NORTH West 200 event director Mervyn Whyte says news of Mark Buckley’s fatal crash on Saturday was ‘like being kicked in the stomach’.
Whyte and the Coleraine Club work tirelessly to carry out countless risk assessments every year in an effort to provide both spectators and competitors with an environment that is as safe as it possibly can be at a motorcycle road race.
For so long on Saturday, that looked to be the case with thousands of fans turning out to watch some incredible racing in glorious sunny weather on the beautiful Causeway Coast.
Tragically, the accident involving Mark Buckley on the opening lap of the Superstock race at Mill Road took the life of the 35-year-old from Loch Lomond and cast a dark shadow over the event.
Whyte said he was reeling from the setback but vowed to continue working hard to increase safety levels at the North West 200.
“Mark’s accident put a downer on the whole day. We had put a massive effort into the event this year because we had so much criticism after what happened in 2011 when the event was cancelled due to the weather, a bomb scare and an oil spill,” he said.
“We worked at it for months and looked at how we could improve and make things better this year.
“Accidents like this do happen unfortunately and you can’t legislate for it,” he added.
“We have an independent safety panel on board who assess things but it’s motorcycle racing and it’s a high-speed sport - these things can and do happen.”
While all the competitors and thousands of spectators were shocked by the death, on the racing front there was cause for celebration for William Dunlop.
William provided Wilson Craig with his maiden international road race victory as he denied British Supersport champion Alastair Seeley in the opening Supersport race.
Dunlop was in sizzling form on Craig’s Honda CBR600RR as he hit the front on the opening lap and stayed there until the end, with the race stopped on the fifth lap due to a crash involving Seeley’s Tyco Suzuki team-mate Guy Martin at Black Hill.
Martin escaped serious injury, but was ruled out of the remainder of the event after suffering a bang to the head.
All the hype leading up to the Causeway Coast showpiece had been focused on Seeley’s quest to equal Phillip McCallen’s 1992 feat of five wins in a day, but Dunlop spoilt the party at the very first attempt.
John McGuinness rode a solid race in third to bag a rostrum finish for Clive Padgett’s Honda team.
Dunlop’s team-mate Cameron Donald was fourth followed by Gary Johnson on his privately run 600cc Honda and Michael Dunlop on the Ard Na Mara Homes/McAdoo Suzuki GSX-R600.
Dunlop, who was celebrating his third victory at the North West 200 and his first win in the four-stroke classes, said: “It was hard work and I was lucky to get the win. I ran over the grass at the chicane on that last lap.
“I was really confident when I saw my board and I knew I had a bit of a gap, but then the race was cut short.
“I didn’t really know what I would do with Seeley if it came down to the last lap at the chicane but I was lucky because we had such a strong motor in the bike and I had good top speed on the straights.”
Seeley had been closing the gap as the race progressed, reducing Dunlop’s mid-race advantage of three seconds to less than a second on the fifth lap of the scheduled six-race distance, but his challenge was ended prematurely when the red flags came out due to Martin’s crash.
“It was a pity about the red flag. I wanted to get close to William for that last lap because his bike was a missile.
“If you have the speed to get to the front here then it’s always best to try and break away, but it’s not always easy.”
Dunlop’s ecstatic team boss Crag said: “That’s our first international victory and we’ve put a lot of time and effort into achieving this.
“I hope this is the start of more to come.”
Isle of Man TT legend McGuinness was comfortable in third place on the Padgett’s Honda and the 40-year-old from Morecambe was delighted to put the little Supersport machine on the podium.
McGuinness, who was back at the North West 200 after missing the event last year due to his commitments in the Endurance World Championship with the Honda TT Legends team, said: “I went inside Guy Martin at York on the first lap and it was a bit close – I was waiting for a bit of contact to be honest.
“But you’ve got to be aggressive here and try and get away at the front early doors.
“I was hanging in there in third but William [Dunlop] and Alastair [Seeley] were really strong.
“It’s a good start to the day and it’s nice to be competitive on the little 600.”
Martin made the break on lap one as he led off the line from Seeley and McGuinness, but at Ballysally in Coleraine Dunlop had forced his way through to the front.
Dunlop, Seeley and McGuinness edged away from the main group on the second lap, with the Ballymoney rider opening up a slight gap of 1.8 seconds over Seeley by the end of the second lap.
Dunlop increased his lead to almost three seconds on lap four with Seeley in hot pursuit.
British Supersport champion Seeley began to reduce the deficit but on lap five the race was stopped and Dunlop was awarded a deserved victory.