THE Motorcycle Mavericks tells how engineering pioneers from Northern Ireland, working in garden sheds and workshops, conquered the world in their quest for speed.
Road racing is synonymous with Northern Ireland. While the riders here have been making history for 100 years, there is another story that accompanies them: the desire to understand how the bike works, to make it better and to go faster.
The Motorcycle Mavericks, made by DoubleBand Films for BBC Northern Ireland with support from Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund, reveals how our connection to road racing has been shaped since the wheels of the industry set the Ulster on the map.
Brought to you by photographer and journalist Stephen Davison, who has chronicled the sport and filmed the motorcycling family for over 30 years, The Motorcycle Mavericks chronicles how people here, many of whom have Scottish Ulster roots, became pioneers of road racing. Stephen takes viewers on the journey that has united engineering innovators and racers for nearly a century.
With Ulster’s industrial heritage, it’s no surprise that interest in machinery sparked a passion for motorcycles and sparked a desire to innovate. But before there were road races, there were sand races. Stephen catches up with John Scott and David Boyd on Benone Strand with one of the bikes said to have raced there in the first sand run in 1911.
With the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, a new opportunity presented itself for racing leaders and enthusiasts. The Ulster Grand Prix was proposed by racing fan, entrepreneur and Ulster Scotsman Harry Ferguson, with the backing of fellow Ulsterman and new NI Premier James Craig. The unprecedented sporting event would be an opportunity Craig would not pass up. Ferguson wrote that the event would draw huge numbers of people to the country and benefit all industries.
Motorcycle road racing was becoming a popular sport. And not just for men. Stephen talks to two of today’s greatest female riders, Melissa Kennedy and Yvonne Montgomery, reflecting on trailblazer Muriel Hind who was the first woman to compete in an Irish motorcycle event.
Stephen visits the original Clady Circuit, home of the Ulster Grand Prix. It follows the path of some of our most successful riders, including Joe Craig, who would find greater success as manager of the Norton factory team – one of the best in the world. Also working with the team in the late 1940s was self-taught engineer and designer Rex McCandless, an Ulster Scotsman from Hillsborough – the inventor of the game-changing ‘Feathherbed Frame’. Norton destroyed opposition at the Isle of Man TT in 1950 and McCandless would change the way motorcycle racing was conceived for decades to come.
Local pilots and engineers continued to seek success. By the early 1960s, Italian and Japanese machines were beginning to dominate. But Bushmills farmer Richard Creith, driving a Norton tuned by Ballyclare chimney seller and fitter, Joe Ryan, proved the famous marque could still compete – winning two North West 200s and the Ulster Grand Prix in 1965.
That year, a Larne motorcycle enthusiast, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, Gordon Blair, became involved in Irish road racing. The University designed and built the machines with enormous success. Stephen meets one of Blair’s students, Robert Fleck and horseman Ray McCullough. The Queen’s team would go on to develop a partnership with Yamaha to help develop their engines. Robert himself would go on to become a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and bring the University to a global audience competing in Grand Prix races with driver Jeremy McWilliams.
But with success often comes tragedy. Some have paid a heavy price for the sport – none more so than the Dunlop family of Ballymoney. Stephen meets Jim Dunlop of the famous racing dynasty to find out where they learned their knowledge of mechanics and their ability to set up and tune their own machines and their passion for motorcycle racing.
The passion for motorcycle racing has also been passed down from generation to generation in another famous Larne racing dynasty. Stephen talks to Jonathan Rea, six-time World Superbike Champion, son of Johnny Rea – TT Championship winner and Irishman.
Stephen Davison has been a motorsport fan since attending his first race in 1974 and is the author of nine books on the subject.
“Long before I took a camera, I had heard of the great racers who hailed from this part of the world in the past. Doing ‘Motorcycle Mavericks’ allowed me to dig much deeper into this rich history and discover the huge impact they have had on the international stage,” he says.
“Reading in books about people like legendary Norton team boss Joe Craig, brilliant engineers like Rex McCandless and Joe Ryan, or great drivers like Joey Dunlop is one thing, but meeting historians and people who knew them personally brought their personality and legacy to life.
“Seeing the machines they built, exploring the circuits they raced on and hearing the stories of legends such as Dick Creith, Ray McCullough, Jeremy McWilliams and Jonathan Rea has been thrilling. And here and there along the way, I even got to try out a bike myself!
The Motorcycle Mavericks is on BBC One Northern Ireland at 10.40pm on Tuesday September 13.