Old school. That's probably the best description of Coleraine's 'Triangle' road racing course, better known as the home of the North West 200 each May. A largely flat-out blast between the towns of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush on the Causeway Coast, it has been punctuated by a few chicanes in recent years, but these really are the only major concessions to safety.
The all-too-obvious dangers provide part of the allure for both racers and the public alike and the North West 200 is second-only in prestige to the TT on the Isle of Man. Both the practice and races are held on closed roads, but unlike the TT where a time-trial format is used, at the North West 200 all riders compete together, as with normal circuit racing.
The event's name is in fact a regular source of confusion: originally the race was due to be held on roads in the north west of Ireland, but while the venue was changed prior to the first running to the north coast, the organising City of Derry & District Motor Club elected to keep the original choice of name. The '200' in the title merely refers to the 200 miles the original races covered; today's races are just over 50 miles long.
It's doubtful that the original organisers could have anticipated how the event would grow. The first event in 1929 was a handicap race but today's 4-6 lap affairs are run as separate races in what is now the largest annual sporting event in Northern Ireland. The race weekend attracts over 150,000 visitors from all over the world.
Ernie Nott has the distinction of winning the top 500cc class in that first running (a feat he would repeat over the next three years), with Harry Meagen taking 300cc honours and Malcom McQuigg the 250cc class win. Since then a whole host of famous names have competed for victory, including Michael, Joey, William and Robert Dunlop, Jim Moodie, Steve Hislop and Carl Fogarty among the notables. Alastair Seeley holds the record for wins (24 as of 2018).
Sadly, the event has claimed more than its fair share of casualties. The first recorded death at the event was Norman Wainwright who was killed in 1939, while 1979 is regarded as the darkest day in the event's history, after crashes claimed the lives of three riders, Tom Herron, Brian Hamilton and Frank Kennedy, who died months later of his injuries, on what became known as Black Saturday.
Also notably, in 2008 local hero Robert Dunlop was killed when he crashed approaching Mather's Cross after what is thought to be engine seizure pitched him over the handlebars into the path of fellow rider Darren Burns, who was unable to avoid him. Dunlop suffered severe chest injuries and died a short time later in hospital; Burns suffered a broken leg and suspected concussion.
Despite this, the event retains its allure and its status as the most important of the 15 road racing events held across Ireland. The course is comprised almost entirely of public roads, with the current route utilising the A2, B185 and A29. The original course, first used in 1929, ventured further into Portstewart and into the outer fringes of Coleraine, whereas today's course skirts the edges of both towns.
The route, running anti-clockwise, passes many private houses along its length, among other hazards. To help improve track safety street signs are removed at parts of the track, with bales of hay are used to wrap the base of lamp posts and telegraph poles.
The first major change to the circuit came in 1930, with the relocation of the start from its original location near Magherabuoy to its present spot at Portstewart. Minor alterations were made to the route in 1968 at Coleraine and Portrush but it wasn't until 1973 that the first major change came, when the the Promenade at Portstewart was bypassed and Station Road was used for the first time.
Further changes came in 1980 when a new link road bypassed the southern fringe of the course, removing the iconic Shell Hill Bridge section. Then in 1983 a chicane was introduced just before the approach to the Juniper Hill, while 1988 brought improvements to Mather's Cross. The same year the start/finish chicane was introduced, to reduce the speeds around Primrose Hill as well as allowing safer access to the pit lane. Races grid up and start on the original course but on all subsequent passes use the chicane section.
Further chicanes were added at Magherabouy in 1996 and Mill Road (to circumnavigate a roundabout) in 1998. Most recently, improvements have continued at Mather's Cross, with widening in 2009 followed by the introduction of a chicane the following year.
The race celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019, with the only interruptions to racing coming during World War II; then in 1948 (due to the lack of available fuel); 1963 as the City of Derry & District Motor Club cancelled the race due to rising costs (the Coleraine and District Motor Club would pick up the baton in 1964, running the race to the present day); in 1972 due to the political situation in Northern Ireland and in 2001 due the outbreak of foot and mouth disease which ravaged much of the countryside and led to restrictions on vehicle and people movements. More recently, the 2020 and 2021 events fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, though it is hoped racing will resume in 2022.