The woman who helps road racers: 'You can't drag them off the starting line'
Motorcycle racing by its nature is a high-risk sport, with inherent dangers part of thrill and excitement for competitors and fans alike. Jenny Lee chats to Jan Simm, one of three women who, united by personal tragedy, set up a fund to provide financial help for riders and their families after injury
AS MOTORCYCLE fans gear up for next week's Ulster Grand Prix, three women united through tragedy, and described as the 'fairy godmothers' of the north's road-racing circuit, are busy preparing for a busy week's fundraising.
Jan Simm, Sheila Sinton and Yvonne Ward head the Injured Riders’ Welfare Fund, which has been supporting riders after injury since 2003 by offering financial assistance and emotional support, and is the official charity of the MCE Insurance Ulster Grand Prix 2018 in Dundrod.
Although seen by fans as one of world's most thrilling sports, motorcycle road racing is also one of the most dangerous. Just within the past few weeks riders William Dunlop and James Cowton have lost their lives racing; Wigan rider Jamie Hodson and Yorkshire rider Gavin Lupton both died as result of crashes at last year's Ulster Grand Prix.
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Jan knows all too well the emotional turmoil that these men's families will have suffered; in September 2000 she took a phone call she hoped she would never get, telling her that her boyfriend of six years, Tandragee road racer Eddie Sinton, had been killed in a crash at the Carrowdore 100 race on the Ards Peninsula.
Jan, originally from Liverpool, first met Eddie at the Manx Grand Prix in the Isle of Man in 1993 – and it was love at first sight.
"Eddie was over doing the newcomer race. I was standing at the hill near the paddock talking to friends, when a man with long locks came racing past at high speed on a push bike. He took my breath away and I asked 'Who's that?' I was told "that's Big Ted".
"He took a bit of convincing at first, " laughs Jan, who soon won the affections of the Armagh man.
Their time together was cut short when Eddie made the fateful decision to compete in the now-defunct Co Down race almost 18 years ago.
Did she ever try to convince him not to race?
"No. It's who they are," she says of motorcycle road racers. "You can't drag them off the starting line. It's their passion and what they live for."
Two years later Jan relocated from Liverpool to Carrickfergus and in 2003 set up The Injured Riders' Welfare Fund, alongside Eddie's mother Sheila and Yvonne, the widow of Steve Ward, who was killed while competing in Sweden in 1996.
While some of those of the most successful riders have insurance policies and salaries that help cover medical costs, for the majority of self-employed racers, an unscheduled injury can cause financial stress for their families.
The charity provides instant, red-tape-free funding to riders and their families when the unthinkable happens. Their support extends to Irish riders when they compete overseas and to overseas riders when they compete in Ireland.
Supported purely by voluntary donations and fundraising events – initially starting off selling quiz sheets for a pound – the charity has paid donations to affected families well into six figures since its inception; last year the figure was over £20,000.
"The fund also covers the costs of travel to hospital and treatment," Jan says. "It’s not just about giving people money, it’s about giving them that support and comfort. We are a small charity and work hard all year round to raise money for injured riders so being the charity partner of such a high-profile event is a welcome boost for us.
"There are lots of exciting fundraising events taking place throughout [the Ulster Grand Prix's] Bike Week including a sponsored walk on Sunday August 5 around the race circuit, and a table quiz in the marquee on Tuesday August 7."
There will also be a race-day auction in aid of the charity, with lots including a framed polo shirt from last year's Armoy Road Races signed by Michael, William, Gary and Sam Dunlop.
Despite the heartache, Jan admits she is glad that good has come out of tragedy.
"Motorcycling is a big part of my life. The way I look at it now is I wake up in the country I want to be in, surrounded by some great friends. My home, the charity and my role as welfare office have all happened because of Eddie.
"For everything that racing has given me, it is important that I give back as much as I can. It’s very humbling for us when riders want to support us; it makes us realise that we truly are making a difference, albeit in a small way."
Jan has also taken on the role of welfare officer for the road racing's official governing body in the north. When there is a 'red flag', indicating a race accident, this role sees her locating riders' families and liaising with medics to keep them updating on their condition.
"Safety is everybody's priority and clubs and organisation are continually reviewing safety measures and doing as much as they can. But unfortunately accidents do happen," she says.
Although ever present at events, both as welfare officer and in fundraising and promoting the injured riders charity, Jan admits that since Eddie's death she can no longer watch the racing.
"I'm a wimp. I'm always frightened of them falling off. Even in the North West when I know the big screen near the paddock is on a slight time delay I can't bring myself to watch."
What she does look forward to is the atmosphere and camaraderie of her racing family.
"There are lots of characters about racing and a lot of laughter and carry-on. Yes it's competitive but everyone looks out for each other. That's perhaps something to do with the dangers of racing," she says.
"The Ulster Grand Prix is a great family event. There's so much on, it's not all about watching bikes."
:: To find out more about the Injured Riders Welfare Fund see their Facebook page. The 2018 MCE Insurance Ulster Grand Prix starts on August 5, with two days of international racing on Thursday 9 and Saturday 11. For more information see Ulstergrandprix.net