Life

Jake O'Kane: Joey and Robert Dunlop are archetypes of risk takers through the ages

I never met Joey or Robert Dunlop but through watching many of their interviews, I was struck how similar they were to my own uncles, farmers all. Men who said little, but when they did speak, said all that was needed

The late, great Joey Dunlop on his way to his final TT win in 2000 Picture: Stephen Davison
Jake O'Kane

I ONCE joked that motorcycle road racing was GAA for Protestants. I didn’t mean from that that road racing is in anyway a Protestant sport – it has always been open to all. What I meant is the camaraderie between riders and fans in road racing is similar to that which exists within the GAA.

This sense of community becomes most evident when tragedy strikes, as it does all too often, and at these times the road racing fraternity become a family.

Thankfully, last week’s North West 200 passed off in glorious weather with no serious injuries – it was, by all accounts, the best NW200 in many years. Thousands of fans watched local great, Alastair Seeley, move his tally of wins on the coast to 24 victories, an amazing achievement. His great friend and rival, Glen Irwin, then coasted home in the Superbike race, making it a great weekend for the Carrickfergus duo.

The attraction of watching men race motorbikes along narrow country roads at speeds over 200 miles per hour is lost on most people. An occasional biker, my one visit to the NW200 left me terrified by the speed and danger; whatever it takes to push a motorbike to that extreme isn’t in my temperament – I’m much too neurotic.

On the rare occasion when on my bike I notice my speed nearing 70mph, I immediately hit the brakes. Unlike the road racers, who can see only victory, all I can see is imminent death through tyre blow-out or hitting an imagined stationary tractor around the next blind corner.

Due to the regularity of fatalities in road racing there has been some discussion about banning it. Before any such decision I’d argue those concerned watch Road, a brilliant locally produced film on the NW200 featuring two of its legendary characters, Joey and Robert Dunlop.

They would see the Dunlop brothers spend their lives working, not just to beat their opponents, but to beat themselves. And this is a characteristic of all risk takers, a need to push to see where their limit lies. They’d also see men with no death wish but rather an amazing life wish, and a desire to live that life to the full.

Most of all they’d see a courage, bravery and grit which separates these men from the rest of humanity. I defy anyone to watch Michael Dunlop race and win, two days after his father Robert tragically lost his life in a practice session in 2008, and not have a tear in their eye.

I never met Joey or Robert Dunlop but through watching many of their interviews, I was struck how similar they were to my own uncles, farmers all. Men who said little, but when they did speak, said all that was needed. Humble men who belittled their own achievements through self-deprecating humour. Once, asked what he did technically to win his races, Joey Dunlop answered, “awk, sure, all I do is open her up and houl on”.

Joey and Robert Dunlop are archetypes of risk takers through the ages. These are the same characters who, having arrived in the new land of America, travelled to it’s frontier, just to see what was there. And when cautioned not to go over the next mountain for fear of attack answered, “sure, I’ll just throw me leg over the horse and have a look”.

These are the same characters who, having arrived in the space programme of the 1960s in America, and being told there was no guarantee they’d survive if they got in untested rockets, replied “sure, I’ll just throw me leg in and see what happens”.

In short, if we ban men and women from taking risks we lose something essential in what makes us human. For it is through taking risks, large and small, that life is made worth living. I’m not saying race a motorbike at 200mph, nor climb a mountain, but try occasionally to step outside your comfort zone.

Do something that makes you a little afraid, do something where you’re not sure of the outcome, take a risk. I guarantee the rewards are great if you do. The first night I walked on stage as a comic I did so with absolutely no training nor experience. I took a risk, and that has led to many adventures and amazing experiences.

If you take a risk, what’s the worst that can happen? You may fail, but there is something much worse than failure. What terrifies me is the thought of lying on my deathbed, wondering what may have happened, if only I’d taken more risks.

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