The real Joey Dunlop: Derek McIntyre remembers life on the road with the legendary racer

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Every bike racing fan has their favourite Joey Dunlop tale. That there are now so many stories surrounding the racing exploits of this intensely private man, whose glorious 31 year career crashed to a cruel end in an Estonian forest in 2000, is highly ironic.

Many of the tales are apocryphal, recounted and embellished by those who were never any closer to the great man than the opposite end of a bar as he supped a pint. In reality very, very few people were ever allowed admittance to the small and tightly knit Dunlop camp, and for those who were, the rule of omerta was strictly observed lest the privilege be withdrawn.

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13 years after Joey’s death, his close friend and personal photographer, Derek McIntyre, decided to break his silence to offer a fascinating insight to the years when the legendary racer was at the height of his Formula One world championship career.

“I grew up in Ballymoney and Joey used to come into my family’s petrol station so I knew him to speak to,” Derek recalls. “But I didn’t get to know him well until after my son was killed in 1982. I was very touched by the fact that he came to the funeral. It was unexpected but so typical of Joey. As I got to know him better I started to travel to watch him at the foreign races that he was riding in at the time.”

Joey Dunlop at the 1987 North West 200

The diminutive Irish rider was 30 years old in ’82 and at the peak of his powers. He had just won the first of his five consecutive Formula One titles for Honda. The series was established in 1977 as a separate world road racing championship after the TT was removed from the Grand Prix calendar and Joey had been recruited as the Japanese factory’s principal road racer in 1980. It was a position he would retain for the rest of his racing career.

Working as an electrical engineer during the week, Derek spent his Saturdays moonlighting as MCN’s Irish race photographer. He covered Joey’s domestic outings in this professional capacity but when he decided to follow Joey on his continental travels he operated on a much more personal basis.

“I would take pictures of Joey racing but I would never take any personal pictures of him for publication,” Derek, now 67, says as he explains why so many of these images were not published at the time. “Joey was a very, very private man and although we shared a great deal together I respected that privacy and enjoyed his trust in return.”

Joey Dunlop leads the pack

It was a bond that was obvious from Derek’s first foreign foray in 1984. “I went with a friend to watch the Formula One round at Assen and we took a little two man tent and stayed in the camp site,” he recalls.

“After the race we shared a few beers and maybe a wee vodka or two with Joey and he decided to stay with us in the tent! It was a tight squeeze but he was happier there with his mates than in the five star hotel that Honda had booked for him and the team.”

From that weekend on Derek would use almost all of his holidays over the next four years to accompany his fellow Ballymoney man on his F1 adventures. “Joey drove almost everywhere and I was one of only a couple of people that he trusted to share the driving with him,” Derek smiles.

Joey Dunlop at the 1994 Tandragee 100

“We would take it in shifts to drive his Mercedes van to the circuits all over Europe. I went with him to Holland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Sicily and Italy but I never travelled anywhere with him in Ireland! A few other boys from home would join us and we had a big tent but a lot of the time it was so warm we would just sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground beside the van.”

Derek’s tales of this band of young guys from a small, Irish country town tearing around strange and distant lands in a battered van, racing and partying as they went, have a wonderful sense of freedom and adventure. They shared an innocent curiosity about this big, new world and their desire to explore led to some unusually circuitous routes.

“After a race at Misano in 1987 our next meeting was at the Hungaroring near Budapest and the normal route would be to head north from Rimini. But Joey turned south and drove all the way to the heel of Italy to get the Brindisi ferry,” Derek recalls. “It was hundreds of miles out of our way but he wanted to see as much as he could of that part of the world. And there was always a pub along the way of course.”

Joey Dunlop with Carl Fogarty at Pergusa, Sicily

Stories about hard-drinking Irishmen may be something of a cliché but Derek admits there was always a bottle or two on hand to help fuel the craic of the Ballymoney crew’s road trips.

“On one trip one of the boys had bought a bottle of brandy in duty free but he had hid it, keeping it for himself,” Derek laughs. “It became a bit of a joke as we were all winding him up saying we would love a wee brandy.

“One night we had set up camp in an orchard and it was getting dark and everyone was getting drunk. Andy Inglis started up about the brandy again and Joey tapped me on the leg and pointed to a jar of Crisp n’Dry frying oil on the floor beside him.

“I held down a glass, Joey filled it with the oil and told Andy that the brandy had been found at last. He rolled around the floor laughing when Andy recited the verse of a poem as a toast and knocked it back in one go!”

Joey celebrates his final win at the Isle of Man TT

Although the drink may always have been shared, the other essential of any road trip – food – was a different matter. “Joey was a very plain eater. He didn’t like anything too fancy and he piled salt on to everything,” Derek recalls with a grimace.

“I don’t know how he ate it. He would send us to the local supermarket for supplies and I would cook stews and casseroles but if he cooked it was out of a tin. He just threw everything in to the pot – and he had beans with everything. Joey loved beans!”

These easygoing, alcohol-laced days amongst his friends provided the quiet Ballymoney racer with the perfect escape from the pressurised crucible of world championship racing as a ‘works’ rider. “Joey liked to be with his own friends away from the racing.” Derek says.

Joey Dunlop in 1989

“He could relax amongst people that he knew rather than having to hobnob with all of the racing bigshots, and he loved the fun. He was just an ordinary fellow and he had no interest in the money or trappings that went with racing.

