Barely a year has passed since legendary TT racer Robert Dunlop lost his life. The younger brother of Joey, who had died in a crash eight years earlier, had been practising for the North West 200, his final warm-up event for the the 2008 Isle of Man TT. Travelling at 260kph, his engine seized, he hit his front brake and was catapulted over his handlebars. He died that evening of his injuries in hospital and was buried next to his brother at Garryduff Presbyterian Church in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland.
Shortly before his final ride, he called on his sons to carry on the family tradition in TT racing. "While the boys have yet to get on the scorecard, hopefully they will take up the mantle in years to come," he said. "I am proud of my family name, not just my achievements, and the boys are aware of it too. They know their uncle Joey set a very high standard." Two days after Robert Dunlop's death, the youngest of his three sons, Michael, aged just 20 at the time, rode to a memorable victory over the North West 200 course where his father had lost his life.
In the process, he edged out the vastly more experienced John McGuinness and Christian Elkin, memorably bursting into tears as he crossed the line to the applause of the thousands gathered along the public roads. "My dad was always telling us that we had to stand on our own two feet, so I decided it was right for me to ride that day," said Dunlop. "It was my dad's home event, his turf if you like, so I gave it everything.
"It was just one of those days - truly a one of a kind, and there will never, ever in my life be another race like it. I, of course, dedicated the win to my dad and I'd like to think he was pleased that I chose to race that day and that I got the win for him." The youngest of the Dunlop dynasty is all too aware of the perils of road racing, having seen those two major tragedies in his own family and known of other family friends who have lost their lives.
But despite the inherent risks of riding at speeds of more than 320kph on regular roads, he intends to throw himself into a two-wheel career. "Dad never once got in the way of our racing (his older brother William also competes) and neither did we with him," he said. "Hopefully we're doing justice to the Dunlop name now." Dunlop's main goal for the season is the Isle of Man TT, like the North West 200, another race dominated by his family.
His uncle Joey celebrated a record 26 wins at the event during his career while his father managed five wins and would probably have achieved many more had he not had a life-threatening accident at the event in 1994. Following in the footsteps of such a celebrated double act would be pressure enough, but Dunlop must endure the added glare associated with riding a Norton. The celebrated marque returns to the island for the first time since its last TT heyday in the 1990s. Norton has enjoyed massive success in the Isle of Man TT since the 1930s, acting as the mount for the likes of Robert Dunlop and Steve Hislop to shine there as recently as the early 1990s.
Dunlop Jr will be on board a Norton NRV 588 but, despite the massive media spotlight of two big motorcycling names coming together, he says he feels no pressure. "I don't really feel pressure," he says. "In fact, the only pressure I have comes from myself. I'm proud to bring the Dunlop name and Norton back to the Isle of Man but it'll be a thrill rather than bringing any pressure. There's no expectations on me."
Dunlop has described his dealings with Norton as the "perfect fit" and said "it was just meant to be". "I heard Norton was interested in returning to the Isle of Man TT with new owner Stuart Garner, so I thought I'd try to get in contact with him. It turns out he was trying to do the same thing. We had a pretty relaxed chat, he told me his plans and I told him mine and they just slotted together. "He's made it clear we're not going to win on day one and that this is all about building something long-term. Hopefully, myself and Norton can go on to win for many more years at the Isle of Man TT. It's not a quick-fix thing, it's about building something pretty special."
Despite being just 21, Dunlop has previous experience of the event. He made his debut there in 2007, riding a superbike for the first time and finishing a creditable 16th and 22nd in the two races. He also competed last year, just two weeks after his father's death, and had a top 10 finish in the latter superbike race. And while he is well aware of the dangers of bike riding, it does not for one second deter him.
"I hate watching crashes on TV at home, particularly on the track," he says. "They're nasty. But when I'm on the bike there's absolutely no fear factor. I can't say that's the case for every rider but I don't get that. For me, it's just a great craic and I try to go out there and be as fast as I can. "Sure, there are times when you have a wee wobble and it leaves you a tiny bit shaky but that's all part and parcel of bike racing. I guess I'm just confident in my riding ability and I think that'll always see me through."
Dunlop already enjoys a strong rivalry with his brother in road racing. On current form, he looks likely to be the more accomplished of the pair but they take turns in stealing the limelight. "It's good banter if I get one over him," says Dunlop. "It's pretty bad for him if he loses to his younger brother, while I'm of course always trying to get one up on my older brother. But I reckon we're well matched and, as soon as I think I've got the better of him, he comes right back and stings me."
Dunlop has few road-race ambitions. For him, the buzz of racing is against the clock in the TT format, although he says he struggles to put into words what draws him to it. "The battle with the bike is great. It's you and you alone battling the bike and keeping it on the road and that's a buzz in itself. It's just a great craic - other than that, I don't know why I do it. "I guess it's the battle between man and machine, and I really love that battle. It's hard to be on the limit all the time but you have to be. So it's such a mental thing as well, a right old buzz."
Dunlop will resume that battle at the Isle of Man TT today. email@example.com