North West 200 Event Director Mervyn Whyte feels this year’s spectacular line-up of the world’s top road racers and exotic machinery is the best of his long tenure in charge of the international road race.
The famous ‘Triangle’ meeting is celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2019 and the stellar cast-list is befitting of the special milestone.
Michael Rutter will ride the Honda RC213V-S at the event for the first time ever in Saturday’s Superbike races, while 23-time Isle of Man TT winner John McGuinness will line up on the Norton SG8 after all, after it seemed as though the deal was off.
Carrick’s Alastair Seeley, the most successful rider at the North West with 24 wins, will give the new PBM Be Wiser Ducati Panigale V4-R its road racing debut as he targets a prestigious win in the blue riband class.
Glenn Irwin is back, with the British Superbike rider riding for a different manufacturer at the North West for the first time in the feature class. Irwin has joined the Quattro Plant JG Speedfit Kawasaki team after winning the past three Superbike races on the North Coast on the PBM Ducati V-Twin.
There is also the eagerly awaited racing return of Michael Dunlop, who hasn’t raced since last year’s Senior TT, while Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison – who raised the bar around the Mountain Course in 2018 – underpin the quality of the entry list, which includes high profile newcomer Richard Cooper on the Buildbase Suzuki.
For Limavady man Whyte, everything is in place for a memorable 90th birthday year, but he is the first to admit the overall success of the meeting can never be measured until the final race on Saturday is safely over.
“When the weather is good, then the high speeds come with that I suppose and you can’t have it every way,” said Whyte.
“If I had a year like we did last year, then I’d be more than happy. We only had a couple of incidents, nothing major, and if I could say the same on Saturday night then I’d be a happy man.
“I’d probably agree that we’ve got the best line-up for the event in my time in charge and it’s difficult to say with any certainty who will win on Thursday and Saturday.
“In reality there are probably six to 10 guys there who are more than capable, so that makes it exciting for all the fans,” he added.
“We’ve a fantastic line-up of riders and this year we’ve got the very best bikes on the grid as well, so it’s fitting for the 90th anniversary of the North West 200.
“Michael Rutter will ride with the number 90 on the Honda RCV and John McGuinness is here with the Norton.”
It seemed unlikely that McGuinness would have the opportunity to ride the Norton but a resolution was reached in the end, and Whyte is delighted with the final outcome.
“I have to admit, it was a real pleasure seeing that Norton truck pull into the paddock because so much hard work went into pulling it all together.
“After we got details that the Norton engine was 1200cc, it was all off because the regulations just don’t permit that. I worked closely with Stuart Garner and John McGuinness over the past four or five weeks and we only got everything finalised last week.
“The Norton will run the Aprilia engine from last year so we were able to get the deal over the line and it will be great for the fans to see and hear it this week.
“There were some great races at the North West in the early ’90s when Robert Dunlop and Trevor Nation rode the old Rotary Norton in the JPS colours, and then later we had Steve Spray on the bike, so it brings back all those old memories.”
Whyte’s involvement with the North West 200 goes back to 1973, when he was a marshal at Station Corner. He worked his way up through the organisational structure, undertaking roles including chief marshal, treasurer and race secretary, before becoming assistant to Clerk of the Course Billy Nutt.
When Nutt left in 2000, Whyte took over the reins and has ultimately been in charge of the race for the past 19 years. For all the hard work involved behind the scenes, Whyte – who turned 69 last week – says the buzz of running the event keeps him coming back for more every year.
“I get a buzz out of it, like the riders do to an extent I suppose,” he said. “It’s also the sense of satisfaction you get when everything goes well, but I couldn’t do the job I do without the support I get from the team around me.
“I’m very fortunate to have such dedicated support from the management team of volunteers and without them I would struggle. There have been many ups and downs over the years and sometimes as you’re a bit older you wonder if you need the stress of it at times.
“But when things go wrong, if you didn’t get back and work at it to get things back on the road again, then you’d just give up and forget about it.”
There has been an expectation that Whyte will step down following the anniversary meeting this year. A succession strategy was announced in September 2017 to smooth the handover once he steps aside, but perhaps Northern Ireland’s ‘Mr Motorcycling’ will be around for a little while longer.
“I suppose we’ll have to wait and see,” was Whyte’s response. “I just want to get this week out of the way and see what happens.”