Gary Dunlop has been looking forward to making his debut at the MCE Ulster Grand Prix more than any other road race he has entered during his maiden season of competition between the hedges.
His legendary father Joey still holds the record for the most wins around the 7.4-mile Dundrod course with a staggering 48 in total, including 24 each at the Ulster GP and Killinchy 150 meetings.
Dunlop competed in his first ever road race in the 125cc class on the Joey’s Bar Honda at the Mid Antrim 150 back in April and has entered selected Irish National road races this year including Tandragee, Cookstown, Skerries and Armoy.
However, the Ulster Grand Prix has been the standout date on the calendar for the 33-year-old, who says the iconic Dundrod course holds so many special memories.
“It’s the only race that I’ve actually been looking forward to all year. There’s others that I’ve sort of been interested in but none compare to this one,” said Dunlop.
“Dundrod has been the one that I’ve looked forward to from the very first race. I have so many childhood memories running about Dundrod; I grew up there - playing in the wee stream down the bottom of the paddock, messing about on the bicycle in round where the scrutineering bay is and obviously watching all those great races through the 80s and 90s. It’s like a home from home for me.
“The memories I have of my Dad racing there are ridiculous. He has the record for the most number of wins at Dundrod but it’s not just that – I know everybody probably thinks it’s the TT and he did love the TT, but Dundrod was his favourite course,” he added.
“The memories are there every year, my Dad came away pretty much every time with something and it means a lot to me to race this track. I love it just the way he did.”
Dunlop will have the honour of riding with Joey’s famous number 3, which was retired by the race organisers following his tragic death at a race meeting in Tallinn, Estonia in 2000.
“Noel [Johnston], the clerk of the course, has given me the number 3. I wasn’t too sure about it at first as it’s my Dad’s number and it’s a bit strange for me, but it’s a nice legacy and if it helps give a bit of publicity for the 125 class and the Ulster Grand Prix then I’m happy,” Dunlop said.
“There’s so much competition in the Ultra-Lightweight class this year. Christian Elkin has to be the favourite with the Moto 3, Sam Wilson – if he’s in the mood – he’s just in a different level. Paul Jordan’s brilliant, Adam McLean, Nigel Moore, Paul Robinson and Derek McGee will be up there. There’s just so many boys that could win it – it’s great for the fans.”
Looking ahead to experiencing the Dundrod course at racing speed for the first time as a newcomer during Wednesday’s practice, Dunlop admitted it was a somewhat daunting prospect.
“Because it’s so fast I’m actually a wee bit wary, I’ve never ridden a circuit as fast as this before, nothing even close to it,” he said.
“I don’t actually think I’ll be that good straight away. I had thought about doing a fast short circuit somewhere before the Ulster but because I’m running so many bikes I haven’t the time to get anything done.
“My aim is just to get round in one piece and enjoy it to be honest.”
The Co Antrim man began racing again at the Sunflower Trophy meeting last year, competing in the 125cc class after William Dunlop withdrew.
“William was going to ride a bike for me but he pulled out on the Wednesday night before the Sunflower and he said ‘why don’t you do it, get a bike out on the grid, scoot around and have a bit of fun.’ I decided the next morning that I would,” he said.
“Another rider, Melissa Kennedy, was carrying on with me and said that I was maybe scared to do the roads and it sort of burnt into me a bit and got me really considering it. That’s when I decided to go for it and I think I would always have regretted it if I didn’t.”
Dunlop will ride in the 125cc races at the Dundrod 150 meeting on Thursday as well as Saturday’s main Ulster GP race.
He will also have his hands full with Sam Wilson, Derek McGee and Paul Robinson in action on the Joey’s Bar Honda 125cc machines.