William Dunlop can scarcely believe a decade has passed since that fateful day on Thursday, May 15, 2008, when his legendary father Robert lost his life in a crash at the North West 200.
The 47-year-old came off at Mather’s Cross on Roy Hanna’s 250cc Honda after the engine seized at more than 150mph.
Two years previously in 2006, the ‘Mighty Micro’ claimed the last of his 15 victories at the event in a hard-fought 125cc race, narrowly edging out Michael Wilcox on the final lap after overcoming a ten-second deficit.
The Ballymoney man’s racing exploits had been limited to the 125cc class after he suffered serious injuries in a crash at the 1994 Isle of Man TT, when the rear wheel of his RC45 Honda collapsed on the exit of Ballaugh village, throwing him into a stone wall at around 130mph.
Dunlop decided to return to the 250cc class in 2008 for the first time since he was left with debilitating injuries in that career-changing TT crash.
He warmed up for the North West with a win on the machine at the Cookstown 100 a few weeks previously, but sadly he never got the chance to make his international comeback in the class on Hanna’s TSR 250 as his life was tragically cut short.
For William, the awful memories of that chilly practice night in May ten years ago no longer play on his mind when he embarks on his annual trip to the North Coast meeting each spring.
The passage of time has helped the 31-year-old to come to terms with a devastating loss, although he does still wonder how much more success his father would have achieved had it not been for the accident that altered the course of his career in 1994.
“The more time that has passed, then you don’t really think about it when you’re going to the North West – it’s not how it was going back the first year after it had happened or the year after,” he said.
“It’s just unbelievable to think that it’s been ten years really.
“I’ve said before that dad could’ve won 30 or 40 races at the North West if it hadn’t been for his crash in 1994 at the TT, which meant he was only able to ride in one race after that on the 125.
“He was winning at a time when the competition was really tough as well, when you had the likes of Joey, Phillip McCallen, Carl Fogarty and Steve Hislop.
“There’s no doubt he’d have had about 30 or 40 wins but that’s the thing with motorbikes, it doesn’t always work out like that,” Dunlop added.
“With Joey, he was quite lucky not to have had any major problems and he got to 26 TT wins. You need a bit of luck with racing and if you look at Michael, he’s had luck on his side too; he will beat Joey’s record at the TT.
“You need the years on your side and it’s just unfortunate that it happened to my dad because I knew it annoyed him when he was living.
“He hated watching those Superbike races at the North West because he knew if he had been fit then he would have been winning them.”
Dunlop felt the best was still to come from Robert, who had decimated the opposition to win both Superbike races at the North West in 1994 on the Medd Honda prior to the TT.
“When that crash happened in ’94, things were starting to turn for him and he was becoming a really good rider.
“He won races on the Norton before then at the North West, which was a really fast bike, but when he won both Superbike races easily on a Honda – the same bike as everyone else – I think that’s when it was beginning to turn his way.
“It was a shame how it went because he’d have had a lot more success, but everyone has their ups and downs.
“If everything was right on the day for my dad then there was no-one who was going to beat him at the North West. In a way, Alastair Seeley reminds me of him in that respect because it’s the same for him – if everything is right then no-one will beat him and it’ll be the same again this year: he is a class act at the North West.”
Less than 48 hours after Robert’s death in 2008, William’s younger brother Michael famously won the 250cc race in the ultimate tribute to their dad.
William himself had intended to race but was ruled out with a machine problem with Paddy Flynn’s Honda on the warm-up lap.