King of the road forever
A legend who had time for all

Dunlop's record 26 TT victories
The career of an all-time great
 

A legend who had time for all

He couldn't stop winning - both trophies and hearts and minds

THERE are many who call Joey Dunlop the most incredible rider there has ever been. All agree there has seldom been a motorcyclist with whom the word legendary sits more easily.

William Joseph Dunlop, 48-year-old publican, father and husband - and a man who just three weeks ago was riding faster than he'd ever ridden before at the Isle of Man TT.

In a 25-year career there, his very last lap around the famous Mountain course was the fastest he'd ever done in his previous 97 TT races. He clocked a 123.87mph lap in the Senior race, taking third overall.

The result wasn't quite what he was after, but the disappointment was easier to take because that week he'd completed the third TT hat-trick of his long and distinguished career, with success in the Formula One, Ultra-Lightweight and Lightweight races.

The victories took his wins tally to a staggering and probably never to be surpassed 26. It's 12 more than the next best man - and next best in this case is Mike Hailwood.

Joey lapped the TT course at more than 110mph on over 250 occasions and in 98 starts rode close enough to the winning speed to claim a silver or bronze replica in 80 of them.

Many of those making the trip to the TT came for just these moments - a glimpse of Dunlop showing how it's done

Dunlop wasn't ready to hang up his leathers. The question of his retirement had been raised and dismissed over and over for years.

He was the original King of the Roads - as one poignant floral tribute read outside his pub, Joey's Bar, on Sunday night. But his early career showed little sign of the greatness he would go on to achieve and will now be remembered for.

There was no history of road racing in Dunlop's family, despite the huge popularity of the sport in his native Ulster. His love affair with bikes started at Megaberry in 1969 on a 50 Triumph Tiger Club.

He didn't set the world alight and was a virtual unknown when he turned up to his first Isle of Man TT in 1976 to ride a 350 Yamaha. Like many novices, he had to be told which way the course went and only learnt by following other riders round.

He finished all three races and notched up a respectable 16th place in the Junior. A year later he turned up and won the 1977 Jubilee TT riding what at best can be described as a shed of a 750 Yamaha.

Archive footage from those early days show Joey and his faithful crew prepping bikes in cow sheds and then blasting them flat-out down soaking-wet public roads to see how they ran.

From 1983 onwards, when he scored the first of six successive Formula One victories, Dunlop hardly ever failed to chalk up a victory at the Isle of Man TT. Only in eight years of his 25 in racing did Joey fail to notch a victory.

And during his glorious TT spell, he also won five Formula One world championships. Until this year his last big-bike victory had come in the 1995 Senior and many thought it was beyond him to score another. But he rolled back the years again last month to pull off a shock Formula One success.

His tally of 26 TT wins could easily have been more had it not been for serious injuries he sustained in a 1989 crash at Brands Hatch that forced him to miss that year's Island event.

Dunlop admitted that, like everybody else, he got scared when riding, particularly at such an unforgiving place as the TT, or at countless other road races he contested and often dominated, run on nothing more than country lanes.

"I have close shaves every time I race. You've just got to keep them to a minimum. After a few minutes you've forgotten about them. But once you're beat, you're beat," he recalled before the 1999 TT festival.
Joey's on-track success at the Isle of Man wasn't just down to his unrivalled track knowledge - his back-of-the-hand understanding of every single bump and damp patch. He was evidently a quite brilliant rider.

Competing against those less than half his age, Joey needed every ounce of his expertise to beat their youthful exuberance.

He became the ultimate TT tactician. Back in 1996 in the Ultra-Lightweight race, Dunlop was neck-and-neck with Gavin Lee at Ramsey Hairpin on the last lap. Dunlop opened a near four-second advantage through treacherous banks of mist on the Mountain. He even knew the weather well enough to know where the fog would thin, and where it would demand he slowed.

It was a similar story en-route to his 22nd victory in 1997 in the Lightweight 250. Again Dunlop was under severe pressure but, unlike rival Phillip McCallen, he refused to change tyres at a pit stop.