“Don’t get me wrong, he loved racing and winning but money was just an aside. There was no idol worship with us and we never treated him like a superstar. That was the way he wanted it to be.”

Nevertheless, their travels could still throw up some fascinating ‘hobnobbing’ encounters.

“On a trip to race at Misano in Italy we visited the Marvic factory to pick up rims,” Derek recalls. “We went for a drink in a hotel nearby and there were a few other riders sitting at the other end of the bar with the Castiglioni brothers who owned MV Agusta and Cagiva at the time.

“We ended up in their company and were invited to the factory and the brothers’ mansion afterwards. There were guard dogs everywhere and the carpet was six inches thick. They actually offered Joey a ride on the Cagiva for the next season but he was a loyal Honda man and turned them down.”

Joey Dunlop at the 1987 Ulster Grand Prix

Assen was the venue for a tale of adventure in 1986 that has now become part of Joey Dunlop folklore. Derek was a passenger in the car with Joey that was crashed by Honda mechanic Dave Sleat during an illicit lap of the circuit.

“We had all gone to the prize-giving together and there were about seven of us in the car when we returned to the circuit in the middle of the night,” Derek says. “The gate on to the track was open so instead of turning into the paddock Dave set off for a lap of the circuit.

But the car skidded off at the second corner and ended up on its side in a ditch. Joey’s trophy broke in half in the crash and gashed his head, and we both hurt our arms, so we only had one good arm between us. On the way home in the van I drove and he changed gear!”

Life on the road away from the racing may have been relaxed and chilled but these were also the years when Joey Dunlop was racing at the top of his game. Derek saw both sides of his compatriot’s character. “Joey was the original quiet man, a very deep thinker,” Derek recalls. “He would sit on his own in silence trying to think of anything at all that would give him any little advantage in the race.”

Joey Dunlop takes a moment to reflect

He was also very superstitious. “He always had to wear something red under his leathers and he never wanted to have his picture on the front of a programme because he associated it with bad luck,” Derek says. “He also had a certain way that he put his gloves on before every race and if you gave them to him in the wrong order you got a hard stare.”

Although a racing legend nowadays, Joey was largely unknown in the 1980s, especially abroad. At times his second fiddle status was made very clear. “Joey set the fastest lap in practice at Montjuich Park in Barcelona in 1985,” Derek recalls.

“But when the grids were drawn up the Spanish rider Juan Garriga [who was to finish runner-up in the 250 world championship in 1988 -Ed] was allocated pole position and I was delegated to go down to the race office to find out why.

“The guy in there made no bones about it: he simply said that if they put a Spaniard on pole they would get an extra 5000 paying customers through the gate on race day!”

Joey Dunlop in his final Senior TT

Perhaps it was the incentive that Joey needed as he smoked Garriga in the race on his RVF Honda. But towards the end of the ’80s the Formula One championship included more circuit races and it was to signal the end of the ultimate road racer’s reign as F1 world champion. In 1986 he lost out in a huge battle with 1981 500cc world champion Marco Lucchinelli at Misano.

“Joey ran out of fuel on the last lap just as he was about to pass the Italian,” Derek remembers. “He had been taking a second a lap out of him over the previous 20 laps and Lucchinelli admitted that he could not ride any faster. Joey just sat in the van on his own afterwards.

“He was very depressed after putting in all that effort for nothing and it was probably the lowest point of my time with him.  But I asked Lucchinelli to go in and talk to him and when they had had a chat together Joey brightened up.”

So, if that was the lowest point, what was the happiest? “Zolder in 1984,” Derek says without hesitation. The Ballymoney man had been locked in a bitter battle with teammate Roger Marshall for the F1 title and going into the Belgian round the Englishman was the firm favourite to take the win. But his bike blew a head gasket and Joey clinched his third title in a row.

Joey Dunlop helmet

“We had some night after that,” Derek laughs. “There was so much water being fired around the hotel room in a water fight that the ceiling in reception was leaking when we were paying the bill the next morning!”

Unsurprisingly, Derek McIntyre regards these years from the mid 1980s as the best of his life. “Everyone knows Joey Dunlop was a brilliant bike racer but it is more important to say that he was one thoroughly decent human being,” Derek says.

“He had a strong belief in fair play, so he had no problem helping other riders or lending them parts where others would have tried to have stolen a march on their rivals. He once rebuilt the gearbox of Alan Irwin’s NS500 eight times between practice and racing at the Ulster Grand Prix until he got it right – and Irwin was his main rival for the race!”

Joey Dunlop's final TT

But perhaps there is one McIntyre story more than any other that encapsulates Joey’s unique approach to the world, and money. “I had just bought a tray of chips in the Assen paddock when Joey pulled up alongside me in his van and asked me to get him one,” Derek recalls.

“He reached into an envelope beside him and pulled out some money from his race winnings to pay for them – and as I walked back to order his carry-out he shouted, ‘Don’t be getting any bird shit on mine either!’ He was referring to the mayonnaise that the Dutch chippy had squirted on to my chips!

“I gave the guy the money that Joey had reached me, and he held the banknote up to the sky, peering through it before saying he couldn’t accept it, as it wasn’t Dutch currency. At that time the FIM paid all prize money in Swiss Francs. Joey had given me a note worth £350 to pay for a 30p tray of chips!”

Stephen Davison

By Stephen Davison

Biographer of John McGuinness & road racing's foremost writer & photographer