Many film makers have tried to capture the essence of road racing, often with mixed results. Most have failed to find the right balance between the fascinating personalities and explosive action that make the sport such a stunning spectacle. Richard de Aragues, the director of the 2010 TT film Closer to the Edge, managed to capture some sense of this heady mixture. But De Aragues, and almost everyone else who has ever pointed a camera in the direction of a bike flashing down a closed public road, has paid homage to the film that paved the way for all of their efforts. The 1977 documentary, Road Racers, which followed the exploits of the legendary but fated trio of Irish road racers, Joey Dunlop, Mervyn Robinson and Frank Kennedy, set the standard against which every other bike racing film is measured.
Fans will recall the beautifully recorded scenes of Dunlop, Kennedy and Robinson’s unofficial practice sessions on the country lanes around the Co Antrim village of Armoy where the trio all lived. David Wallace, the man behind those unforgettable images, is a native of Dunloy, just a few miles down the road towards Belfast. Just 26 years old when he made his masterpiece, Wallace had been working as an assistant director in London for the BBC when he decided to return to Northern Ireland in 1977 to make a film about his homeland.
“All the pieces I was making for the BBC were ten or 15 minutes long and I just wanted to make a longer film,” Wallace explained during a visit to this year’s Armoy road races.
“I went to the Ulster Arts Council and told them I had three ideas for a film and could they give me a few thousand pounds to get started? I gave them two very arty ideas and the final one was about road racers because I’ve always been interested in the sport. The guy who was handing out the money had a house on the North West 200 circuit, thought that that was a fascinating idea and said he would help me.”
Wallace was then introduced to the Armada by a neighbour who was Mervyn Robinson’s uncle.
“Robbo and Frank thought the film would be a wonderful idea and gave it all their support,” Wallace recalls.
Joey, however, required some extra persuasion.
“At first Joey wasn’t really that keen, he just wanted to race his bike, The other guys talked him into it but Joey’s attitude was that he was only doing it once, there wouldn’t be any retakes. If I went up to his garage to do a scene, he would say ‘OK, I’ve got ten minutes, I will do it for you once but I won’t do it again.’ He was very friendly but very professional. He was that focused and it showed even then.”
Wallace was also severely constrained by having very limited funding.
“The local county council came up with £300, the Arts council got it started and other people came up with money but the full cost of making the film was just £9000 – people would laugh at that today.”
As a result every moment of filming had to count.
“I did a recce in 1976 when I went to one race,” Wallace explains. “I met the guys and recorded their conversations. Then I came back the next year and filmed for two weeks in May. We shot at the North West 200 and the Cookstown 100 and the weather had never been better in Ireland, not a drop of rain, which actually was a shame as it would have been nice to have had a rain sequence. We came back in September for the Carrowdore 100 and it was all done in three weeks.”
“Initially I was convinced that I was going to be using slow motion cameras to make artistic effects and make some kind of art film,” he smiles.
“Then I realised that it would be lunacy to turn my back on what was happening in the village. It was a gift to have three guys who knew each other like they did. Once you’ve found a little group of people with great personalities like theirs you have lucked out, done it in one.”
The sequences of the trio testing their race bikes on the open roads around and through the village, complete with cattle and tractors in the background, are unforgettable.
“Yes, you see guys riding motorbikes on real roads and there are dangers and cute little things that happen and catch your eye and make you chuckle in a nice positive way,” Wallace says.
“You are not laughing at the people, you are laughing with them. I had asked naively which airfield they practiced on and I was told to just come and I would see. Because Joey lived outside the village he was able to practice on a quiet country lane but the other two quite regularly rode through the village itself because it saved putting the bikes on a trailer and taking them somewhere else. It never occurred to them to take the bikes somewhere else and the police were careful to keep out of the way.”
The film was ahead of its time in capturing onboard footage. “The onboard camera work was done by the sound recordist,” Wallace explains. “He managed to buy two gun cameras, probably from old Spitfires, and he made the rigs to lash them on to the bikes. He did a splendid job of getting the cameras in the right place and pointing in the right direction but he put a bit less time into sorting where the battery would go. Joey went out in one practice lap with a camera and came back at the end of it with the battery dangling on the end of a lead! I was horrified and asked him if it fell off when he was at speed.
“Everything shakes off,” he said. “But I saw it going so I grabbed it, stuck it between my legs and finished the lap.”
Almost of equal importance to this Northern Ireland native was capturing a sense of Armoy and the culture of the people who lived around the area.
Although the film was shot at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles there is very little sign of any tension.
The rural way of life on the streets and in the pubs, at fairs and funerals, have been faithfully recorded by Wallace’s team and the film is full of the music and unique voices of the local North Antrim folk. Joey Dunlop’s thick accent was always the source of much comment when he eventually travelled to race in England and it was also of concern to Wallace’s BBC boss when he first mooted the possibility of the Beeb broadcasting the film.“The film was sort of forgotten about by the time it came out because there was such a long time in between the filming and screening,” Wallace recalls. “Sadly both Frank and Mervyn died shortly after it came out.”
