FORTY years ago the 1971 North West 200 ran on the original 11-mile Triangle circuit that had hosted the event since it began in 1929 for the final time.
In future years the massed packs would no longer thunder away from the start/finish, just after the York Hotel, round Henry’s Corner and along Portstewart prom, past the shops and ice cream parlours with the Atlantic booming on the rocks only feet away to their right. Since 1929 the course had passed Lark Hill, McHugh’s Plantation and Drumslade on the run through the countryside, past The Boulevard at Coleraine, before turning left at Milburn Hairpin and starting the run to Shell Hill and then Portrush.
On a miserable day in 1971 with driving rain and blinding spray swirling off the cliff tops, John Cooper, Paul Smart and Derek Chatterton became the last men to record wins on the “old” Triangle circuit. It was the end of an era.
There was no North West 200 held in 1972 due to the political unrest in Northern Ireland. When racing resumed in 1973 the course would swing left at York Corner onto Cromore Road and away through Station Corner and the fast run into Coleraine.
Held under leaden skies and in conditions that would not be considered suitable for racing in the modern era, the 1971 North West 200 was a sad and dismal farewell to the “old” circuit. At the end of the day Paul Smart, Tony Rutter, Tom Herron and Tommy Robb lay in hospital, all injured after crashing out in the freezing, slippery conditions.
Despite the rain the 350cc race was an enthralling contest from the off. A light drizzle as the race got underway quickly turned into a downpour. Paul Smart declared at the end, “The worst conditions I’ve ever raced in”.
Tom Herron hadn’t completed a lap beforer crashing out and into a spectator area at Juniper Hill. Tommy Robb had a clear 200 yard lead after two laps, but was another faller at Juniper after clipping Paul Smart’s rear wheel on lap four. John Cooper pushed on through the gloom, narrowly missing the fallen Robb but with the screen smashed from flying debris. Whilst water in the ignition of Phil Read’s Yamaha ended his spell at the front, Cooper settled his nerves and moved ahead of Paul Smart. But it was Smart who had the final say, taking the win on a day that felt more like December, whilst Tony Rutter, father of modern day North West 200 star Michael, held off Alan Barnett’s challenge to take third place.
The rain became steadily heavier as the 250cc grid lined up with a front row (Rod Gould, Paul Smart, Sweden’s Kent Anderson and Phil Read) that would have done justice to a Grand Prix. Once again Read’s Yamaha would fall foul of the conditions and quit after a handful of miles. Rutter, Gould and Smart well clear first time through Portrush, but as Gould retired at the pits after only a lap, Rutter and Smart duked it out in the rain. On lap three at Crannagh, a fast left-hand sweep approaching Coleraine the leaders touched with disastrous effect. Both crashed out suffering injuries that would see them join the steadily lengthening list of race casualties in Coleraine hospital.
It was John Cooper who emerged from the mayhem to start the last lap in the lead. But a steadily worsening crack in an expansion chamber ruined his charge, leaving him to nurse the stricken Yamaha home in second place. In the end it was Derek Chatterton who tiptoed through the puddles to the flag, surviving numerous scares on the way as he recorded his maiden win on the Triangle.
Cooper’s efforts would finally be rewarded in the 500cc race, shortened from nine to six laps and ran in truly treacherous conditions.
The race produced a flag to flag tussle between Cooper and his close friend and travelling companion Geoff Barry. For six laps the two men, both Seeley mounted, skated on the edge of adhesion. Less than half a second split them as two thirds distance came and went, Barry led on lap five and the battling friends set out on the final circuit side by side. Cooper edged the verdict and wrote his name in the record books as the last man to win a race on the original Triangle circuit.
To many it seems like yesterday when the sound of racing engines reverberated off the shop fronts and men like John Cooper, Derek Chatterton and Paul Smart flashed along Portstewart promenade on a Saturday in May each year. To many it still seems that the best place to watch the North West 200 was from the pavement, outside Sheila Conway’s shop in Portstewart, with a ’99 in your hand and a view of the Donegal coastline in the distance.