The stature of the North West 200 road race meeting in Northern Ireland was underlined this week.
The Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain attended the launch of the 2007 races at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast.
The race –scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 12 this year - continues to attract huge crowds and last year drew over 100,000 fans to the 8.9mile triangular public road course that links Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush on the north west coast.
Hain said: “The North West 200 does much for Northern Ireland’s image presenting it as a modern, progressive and fun-loving region.
“As a premier sporting event it brings huge economic benefits to Northern Ireland, to its hotels, restaurants, bars and businesses in the locality.”
Hain also pledged financially support to the event.
He said: “I’m a big motorsport fan and I want to see this event go from strength to strength.
“I want to announce that the Government will be prepared to put extra funding in and work with you (the NW200 organisers) to improve pit facilities, paddock facilities and crowd safety facilities and look at innovative ways to attract international stars who have not taken part in this event before.”
NW200 Clerk of the Course Mervyn White is the driving force behind the event and was awarded and MBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours list for his services to the sport.
He said: “The future of the North West 200 is looking good. The regulations for the event are going out next week and we’ve got a lot of interest from riders new to the event.
“I think Plater winning and guys like Ian Hutchinson doing well have helped create new interest.
“And Aussie Cameron Donald’s success on the roads has been like a breath of fresh air. We’ve a lot more Scots interest too with the like of Les Shand and Keith Amor going so well.”
Attracting new riders is one of the keys to the event’s future success but so too is keeping on top of safety issues.
White said: “The sport of road racing is strong here. It’s steeped in history but we’ve looked at a lot of safety improvements.
“We’ve spent a lot on risk assessment. In the past three years we’ve spent around £300,000 on track improvements.
“We put in air-fence at Mathers Cross, resurfaced at Metropole and are resurfacing at Primrose.
“We brought Steve Plater (double superbike race winner at last year’s races on an HM Plant Honda) to do a track inspection with us to point out anything he felt needed doing.”
BBC Sport Northern Ireland used the press launch to announce that they will broadcast the NW200 for the next three years.
The region’s controller, Peter Johnson told the press conference that the event would be screened not just in the region but to a ‘UK-wide audience.’