|The starting line at the Pits. Image from roadracingsupporters.com|
Around this time every year something happens to my little corner of the universe: 100,000 visitors - families, couples, campers with tents and folding chairs, pensioners in motor-homes, motorcycles and their riders (dressed in tight leather...I try very hard not to drool) - descend from all corners of the world, the roads get closed, schools shut early, burger-vans set up shop on golf courses, footpaths get fenced off and there's a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air along with the sharp sting of gasoline and the lingering choke of burnt exhaust fumes.
The International North West 200 Road Race comes to town.
I have very fond memories of walking with my friends out to the area between Portstewart and Portrush where the riders' vans gather, the TV cameras catch the action, the grandstand seats wait to be filled and flags flutter in the breeze calling everyone to the 'Pits'. It was very different when I was younger - the weather was always better for a start (or is that just how you view everything once you reach 'a certain age'?), the Pits were a jumble of chaotic wonder where you could meet the greats of the road racing world, get autographs, sit on their bikes, watch as they made last minute adjustments and come away covered in oil and feeling like you just met royalty. There was an innocence to it all; a kind of devil-may-care frivolity that ignored the danger and celebrated the madness of it.
The sharp edge of the road-racing sword struck me deep the year that Tom Herron was killed.
I'd met him during the week, chatted to the man, laughed as he signed autographs for us all and told us how it felt to be out there on the course, chasing that first place with the scenery zipping past you in a blur and the world narrowing to the view through your visor. His eyes were shining with excitement as he spoke and his smile was wide.
I heard the news over the radio. I honestly don't remember very much of what was said, where I was when I heard or anything like that, I just remember the feelings - disbelief, confusion, anger, sadness and the realisation that I would never be to speak to any of the riders again without wondering if it would be the last time.
Nowadays access to the Pits is much more controlled. There are VIP tents, little cubicles where the riders prepare for each race; it's a well organised, slick operation and everyone in our little borough is rightly proud of it. And every year I remember the rider with the dark hair and the laughing eyes and I say a silent prayer for safe racing this time.