Frank Kennedy and Mervyn Robinson both lost their lives in crashes at the North West 200, Kennedy dying in 1979 and Robinson succumbing to injuries the following year.
“I had feared the guys would hurt themselves during the filming but for some reason I never thought they would have died,” Wallace says. “If I had, I don’t know if I could have made the film.”
Road Racers was very well received and Kennedy and Robinson’s death, plus Joey’s rise to fame ensured it a special place in the canon of bike racing movies. For Wallace it represented a crucial part of his film making apprenticeship as he went on to work on two BAFTA winning BBC productions, Great River Journeys of the World and The Last African Flying Boat.
“The Road Racers film gets talked about more than anything else though. I wanted to produce a genuine documentary in Road Racers that would give an insight into something very special but I was taken by surprise by its success.”
Who were the Armoy Armada?
Joey Dunlop, Mervyn Robinson and Frank Kennedy all lived in the area around the small Co Antrim village of Armoy in the mid 70s, a few miles from the town of Ballymoney. The nautical moniker was designed to set the trio and their supporters apart from their Co Down road racing opposition of Ray McCullough, Trevor Steele and Brian Reid who became known as the Dromara Destroyers.
The Armada were made famous by the Road Racers film, which depicted the struggles of the Armoy men as they battled against the Destroyers during the 1977 season. Subsequent success and tragedy ensured the trio’s enduring infamy.
As Joey Dunlop progressed from being a small town Irish rider to becoming a five times Formula One world champion with the factory Honda team during the early 80s, cruel luck had descended upon his colleagues. In 1979 Frank Kennedy died after being involved in a high speed crash at the North West 200 and the following year Mervyn Robinson lost his life at the same event. Mervyn was married to Helen Dunlop, Joey’s sister. Mervyn’s son Paul continues to race on the roads today after a successful career on the British short circuits.
Jim Dunlop, Joey’s brother, was also a member of the Armada club and retired from the sport in the early 80s but the Dunlop name continued to dominate the between the hedges scene as Joey and Jim’s younger brother, Robert, began racing.
Joey’s road racing legacy
A major part of the legacy of the Road Racers film is the fact that it documented the genesis of Joey’s Dunlop’s 31-year career in racing.
Although Joey had already been racing for almost a decade by the time David Wallace arrived in Armoy with his crew, 1977 was the year when the Ulsterman really started to make a name for himself. The 25-year-old was regularly winning Irish races and was beginning to make his first forays on to the English short circuits as the film highlights. Did Wallace have any sense of what lay ahead for the quiet family man who would become an international superstar? “There were clues of course,” the Road Racers director says. “Joey won his first TT while we were making the film but we didn’t have enough money to go to the Isle of Man.”
Joey’s victory in the Jubliee Classic event in ’77 was the first of his record- breaking 26 TT victories and without moving images Wallace was forced to allude to the victory with a few shots of some newspapers clippings. “It was a big disappointment that we weren’t at the TT that year and in some ways it is a big hole in the middle of the film,” Wallace reflects.
“I think if I had known everything was going to last this long I probably would have tried to buy some footage but the film wasn’t as much about the sport as about the people and it might spoil the film if we had had that footage.”
Wallace is adamant that it wasn’t just that first TT win that marked Joey out as destined for success.
“Even if you had asked me that question before the 1977 TT win I would still have told you Joey was the one who was going to go the furthest for the very same reason he was so hard to make a film about, his complete single mindedness. Even then people knew to stay away when he was focused on his racing.”
Although Wallace says the Dunlop legend was up and running by the time the film came out as Joey raced a factory Suzuki in 1980 before joining Honda the following year, he acknowledges that his film “probably wouldn’t have done Joey any harm even if we couldn’t claim that we invented anything.”
What Road Racers did do though was create a perception of Joey in the public mind as a humble and shy man who spent most of his time working on his own race bikes and didn’t give a damn about his appearance or presentation. The Ballymoney man became a counter culture figure in stark contrast to the playboy heroes, Barry Sheene and James Hunt, who dominated British bike and car racing.
“The film beautifully reinforces the concept of Joey as the shy warrior with a lovely inability to boast or be showy,” Wallace says. Incredibly though, Joey never watched the film that played such a big part in making his name.
Troubled by the loss of his close racing friends, Frank Kennedy and Mervyn Robinson, Joey had contemplated quitting the sport after their deaths. Thereafter he appears to have drawn a line under those early years the film captures so poignantly.
“He never watched it and we weren’t even allowed to mention it in the house,” Joey's son Gary says.
“Joey was very superstitious," Wallace admits. "And I think maybe he thought that if he watched the film he would suffer the same fate as Frank and Mervyn.”
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