McCallen lost time and, while pushing to make up lost ground, crashed. Meanwhile Dunlop, nursing a viciously sliding rear tyre in the closing stages, went on to win. He said his gut feeling told him not to change rubber - more likely it was a brilliant and clear perception of his rival.

One of his most remarkable TT wins came in the 250 Lightweight race in 1998. He'd been written off as a no-hoper after breaking his left hand and collarbone, cracking his pelvis and losing a finger on his left hand at the Tandragee 100 races less than a month before TT practice started.

Showing bloody-minded toughness and a dogged spirit, instead of pootling around, Dunlop won his 23rd TT in the wet.

Even in his debilitated state, he had pulled a flanker on his rivals. The race was due to be run over three laps because of the bad weather. That meant making a pit stop.

While most pitted after the first lap, Dunlop had seen conditions like this before. He reasoned they were going to get worse and that would mean the race would be cut short. So he took the gamble to carry on, with the plan of pitting after two laps if the race did continue. It paid off. The race was indeed cut to two laps, leaving Dunlop with the victory.

Winning at the TT requires more than just pace - it takes sharp thinking, too. Dunlop was able to get the best out of a wide variety of machinery, from a 125 to the WSB-powered VTR-SP1 he took his seventh Formula One race on only last month.

Dunlop also fettled his own bikes. There were no flash awnings around him at race meetings all over his native Ireland. Instead, you would see Dunlop spannering out of the back of a van, often making final tweaks just moments before he'd go out and race.

"I've always worked on the machines, especially the 125 and 250 which are really difficult to set up," he said prior to his last TT.

As well as his sheer speed, circuit knowledge, machine know-how and tactical sense, Dunlop's make-up also included Herculean physical and mental toughness.

But more important than anything else was his love of bike racing. Before the tragic events in Estonia unfolded on Sunday, Dunlop was as passionate about his racing as he was when he first started.

He was training every day and spent over a month readying himself for this season with a gruelling fitness programme in Australia. The once-famous post-race shots of Joey with a cigarette in one hand and pint in the other were long banished to the archives. He quit smoking five years ago and confined a pint mainly to post-race celebrations.

A distinguished champion on the track, he was the people's champion off it. Thousands took him into their hearts as a real down-to-earth man who was as happy pulling pints as he was riding a superbike at 175mph on the fearsome TT Mountain course.

Dunlop was a phenomenon. Beneath the star status he was afforded, he was a modest, quietly-spoken, deep-thinking man from Ballymoney.

He would accept the applause, honours and accolades with shy embarrassment: The OBE and MBE and the equivalent of a knighthood from the Isle of Man government.

But he would always sign autographs, would travel to the Island on the ferry and was never too busy for a chat.

Dunlop was also a regular on mercy missions to Romania to ferry aid to poverty-stricken orphans. It all started by chance in the early '90s after a woman walked into Dunlop's Ballymoney pub with a package which she needed to get to her daughter who was working in orphanages in Romania.

She mentioned the cost of postage being twice the cost of the contents of the package, and in a moment Dunlop had offered to take it himself. Three days later he left with a three-ton truck full of equipment, clothes and food and the man affectionately known as Yer Maun made several other trips to help those less fortunate.

He also made trips to Bosnia, handing out food parcels and clothes from the back of his race transporter. He said of his trips into troubled areas: "One or two trips were a bit scary. Soldiers had me at gunpoint on one trip and locked me in my van all night." But he went back for more.

Dunlop had been with Honda for 20 years. Without him they would have been also-rans on the all-time winners list. He was also Arai's longest-serving rider, keeping his distinctive bright yellow helmet with the same brand since 1982.

The legend that Dunlop became at the TT will for ever live on. His death has sent shock waves throughout the racing world. His beloved Northern Ireland is in a state of mourning this week.

Everyone who knew of him, even if they had never met him, felt they had been touched by the magic of a man who commanded the admiration and respect as much for his wonderful and generous personality as his mercurial exploits in racing.
Racing will just never be the same again.