Joey Dunlop ranks among the greatest and most iconic sportsmen Northern Ireland has ever produced – and also among the most loved and fondly remembered.
The legendary Ballymoney motorcycle racer’s achievements included 26 Isle of Man TT wins, five Formula One World Championships, 24 Ulster Grand Prix victories and 13 North West 200 successes.
Quietly spoken but fiercely determined on the track, ‘Joey’, as he was simply known, is also revered for his solo mercy trips – he drove a van loaded with clothing and food supplies to orphanages in Romania, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
His unrivalled talent, accompanied by a shy and unassuming nature, endeared him to motorcycle racing fans across the world and his services to the sport and humanitarian work were recognised by being awarded an MBE and OBE in 1986 and 1996 respectively.
Voted Northern Ireland’s Greatest Ever Sports Star in a Belfast Telegraph readers’ poll in 2015, Dunlop chalked up the first of his record tally of TT wins in the 1977 Jubilee Classic event, with his subsequent victories coming in the 125cc, 250cc, Formula One and Senior races.
He reeled off six successive Formula One class triumphs on the Isle of Man between 1983 and 1988 and his five Formula One world titles also came in consecutive years – 1982 to 1986.
The first of his three TT hat-tricks came in 1985, followed by another in 1988 – but we had to wait another 12 years until the final incredible treble of his career at the age of 48 in 2000.
Having dominated the ‘big bike’ races for several years, Joey became more noted for his wins in the smaller capacity classes – a win in the 1995 Senior apart – during the 1990s.
But he spent the winter prior to what turned out to be his final TT getting himself into peak physical condition for another shot at Superbike glory.
‘I stuck the pace better than I expected’
Armed with a special engine for his Honda SP-1 machine supplied by the Japanese manufacturer he became engaged in a thrilling battle with the event’s new up and coming star – Yorkshireman David Jefferies – in the six-lap Formula One race.
The Northern Irishman assumed the early lead and although Jefferies began making inroads, Joey enjoyed the most marginal advantage at the end of their second circuit – just half a second.
By the conclusion of lap four, Dunlop was six seconds ahead and the County Antrim man ran out a comfortable winner after his rival parked up his Yamaha R1 at Ballig Bridge with a clutch problem.
After the race Joey said in his own typically understated way: “That was a tight race. I was preparing for it to come down to a hard last lap but so was Jefferies I think. It was hard work but I stuck the pace better than I expected.”
‘Win meant so much’
Twenty years on, Joey’s son Gary, who was 17 years old at the time, reflected that his dad “had been waiting for that win for a very, very long time”.
Gary Dunlop: “Every win was special but he took it really seriously that year. He put so much effort into getting himself into good shape and that win meant so much to him and to all of us.”
“My dad always wanted the family there every year, especially during race week. It was like a family holiday and we all grew to love the place, not just the racing” he added.
Dunlop went on to add Lightweight 250cc and Ultra-lightweight 125cc victories later in the week to complete a seemingly impossible feat – three TT wins 23 years after he recorded his first success.
Joey’s former Honda team-mate and rival Phillip McCallen says the road racing legend was “virtually unbeatable when he put his head down and was determined to win”.
“I had huge respect for Joey right from I was a kid – he was the undisputed ‘King of the Roads’ after all – and when I found myself on the same grid as him and finally beat him I hardly knew whether to be pleased or not as he was my hero, my idol growing up.
“I’m not saying I knew him well but we had respect for each other and helped each other out at times. I had many great races with him.
“From the outside it was hard to know on what days he was in the mood to win but when he was he was a hard man to beat.
“Many people had written him off as a big bike winner before 2000 but he still had all that talent and knowledge. To win a F1 TT like that at his age was unbelievable.”
Triumph turns to tragedy
Tragically, the euphoria surrounding his hugely successful TT was to turn to tragedy a month later as Joey lost his life in a racing accident at Tallinn, Estonia, on 2 July.
The outpouring of grief which followed the passing of one of NI’s all-time favourite sporting sons was reflected in the fact that 50,000 mourners lined the route from his home to Garryduff Presbyterian Church – with many, many more watching the funeral live on television.
His memory lives on however, with a memorial garden erected in Ballymoney providing a lasting tribute to him and his brother Robert, who died following a crash at the North West 200 in 2008.
His hometown’s leisure facility was also re-named the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in his honour.
A statue of Joey astride a Honda overlooks the Bungalow Bend on Snaefell Mountain in the Isle of Man, the 26th milestone on the TT course has been re-named Joey’s and the Joey Dunlop Trophy is presented to the most successful solo rider at the TT every year.
After his death the Joey Dunlop Foundation was initiated – a charity founded in memory of the late road racing star which helped provide appropriate accommodation for disabled visitors to the Isle of Man.
In addition, the Windmill section of the Dundrod course which hosts the Ulster Grand Prix, was re-named Joey’s Windmill in recognition of his record 48 wins over the circuit.
Three of the bikes formerly ridden by Joey – his RC45 Honda, RC30 Honda and 250cc machine are on display in the family’s pub, ‘Joey’s Bar’ in Ballymoney, while his 125cc has taken up residence in Gary’s bedroom.
Gary Dunlop: “My dad absolutely loved the Ulster Grand Prix circuit and some people regard his last win there, when he beat David Jefferies in the second Superbike race in 1999 – as one of his best.
“He had got a bit annoyed that day – any time people questioned him was when the real determined racing man would come out in him.
“We are obviously very proud of what he achieved and appreciate that people remember him so fondly but to us as family the racing doesn’t really mean anything to us – for us first and foremost he was a husband and a father.
“He is not going to be missed any more on the 20th anniversary of his death than he has been every other day.”