Who is the world's greatest motorcycle racer of all time? This is a question that most will have an opinion about, and the variation of answers works as a reminder to us all that the talent in motorcycle racing is not only huge, it's endless. There's one person that I'm sure a large part of Ireland - and possibly a lot of the world - will agree on, though, and that's Joey Dunlop.

William Joseph “Joey” Dunlop is the only motorcycle racer to be honoured both O.B.E and M.B.E titles for achievements that were not both related to racing ( for his services to the sport and his humanitarian efforts). This alone tells us that, when considering Joey as our hero, we're not just talking about someone whose track record in racing puts him among the very best, but whose remarkable work towards helping vulnerable people has made him an honourable man in his own right.

It’s what I do best. It’s in my blood. It’s what I like and until I feel I can’t do it anymore I’ll keep on.' - Joey Dunlop

Joey Dunlop was also a true working class hero. Born on February 25th, 1952, and one of seven to parents Willie and May Dunlop, Joey grew up in a humble cottage in Ballymoney where both running water and electricity were scarce. True to the Dunlop form, he spent a lot of his childhood watching and sometimes helping his father tinker with machinery (he was a motor mechanic by trade)– an interest of Joey's that would carry on throughout his life.

The family were close and extremely self-reliant. Although Joey had not much interest in school education, preferring things that were hands-on, he was said to have been quiet and well behaved; his company of choice was his family, some close friends, and, quite often – and probably a result of having so many siblings that peace was much needed – himself. His shyness carried on into his career, and his modesty was probably one of the things that his fans liked about him the most.

'There is a grey blur, and a green blur. I try to stay on the grey one.' – Joey Dunlop

Joey got into motorcycle racing through his sister Helen's husband, Merv. Participating and spectating in the sport was quite common in the area and it wasn't long before Joey entered his first race (in 1969). He rode a Triumph Tiger Cub, bought with £50 of borrowed money. He wasn't winning races back then, but he certainly enjoyed them. The bikes they had were of a poor quality and having a small budget often meant that they would fail to make them good enough to qualify.  

Joe's first TT debut was in 1976 on a 250 Yamaha. By the following year, he had already won his first race: a special four-lap race to commemorate the Queen's Silver Jubilee. In 1977 him, Merv, Frank Kennedy and Jim Dunlop formed the Armoy Armada: a quartet that covered three racing seasons from 1977 to 1979. Joey's career was a slow burner during these years, and the tragic death of Merv during a race in 1980 almost put an end to it entirely. He cancelled all entries other than the Classic TT, which he unexpectedly then won.

'Joey was a legend and a hero to most bikers in the world – he was like an invincible force who just has more talent to ride a bike than anyone else. He was a friend as well as a rival on the track' – Phillip McCallen, racing rival

In 1981, Honda signed him up to race in Formula One and Classic events; he won his first TT Formula One World Championship for them in 1983. He went on to win it consecutively over the next five years, was awarded the M.B.E for his achievements, and the “King of the Mountain” was born. In 1985, he won his first TT hat-trick (in Junior, Senior and Formula One).  He achieved his second TT hat-trick three years later in the same races, taking his tally of TT victories to thirteen – one less than Mike Hailwood held.

After a year off in 1989 due to a crash, and the year after spent getting back into it, Joey looked set to equal Mike Hailwood's record of fourteen TT wins but was beaten by his brother Robert. Letting Joey win was never an option for him. Although brothers, the competition was real, and Joey, understandably, wanted to win fair and square. Interestingly, we see this similar respect, determination and commitment to the competition between Robert's two sons and today's Dunlop racers, Michael and William.

As impossible and unnecessary as it seems, Joey was apparently always really nervous before a race, preferring to turn up, have a quick cigarette, and jump straight on his bike, than to stand around waiting beforehand.

'Joey was quite simply the greatest at what he did and he always did it with the absolute minimum of fuss.' - Liam Beckett, Dunlop's mechanic and family friend

True to his modest form, Joey never set his fastest lap times during practice races, preferring to save his all for the final races, where he set many records. Joey broke his record in 1993. Some might have predicted that Joey's career had already peaked and that retirement was sure to come soon; they couldn't be more wrong. He went on to add his third TT hat-trick of wins in 2000, revered by his fans as 'Yer Maun', which he certainly was at the Isle of Man.

'He was one of the last true gents left in the sport - he never signed a contract because everyone knew his handshake meant more. His heart and soul were completely involved in racing.' - Neil Tuxworth, Honda WSB Team Manager.

His commitment to Honda lasted 21 years, making him their most loyal rider bar none. Whatever attempts they may have made to change him into a public idol failed. Joey was himself and this only gave his fans more reasoning to like him.

It's an egotistic sport, motorcycle racing, but Joey kept his feet firmly on the ground. He had time for everyone and anyone, and especially those less fortunate than him. His support for children in Romanian and Bosnian orphanages, where he repeatedly travelled alone in a van filled with food and clothing, led to him being awarded his O.B.E in 1996. Joey stated that this was his proudest award.

'I never really wanted to be a superstar. I just want to be myself. I hope that’s how people remember me.' - Joey Dunlop

Joey Dunlop died on Sunday 2nd July 2000 during a race in Tallinn after he lost control of his bike due to heavily wet conditions on the road and struck a tree, dying instantly on impact. True to his modest form, he had, apparently, spend the last night of his life sleeping in his van, despite having a hotel room booked for him.

Joey's death was global news. His funeral was broadcast on live Irish national television, was attended by government ministers and by some 45,000 fans. A memorial garden was opened in his hometown, where a statue of him has been erected. Another statue has since been built on the Isle of Man. There are Joey Dunlop stamps and coins. A documentary, Road, has also been released.

The legend of Joey Dunlop and his work helping those in need still lives on. The Joey Dunlop foundation, which was set up after his death, raises funds to build and run a facility that benefits those with disabilities. Their work has resulted in a lift being installed in the TT grandstand and has provided accommodation for the physically challenged on the Isle of Man.

'Between that modest battered cup and the jigsaw lies the greatest career that motorcycle road racing has ever seen.' - daughter Donna

Joey Dunlop Victories

Isle of Man TT: 26 with three hat-tricks (1985, 1988 and 2000)

North West 100: 13

Ulster Grand Prix: 24

We hope you've enjoyed reading about Joey Dunlop. If you have any comments, share them with us at news@wemoto.

Others from the Motorcycle Heroes series:

21/12/15         Thanks for info on Joey, true champion to the end

Posted by Daisy Cordell
for Wemoto News on 18 December 2015 in Features



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