Cookstown B.E. Racing team owner John Burrows admits the tragic death of young prospect Malachi Mitchell-Thomas at this year’s North West 200 left him facing one of the toughest decisions of his career.
The former top Irish road racer turned team boss, who hung up his leathers following the death of close friend Trevor Ferguson at the Manx Grand Prix in 2012, was left reeling by the fatal crash involving the 20-year-old from Chorley in Lancashire in the main Supertwins race in May.
Mitchell-Thomas came off on the approach to Black Hill in Portrush and died at the scene. The event was cancelled by Race Director Mervyn Whyte as a mark of respect.
The bubbly youngster had shot to prominence within Irish road racing circles in just a few short weeks after making a sensational debut between the hedges, winning both Supersport races and the Open Superbike race at the Mid Antrim 150.
He then finished on the podium in the Supersport and Supertwins races at the Tandragee 100 but his most eye-catching performance was yet to come at the North West, where ‘MMT’ sealed a magnificent fourth place on his Triangle bow in the opening Supersport race.
Sadly, tragedy struck and a shining star was wiped out in one fell swoop, casting a dark cloud over the international road race and sending shockwaves throughout the close-knit biking community.
It was a devastating setback for Dungannon man Burrows, who faced a difficult decision over whether or not to continue with his team throughout the rest of the 2016 season. However, encouraged by the steadfast support of Malachi’s father Kevin, Burrows opted to press ahead with plans to run Dubliner Derek Sheils at the Isle of Man TT.
“Heading to the North West, I probably had the dream team in the paddock as far as national road racing was concerned with Derek and Malachi - we had enjoyed such a great start to the year. Obviously then at the North West Mal produced that performance in the first 600 race when he finished fourth on our Honda,” Burrows told the News Letter.
“Unfortunately, disaster struck after that and Malachi’s death was an all-time low for everyone involved with the team. It was hard for Derek too because he had been his team-mate and shared an awning with Mal, so it was a lot for him to take in as well as trying to stay focused on his own racing. Fair play to Derek, he came up to the mark and picked up where he left off when we got back to the national road races again after the TT,” Burrows said.
“It wasn’t easy to make the decision to carry on racing but as everyone knows, we did so with the full backing of Malachi’s father Kevin. It still was a hard call to make and in hindsight we probably did make the right decision because I still had a commitment in place with Derek Sheils and our sponsors. Unfortunately you do get hardened to tragedy in our sport but this time it was obviously much harder to take because it happened in my own team.
“When a fatal accident happens, it knocks you out of your stride but you just go on with it. This time, with our team involved, it made me step back and look at things. We had to sit down and make a decision together and probably 80 or 90 per-cent of the fans and other riders and teams were behind us, but I did get a few people involved in the sport saying I should have pulled the plug.”
Reflecting on Mitchell-Thomas’s virtuoso display at the Mid Antrim at the beginning of April, Burrows says it quickly became apparent he had signed a rider with the potential to go all the way.
“It was amazing for Mal to come to the Mid Antrim and win first time out in the first race he ever contested on the 600. I’m not sure if that has ever been done before at national road racing level in the main classes,” he said.
“I can’t recall anyone in recent times winning their very first race in one of the main races before. It was quite an achievement and he went on to win the first Superbike race that day as well for a hat-trick. I knew then the lad was something special.”
Following the crushing low of Malachi’s death, there was cause for celebration later in the season when the English rider posthumously won the Ulster Supertwins Championship following confirmation of the final standings at Armoy. His father, Kevin, was in attendance on a poignant day for the team.
Sheils went on to win the Superbike crown on Burrows’ Suzuki at Faugheen and also lifted the Irish Supertwins title as the year ended on a successful note, albeit with Mitchell-Thomas never far from Burrows’ thoughts.
“It was a year of highs and lows and it’s just so unfortunate that Mal sadly lost his life. I couldn’t have asked for more with the two riders I had going to the North West and then disaster struck,” said Burrows.
“Sadly, these things can happen in racing and you have to try and pick yourself up again.”