Late last week, Northern Ireland road racer William Dunlop was killed in a crash during practice for the Skerries 100 road race in Ireland. William, 32, was the son of Robert Dunlop, who died in a racing crash in 2008, and the nephew of Joey Dunlop, who died in a racing crash in 2000. He was also the elder brother of Isle of Man TT legend Michael Dunlop, who I think should seriously consider giving up racing.
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Michael’s unlikely to come to that decision on his own. Famously, his first international race win came in 2008 at the North West 200, the same race for which his father had been practicing when he’d been killed two days earlier.
‘It’s hard to see a weakness in someone who’s probably the best TT rider of them all… but if I was pushed I’d say it’s [Michael’s] determination, because it’ll probably catch him out some day.’
– William Dunlop
“He witnessed his dad’s death and then went out and raced flat out around the same corner, lap after lap,” racing fan Steve Mort told Bike magazine earlier this year. “How does anyone do that?”
Michael, in other words, is known for possessing an aggressive determination. He will probably want to respond to the death of his brother by winning, by getting on a bike. To some extent that’s understandable; most of us can relate to the idea of riding as catharsis. As he told the Guardian earlier this year: “Once you’re on the bike you’ve got freedom. It’s only you. Off the bike lots of people are picking and poking at you. I’m free on the bike.”
‘While he may appear to be a fearless, nerves of steel TT racer, he’s actually a young lad who lost his dad in tragic circumstances and at an age when he really needed him most’
– Journalist Stuart Barker
No doubt his fans will like the idea of him riding to overcome this, outrunning the grief of a family legacy of death. That’s a nice movie-style narrative. Sponsors, too, will want him to carry on riding because movie-style narratives make for good money. But this isn’t a movie. This is the life of a man who seems to be increasingly isolated and empty.
Michael has a reputation for being hard to deal with – especially if you happen to be a journalist – and the general feeling is that his attitude is borne of a kind of emptiness. He watched his father die, his uncle had died more or less the same way, now his brother… What drives him may not be simply a desire for success but a secret wish for self destruction.
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Living alone and known for keeping to himself in the paddock, Michael will no doubt be difficult to reach in all this. He has a tendency to be slightly paranoid about the world around him, telling the Guardian: “I’ve met good people in this game; 90 percent are really good. But the other 10 percent ruin it for the 90 percent.”
‘I think Michael might have been a very different person if his dad had been alive to guide him.’
– Stuart Barker
Even his own brother struggled to get through to him at times. In the July 2018 issue of Bike magazine William Dunlop said Michael had changed since their father had died, becoming more brash and more difficult.
“Dad’s not here to rein him in,” William said.
Now neither is William. So, if someone tries to suggest to Michael that he give up racing he or she will almost certainly be met with a torrent of colorful language. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try. Otherwise it seems he’ll carry on the family legacy of tragedy.
I’m not sure how you could force a man to stop racing if he’s fit to do so. It would be awkward to ban him from the sport on the grounds of trying to spare his life – a kind of Saving Private Ryan of motorcycling. But I really hope some people will try. I really hope there will be some people, somewhere, who will wade through the bullshit wall he’ll likely put up and say: “What do you have to prove? Everyone knows you’re the best, what critics are you trying to silence?”
Let him go off and run his veterinary business (he part-owns a practice in Dublin), or perhaps encourage him to find that part of him that is known for being witty and clever, and have him pursue the Guy Martin route of becoming a likable and semi-unintelligible TV presenter (Michael has a pretty thick Northern Ireland accent, as opposed to Martin’s swampy Lincolnshire cadence). Let him set up a nowhere motorcycle shop on the outskirts of Belfast where all he does is work on bikes. Something. Anything.
Because the outcome of his continued racing seems inevitable: this man is going to die horribly. And that just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right or good that the world would just sit back and let a man destroy himself in the same way as his father and brother and uncle.