Dunlop, Robert (1960–2008), motorcycle racer, was born 25 November 1960, fourth child among three sons and four daughters (including his twin sister Margaret) of William Dunlop, a motor mechanic, and his wife May (née Barkley), of Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, where Robert attended school.
Robert began racing in 1978 in Aghadowey, Co. Londonderry (aged 17, he forged his date of birth to state he was 18), and made his formal debut at the Temple 100 meeting in 1979. A member of the 'Armoy armada', comprising his brothers Joey (qv) and Jim and their brother-in-law Mervyn Robinson, with them he tested and raced bikes on back lanes around their homes in the Ballymoney area. Small, light and limber, Robert's physique resembled that of a jockey, endowing him with a beneficial power-to-weight ratio. Turning professional in 1981 with Honda, he stylishly won the amateur 350cc Manx Grand Prix newcomers' race in 1983 in his debut race on the island. He soon garnered respect as an aggressive and talented road racer in his own right, and not just as Joey Dunlop's young brother.
Scoring his first Irish road victory at the 1985 Cookstown 100, Dunlop gained sponsorship from Londonderry haulier Patsy O'Kane. He won the 350cc class at the North West 200 (NW200) in 1986, and in the 125cc class there in 1989. Crashing in the 1986 Isle of Man TT (IOM TT) Formula 2 (250cc) race, he broke his cheek, jaw, ankle, shoulder blade and several ribs, and punctured his lung; he raced again two months later at the Ulster Grand Prix. Victory in the invitational Macau Grand Prix in 1989 demonstrated his prodigious capabilities on one of the most difficult road circuits in the world. Although notionally a professional sport, road racing saw most participants mingle their personal and professional lives, with riders often working as their own mechanics and fundraisers. Robert worked in the off-season as a steel frame erector with Joey, and sometimes as a scaffolder. He and his wife Louise, from Norfolk, lived in a small cottage near Ballymoney, and in 1996 bought a farm on the outskirts of the town.
On his 'home' circuit, a nine-mile triangle routing through Portrush, Coleraine and Portstewart, Dunlop won the NW200 treble four times (in 1990 as a works rider on a JPS Norton, and in 1991, 1993, and 1994 on the Medd Honda). Three consecutive Isle of Man 125cc ('Ultralightweight') TT wins (1989–91) marked his ascendancy in the class, the last coming at the expense of the reigning 125cc circuit world champion Carl Fogarty, who placed third. Robert had broken his collar bone earlier in practice; he raced with nappies packed on his shoulder to ease the pain from wearing tight leathers (Walker, 49). He won the 1991 125cc British championship and the 1991 Junior TT, and came second in the 125cc TT in 1992 and 1993. Clinching the 125cc European championship at the Kirkistown circuit in 1993 established him as a preeminent European 125cc rider. His capacity to win on roads and circuits demonstrated his versatile and intelligent riding style. After he crested Ballagh Bridge in the 1994 IOM TT Formula 1 (750cc), accelerating through the gears, Dunlop's rear wheel disintegrated at over 130 mph (footage was caught by an amateur cameraman), sending him careering into stone walls and hedges. Shattering his right arm and leg, he suffered extensive nerve damage to his right hand (on which he lost a section of a finger), the strength and movement of which were significantly impaired. Taking a court case against his sponsor and the wheel manufacturer, he settled for £700,000 in compensation for lost earnings.
Retaining O'Kane's sponsorship, Dunlop made his comeback at the 1996 Cookstown 100, placing ninth in the 125cc race. He was refused entry to that year's North West 200; legal action led race stewards to overturn their ban, allowing Dunlop to race in the 1997 Ulster Grand Prix. The following year he was thrown off his bike and cartwheeled into a traffic sign at the North West 200, breaking his collar bone and fracturing his left leg; two weeks later he won the 125cc Ultralightweight TT on the Isle of Man.
Dunlop was now limited to riding 125cc bikes, lacking the strength and dexterity to manoeuvre larger and more powerful machines. His specially modified bike allowed his unhindered left hand (being naturally left-handed) to operate the clutch and front brake (usually spread across left and right handlebars; the rear brake is foot controlled); the accelerator was moved to the right-hand side, impeding his cornering and acceleration. Advised by doctors to relax and stretch out the tendons of his left hand when possible, he did this by placing the hand behind his back and flexing his wrist, hand and fingers on long straights; the sight of Dunlop riding at high speed with his weakened right hand alone in control brought attention from stewards (regulations require both hands to be in control of the bike). Leading the 125cc race at the 1998 NW200, Dunlop was knocked off his bike on the opening of three laps, breaking his lower right leg and collar bone. Three weeks later on the Isle of Man he won the 125cc Ultralightweight race (Joey came third, in their last race together), removing the cast from his leg moments before he demonstrated his ability to race to stewards.
