Not many people can say they have had a glass of champagne with the Queen, but a new biography of the late Joey Dunlop reveals the king of the roads described it as an “unbelievable” moment.
he Ballymoney rider, who died 21 years ago in a crash while racing in Estonia, was awarded an MBE and OBE in two incredibly proud moments for the quiet family man.
Stuart Barker’s new book about one of Northern Ireland’s greatest sporting icons unearths some never-before-published stories from those who knew him best.
Entitled Joey Dunlop: The Definitive Biography of The Greatest Road Racer, motorcycling fanatics and, of course, Dunlop fans will laugh and cry in equal measure as the book reveals the hijinks and heartbreak the legendary racer experienced throughout his life.
Having been a motorcycle journalist for more than 25 years, Mr Barker said everyone he spoke to seemed to have a story about Joey, so he felt compelled to bring them together.
“I knew a lot of them hadn’t been published. They were just personal tales and stories of going out drinking or doing this and that,” he added.
“There’s so much love for him still that I just thought people would like to hear the things that I had been hearing but hadn’t been written down anywhere.”
Throughout his career, Joey was never one to go out of his way to speak to the media, given his quiet nature, but the new book reveals more the man, rather than the racer.
The Isle of Man TT held a special place in his heart. It was there that he had his greatest triumph when, at 48 years of age, he reclaimed the F1 crown for the first time in 12 years.
During his early racing days, Joey drove the roads in the dark to learn every bump and curve of the track.
Hector Neill, who owns the Synetiq BMW British Superbike team and played a big part in helping the icon land his first major sponsorship, got the fright of his life in a late-night lap of the Isle of Man course.
“We were in the pub at the TT one night, drinking vodka — Joey liked vodka — and he says, ‘Hey, Heccie, you want to do a lap?’,” Neill writes in the book.
“We were coming down to Barregarrow [a fearsomely fast and narrow downhill section with walls and a house at the apex] absolutely flat out, as fast as the car would go, and Joey switched the headlights off. I nearly fainted.
“I says, ‘Joey, what the hell are you doing?’, and he told me that he wanted to show me that he knew the course so well he could drive it blindfolded. I would never do it again, I can tell you.”
Always one to drive to some of the most far-flung races around Europe, Joey loved camping and spending time with his mates during the trips.
Tony ‘Slick’ Bass, who worked as a mechanic for the rider in 1987, recalled: “Joey and his gang were staying in a tent in Portugal, while the rest of us were in a five-star hotel.
“A mole burrowed its way up into the middle of the tent during the night, and they absolutely flattened the tent trying to batter the mole with their shoes.
“Joey couldn’t get any sleep, so he went to sleep in the van but ended up getting so badly bitten by mosquitoes that both his eyes were practically closed with the swelling. He could barely see, but he still won the race.”
When he received his MBE in 1986 for services to motorcycling, and an OBE 10 years later for his humanitarian work for children in Romanian orphanages, the usually long-haired and oil-stained Joey was impeccably dressed, along with his family, at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles presented him with his MBE, but he later got the chance to meet the Queen at a Buckingham Palace reception.
“I went to a garden party one time for all the world champions from Britain, and the Queen was there, but we were kept behind bars and we didn’t really get talking to her,” Joey said.
“We were invited this time to a garden party, just a get-together, and the Queen came round and talked to us all. [She was] very, very nice and I had a glass of champagne with her. It was brilliant. Unbelievable.”
Away from road racing, Joey’s mercy missions in eastern Europe showed the true nature of his character.
After hearing of the brutal conditions orphans were forced to endure in the Romanian village of Ungureni, he visited shops, chemists and local businesses and filled his van with anything that might be able to help.
Mechanic Sammy Graham said: “He piled the van up till you couldn’t put another sock in the van — it was full.”
Joey travelled to Romania, Albania, Bosnia and Yugoslavia five times by himself, his van full to the brim with supplies, often in horrendous conditions.
Covering the shenanigans of his racing days to the heartbreak of losing family members, friends and ultimately his own life to the sport he adored, Joey Dunlop: The Definitive Biography of The Greatest Road Racer is one not to be missed.
As the world champion said himself, he never wanted to be a superstar, he just wanted to be himself — and he hoped people would remember him that way.
This book certainly pays homage to that hope.
Joey Dunlop: The Definitive Biography of The Greatest Road Racer, written by Stuart Baker, is out on Thursday