Exploring the crisis in Irish road racing…

Deb Biddleston is a Northern English native who moved to NI 20 years ago to watch more road racing. She is a former club secretary and race photographer.

We learned the other day that the 2024 Ulster Grand Prix was cancelled. Now, I can’t say this really surprised me, but it obviously surprised enough people to produce several articles (including this one).

For those who don’t know, the Ulster Grand Prix ran from 1922 on the Clady circuit, moving to Dundrod in 1953. From 1949-73 it was a Grand Prix in the motorcycling world championship, it had all the greats competing, Agostini, Surtees, Hailwood, Dunlop, to name a few. It had the “privilege” of being the only road race that was legally allowed to charge spectators, but it hasn’t run since 2019. The organising club collapsed into receivership in 2020 before being “saved” by an IVA. Various clubs & individuals have come and gone in attempts to resurrect what, in my opinion, was the best road race in the world. The most shocking thing revealed in the IVA is that they had failed to pay riders prize money in 2019. One would imagine competitors might take a considerable amount of convincing to return, whoever is in charge.

When I got involved with racing in the early 00’s, even the national races attracted big names and depth of field. In July & August you could go to a road race every weekend and I’ve travelled everywhere from the north coast to West Cork. Of course, the smaller races have always struggled financially. If you can’t charge spectators then you rely on program sales, sponsorship and government grants to continue. Certainly, most, if not all, races run at a loss. I suppose you would wonder how the UGP financially collapsed, given its charging of £25 a time, when other races survive without charging spectators.

The Dundrod club cites poor weather and disappointing attendance for its financial distress, but so far unproven rumours rumble on of fraud and financial mismanagement, going back years, within some clubs and the governing body. There has recently been turmoil in the governing body, MCUI Ulster Centre, with allegations of missing money, directors and officials resigning, being forced out, being reappointed. The whole organisation is factionalised, with focus appearing to be on trying to oust each other from official positions. If social media is to be believed stability looks a long way off. In 2023 all racing was cancelled due to an inability to secure insurance and after crowdfunding (which raised £97k) and a rich benefactor the necessary insurance was acquired. However, this still only resulted in 3 races going ahead in 2023. At time of writing, the MCUI UC, tell me they have insurance for 2024 on the same basis as 2023, but with an increased cost, although the excess to loss policy, which brings the liability insurance to an acceptable level, is not due until late March and they will only quote 4 weeks before so it may be that we haven’t yet heard the last of woes for this year, although the spokesperson for the MCUI UC says ”the broker says it’s all in hand”.

In the Republic, in 2023, insurance was offered, but excluded road racing and had many restrictions attached. That remains the same in 2024. Despite a coup by the membership to change the leadership at the top of the governing body (MCI) early last year, there are still failures in management. Complaints of lack of transparency from the new elected body and even secrecy over the number of previous insurance claims still outstanding, which is rumoured to be several million euro. It’s hard to see a scenario where road racing will run again.

But aside from the financial and insurance issues there are clearly other issues. The number of spectators is decreasing year on year. The NW200 tell us they have had a record 195k visitors last year. I struggle to believe this. Look at old footage from the 70’s, 80’s & even 90’s. There is barely a viewing space to be had in any roadside hedge. Then look at the last 10 years. The difference is plainly noticeable. The spectator demographic is changing too. Far fewer under 30’s and a lot more over 60’s. This really doesn’t bode well for the future.

Ultimately, its hard to see how Irish Road Racing comes back from this crisis. People will disagree with me, but I cannot see how it survives the next few years, never mind long term. Council money is becoming more difficult to justify, as councils have the same financial constraints as everyone else. With no Stormont, there can be no government money. Even Tourism NI said the funds required from them was not a good use of its money. Relying on public money to run is just not a good business model in 2024, especially when it is considered by many none race fans to be not only frivolous and environmentally unsound but also incredibly dangerous for competitors, officials and spectators. It seems what was acceptable as entertainment in the 1980’s, is no longer acceptable in 2024.

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