With his sons William (b. 1985) and Michael (b. 1988) becoming rising stars on the road-racing scene, Robert supported them without pressuring them in any direction. He and Michael placed first and second in the 125cc race at the Kells Motorcycle Meeting in July 2003, the first ever father–son double on Irish roads. Noting that 'the North West means a lot to me for I live virtually on the circuit' (Sunday Mirror, 14 December 2003), Dunlop focused on securing another win there, especially after the Isle of Man TT discontinued its 125cc race in 2004. Often musing publicly on his future in the sport, especially in the aftermath of Joey's death in a racing accident in July 2000, he temporarily retired in 2004. In 2005, missing the thrill of racing, he underwent corrective surgery to lengthen his right leg (his ninth operation on the leg, two inches shorter than the left). He won the 125cc race at the Tandragee 100 in 2006. Clinching his fifteenth win at the NW200 that year, his first win on the circuit since his 1994 IOM TT crash, Dunlop observed after the race: 'Joey died doing what he loved doing. That does give me great comfort. I would not mind being killed on a motorbike. The only thing is that I would be selfish in that I would be missing my sons hopefully becoming great men' (News Letter, 8 June 2006).
Back with his sponsor, John Kennedy, who brought him glory in the early 1990s, Robert recorded his thirteenth Mid-Antrim 150 125cc title in August 2006. The Irish Times (12 May 2008) speculated that his improving form, strength and dexterity meant he might race again in the 250cc class. Winning both the 125cc and the 250cc races at the 2008 Cookstown 200, he targeted the 250cc race at the NW200, which he had last won in 1994.
Having reported hesitancy in the engine of the 250cc bike when at full throttle, Dunlop crashed during practice at the NW200 in 2008. Michael, who had been trailing him, and was one of the first on the scene of the crash at Mather's Cross, Co. Antrim (where Mervyn Robinson had fatally crashed in May 1980), ushered medics to his father. Robert was pronounced dead with fatal chest injuries just after 10 p.m. on 15 May 2008 at Causeway Hospital, Coleraine, Co. Londonderry. Race organisers consulted Robert's wife Louise as to whether the 250cc race should go ahead. Dunlop's sons Michael and William, despite being excluded from the race by stewards concerned about their emotional wellbeing, decided to compete two days later. Michael won the race in front of 120,000 supporters, stating immediately afterwards: 'I hope he's proud of me' (The People, 1 June 2008). Dunlop's funeral to Garryduff presbyterian church, Ballymoney, was attended by over 10,000 mourners, including Ian Paisley (qv), first minister, and Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister, of Northern Ireland. A minute's silence was observed in the first-round game between Cavan and Antrim in the Ulster senior Gaelic football championship at Belfast's Casement Park in his memory. The subsequent inquest into Dunlop's death (February 2009) found that when the engine stalled at over 150 mph, Dunlop (intending to clutch into neutral) inadvertently pulled the front brake with his left thumb. The instant braking effect launched him over the handlebars and into the path of a rider he had just overtaken, who was also seriously injured.
Robert Dunlop twice received the Ralph Rensen Trophy (1985, 1987) for the most Irish road race wins in a season, was twice Enkalon Irish motorcyclist of the year (1987, 1991), and in 2005 was the first rider to be elected to the Irish Racer Magazine Hall of Fame. He was also awarded (along with a posthumous award to Joey) an honorary doctorate of the university by the University of Ulster (2006) for services to racing and charity, and awarded (like Joey) the freedom of the borough of Ballymoney (2007). The most successful rider in the history of the NW200, Ireland's biggest race, to add to his record fifteen NW200 titles, he collected nine Ulster Grand Prix victories, five Isle of Man TT wins, and numerous other races and prizes detailed on the monument to him unveiled in May 2010 in the Robert Dunlop Memorial Garden, Castle Street, Ballymoney (adjacent to that of his brother). In addition to his numerous titles, his relaxed riding style, chirpy demeanour, indomitable courage, and willingness to chat with press and public made him widely popular in and beyond his chosen sport. A documentary film, Road, about the Dunlop family and other road racers, written, produced and directed by Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt, with narration by Liam Neeson, was released in June 2014.