier in the week, Rutter wanted a second go at his rival. The Formula One TT had taken place with the road still damp in places that caused many to take a more cautious approach, with Rutter unwilling to challenge the pace set by Dunlop. But in better conditions, the British Superbike rider fancied his chances.

“I started behind Joey and I was really up for paying him back for when he caught me up in the F1 race and disappeared up the road,” Rutter wrote in his recent autobiography Life of a Racer. “I got straight down to business from the very start, with the sole intention of catching Joey on the road. Eventually I caught him up, which meant I knew I was on for a good result.

“I passed Joey, and I thought ‘I’m not seeing that silly old bastard again. He was 48 then, and to me he seemed really old – I mean, my dad used to race against him. Now look at me: I’m the silly old bastard out there.”

With Rutter clear of Dunlop, a one-two for the V&M Yamaha team looked on the cards, but Dunlop had other ideas. What followed was one of the great, unheralded battles to play out on the roads of the Isle of Man, not for position, but for bragging rights and the organic thrill of racing. It is a memory that Rutter will not forget.

“So there I was, past Joey with a nice empty road in front of me, and I was flat out on my R1 minding my own business, mile after mile, then out of nowhere this Honda came hurtling past me, missing me by millimetres,” he says. “I was thinking ‘where the bloody hell has he come from?’ I couldn’t believe it and thought ‘no, not again’. He must have made 20 seconds back on me and he was riding like his hair was on fire. I was so pissed off that he had caught me back up and re-passed me.

“For the second time in a week, he made me feel like a novice. I decided that even though I was behind him on the road – I was still actually beating him on corrected time – he wasn’t going to beat me on the road. Obviously, he’d had a similar thought and decided to put some manners on me again. We must have passed each other five or six times on that one lap, neither of us prepared to follow the other.

“I’d decided where I was going to pass him. It would have to be on the last lap, on the run down to the Creg-ny-Baa pub. There is always a massive crowd there, and it is one of the most iconic parts of the course – I mean, how many chances in a lifetime am I going to get to pass Joey Dunlop on the last lap of the Senior TT, at the end of an epic race on the road? It had to be at the Creg. It just had to be.

“He was so neat in the way he sat on the bike and it never looked like he was trying. He was going so fast yet it looked effortless for him. I pulled up alongside of him out of his draught and I thought ‘I’ll have him here, I’ll show him’, but he hit his brakes so late that I thought ‘I’m not going to stop, and he isn’t going to stop either’.

“I had gone from a picture in my mind of the most perfect overtake imaginable for a bike race to one where both of us end up in a heap on the floor of the pub car park. Somehow we both just got it stopped and round the corner. He had outbraked me, and I was supposed to be the big-shot short-circuit racer who was nearly half his age. I thought ‘bloody hell, this is amazing’.

“We went through Signpost Corner and I was right on his back wheel, then we drove down towards Governor’s, which is the very last place you can try and make a pass on anyone by outbraking them before the end of the lap.

“He must have known that I was right behind him because he messed up a little bit. He braked so hard that – no word of a lie – his rear wheel was feet in the air; the bike must have been at 45 degrees, on its nose. He had to let the brake off or he was going to go right over his handlebars. I could tell he didn’t want to but he had no choice.

“Obviously, I would have preferred to win the race, but racing that hard with such a massive legend for so long, on the greatest racetrack on the planet, went some way towards making up for not winning the overall race.

“Joey and I shook hands, but he never said anything to me; not a word. I was absolutely buzzing but I had no idea if he enjoyed it or not. It was impossible to tell.

“After the podium, I went into the press room with all the journalists. I was talking to a journalist called Norrie Walker from Motorcycle News when this arm came over my shoulder with a massive Honda logo on it and handed me a pint of beer. It was Joey, and he said ‘there you are, I really enjoyed that’, to which I said ‘ahh cheers Joey’, and we sat there and the two of us drank a beer and relived the race. That gesture still makes me tingle to this day.”

The 2000 TT is remembered as being such a special year because it would prove to be Joey Dunlop’s last. Competing on the Pirita-Kose-Kloostrimesta Circuit in Estonia, Dunlop had already secured two class wins when he crashed in changeable conditions while leading a 125 race. He was killed on impact after crashing into the track-lining trees, and in an instant sport had lost a legend.

It made the memories of 2000 all the more poignant.

“I was the last one to race with him at the TT,” said Rutter. “I was with him for his last ever laps of his beloved TT course that he had raced at for so many years. As it turned out, that last lap was also his fastest ever lap of the course, so even though I didn’t know it at the time, not only did I get a front-row seat for his last-ever lap but also his fastest-ever lap.

“David won the race, I was second and Joey was third. I was standing with two of the greatest riders the TT has ever seen. What a podium to be on. What a time to be alive.”

Lougher also stood alongside Dunlop on the podium that week in the Lightweight 250 TT, and though he had done so a few times before, the sadness of that moment hit home a week after his fatal accident.

“A week later we went to the Southern 100 races, which we always did and we always used to have good craic down there because it’s a week-long event. So we’d always practice at night and then go down the pub and have a few beers … maybe get something to eat! Or maybe eat the next day and then race the following night, and in 1999 there was a bad crash there and two riders were killed in the one race. He actually said to me when we went down the pub ‘what happened in that race do you know?’ and I knew who it was but I’d been sworn to secrecy not to say because the families had not been told, so I didn’t.

“The following year in 2000, it was only a week after his death and I was back at the Southern 100 without him, because he’d crashed and died somewhere too, and I don’t want to talk about death and sadness and all that but it’s just part of what you put up with in racing. It is a dangerous sport and we do know the dangers. Joey knew them as well, he’d seen plenty of his friends killed in them. But it makes it especially poignant to have been on the podium with him at the TT.”

Having roughed Dunlop up – and experienced the repercussions of doing so to the fullest extent – McGuinness was unsure where he stood with his Honda teammate. “He probably thought ‘what a little arsehole he is’,” he laughs, “but we got on.

“Afterwards a lot of people said I got a lot closer than probably a lot of people did, which means a lot to me.

“When he got the freedom of the borough in Ballymoney and he went around on an open-top bus with a suit on, I was there. Me, Roger Harvey and Bob McMillan went, the Honda bosses at the time, we all flew over and he didn’t know we were going. We got up on the bus with him and he was like ‘I want to get out this suit’ and stuff, he never liked wearing a suit.

“We went to his pub and got leathered. He wouldn’t let me buy a drink, and when I eventually bought a drink he gave me a Manx £10 note back in my change for badness, and I’ve still got that Manx tenner.

“He drove us home back to our boarding, I was laying in an old Mondeo and as I was getting out he said ‘Thanks for coming, it means a lot’ and he held his hand out and shook my hand, and that was the last thing we said to each other. That was maybe a little bit of mutual respect for each other, I don’t know if I was accepted into the clan if you like, but that’s what he said and I’ll never forget that because of what happened two weeks later. He was some operator though, some operator.”

The current lockdown has allowed many to look back in the desperate search for sport and relive the moments that have stood the test of time. This date would never have been allowed to pass without pause for thought for the King of the Roads 20 years on, but with the TT cancelled this year, organisers were able to do his memory justice and broadcast the race highlights of the Formula One TT during last month’s TT Lock-In. It provided a welcome reminder of not just why Dunlop was so special – his unrivalled win tally tells the story itself – but also why it’s important to remember the good times, not the bad. For Lougher, McGuinness and Rutter, those extraordinary times in 2000 will never fade away.

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