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John McGuinness Set To Celebrate 30 Years Of Road Racing At 2024 Briggs Equipment North West 200

local news north west 200 Apr 10, 2024

When John McGuinness walks on to the grid of this year’s Briggs Equipment North West 200 during May 6-11 race week, the Morecambe man will be celebrating a very special anniversary at the north coast event.

The winner of six NW200 races and one of the sport’s true legends, the Honda Racing star made his road racing debut 30 years ago aboard a TZ 250cc Yamaha at the 1994 North West 200.

“I always wanted to do the North West.” McGuinness explained during a recent visit to Portrush.

“I had been competing in the British championships but I wanted to be a road racer. I’d read all the books, listened to the stories and my mates Lee Pullan, Mick Lofthouse and David Jefferies, were all doing it. It seemed the natural thing to do and I was offered a free boat and a free entry to race in 1994 which now, in this day and age, is unheard of!”

The Morecambe man was accompanied on his first trip to the north coast by his girlfriend, Becky who is now his wife.

“We just rounded up a few tins of beans and soup and set off in the van.” McGuinness recalls.

“But my Dad, who was my mechanic, didn’t want me to go road racing and he refused to come with us. I didn’t have a clue what I was letting myself in for really.”
Arriving in Northern Ireland during a time of civil unrest, one of the first things the couple encountered when they rolled off the ferry was a military checkpoint.

“I had no insurance on the van so I was pretty worried but going racing at the North West was like having a free pass.” McGuinness says.

“The soldiers thought it was a cool thing to do and they sent us on our way.”

Although he received a warm welcome as a newcomer to the NW200 paddock, McGuinness missed his father’s mechanical skills and initially felt out of his depth. Struggling with limited funds, he blagged tyres from Dunlop and brake pads from other riders.

“I did the best I could with what I had and I befriended everyone because I needed to learn.” McGuinness says but he was unnerved by an alarming incident during his very first lap of the course.

“It was pissing down.” he recalls in typically forthright manner.

“I went around York hairpin and up to where the Mill Road roundabout is today which was followed by an uphill right. I heard a scraping sound and Stephen Haslett went skidding past me along the pavement on his back after he slid off on the wet road.”

Qualifying well down the order, McGuinness failed to finish in either of the 250cc races after suffering clutch problems.

“But I had done it and I was out there competing.” he reflects.

“I had dipped my toe into road racing, had got the sense of speed and felt all the bumps. The pure roads were so different compared to the short circuits. The speeds were very high on roads that had various types of tarmac with different levels of grip.”

Friendships made during that initial NW200 trip have endured until the present day.

“I met Rev John Kilpatrick (one of Irish road racing’s resident chaplains) and we were taken on a trip along the Causeway coast on the Friday of race week.” McGuinness recalls.

“It was free and you got your lunch bought as well so Becky and me went along. We were also given some money at the end of race week when we didn’t have enough funds for the fuel to get home.”

Hooked on the thrill of the roads, McGuinness became a North West regular and two years later he experienced a breakthrough moment in his career at Portrush.

“If you asked me to pick one stand out moment in the past 30 years at the NW200 it would be in 1996.” he says.

“After two years of learning the track and weighing the job up, I found myself in the leading group of the 250cc race when the flag dropped. That was a defining moment for me, a moment when I thought I could do alright at road racing because a lot of the 250cc greats were there including Joey Dunlop, Phillip McCallen, Phelim Owens, Robbie Milton, Callum Ramsey, Woolsey Coulter and Owen McNally. I’d gone from struggling on bikes that weren’t the most competitive to dicing with Joey Dunlop.”

A year later the Morecambe man claimed his first podium finish at the event, finishing second to Callum Ramsey in the opening 250cc encounter. But he would have to wait until 2000 before securing his first NW200 victory which came in that year’s 250cc event.

Four years later McGuinness claimed a North West double in the 400cc and Supersport races before scoring his first Superbike victory in 2007. Another big bike win followed in 2010 with his last North West success coming in 2012, again in the Superbike class.

“I am dead proud of my North West wins because the North West is a hard place to win.” McGuinness says.

“The TT is a time trial and you are doing your own thing but when you are hurtling down into Metropole at 200mph with half a dozen top BSB racers around you, you have really got to be in the right place at the right time and be prepared to stick your neck out to win a North West race. I’ve done it a few times and missed out on a few as well.”

“I probably should have won a few more but I’ve been racing alongside Steve Plater, Michael Rutter, Guy Martin and Bruce Anstey, leading along the coast road on the last lap and then finished third and was left wondering what happened!” McGuinness acknowledges.

“Maybe I just wasn’t aggressive enough, just not prepared to risk it all.”

The Morecambe man also has painful moments of the event after suffering a compound fracture to his right leg and several broken vertebrae when he was spat off his Honda Fireblade at Primrose during a practice session in 2017.

Much has changed for McGuinness since his first foray on to the North West 200 course as he has become one of the sport’s most successful and best loved characters. The 23 times TT winner says the North West 200 has continued to play a significant role throughout his road racing career.

‘Over the past 30 years I’ve gone from two strokes to four strokes, from carburetors to fuel injection, to fly by wire and then traction control and I’m still holding my own.” he reflects whilst recognising his days of battling for the top step of the podium are probably over.

“This year the goal for me is to help Dean Harrison, my new Honda teammate, win at the North West and I want Nathan to have a safe race. For me, I just want to go out and enjoy myself. During the last couple of years I’ve maybe been under the radar a little bit in fifth, sixth or seventh but I’m more than happy with that. It’s all I’ve got in my armoury these days- a decent, fast, safe ride and if I finish tenth I’m tenth or if it’s fourth its fourth. If I got on to the podium it would be the icing on the cake.”

“I have tons of great memories of the North West.” the veteran road racer smiles.

“All the camaraderie and craic we had during great nights at Kelly’s and the Anchor that I don’t think will ever be repeated. There have been a lot of changes at the event over the past 30 years but in other ways things haven’t changed all that much. There might be more risk assessments, a bit more tarmac in the paddock, with bigger trucks and hospitality units which is all great to see but the roads are still the roads, with the kerbs and lampposts. That bit, the things you have to deal with when you’re looking through the visor at high speed, hasn’t changed at all except I used to be going a bit faster!” 

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