Dunlop, William Joseph (‘Joey’) (1952–2000), racing motorcyclist, was born 25 February 1952 at Unshinagh, near Dunloy, Co. Antrim, second among seven children of William Dunlop, motor mechanic, and his wife May (née Barkley). Joey received his early education at Ballymoney High School, Co. Antrim. His motorcycle racing career commenced, at age seventeen, in 1969, when he rode a Triumph Tiger Cub in a 200cc event at a meeting organised by the Motor Cycle Road Racing Club of Ireland on the Maghaberry airfield circuit near Moira, Co. Armagh. His first race on a closed public roads course was in the 200cc handicap at the 1970 Temple 100, which was held on the Saintfield circuit in Co. Down. A motorcycle racing career which started out as a ‘bit of fun’ had, within a few years, become much more serious, though lack of finance and sponsorship hampered Dunlop’s progress. Within a relatively short period of time, however, he had established himself as a fast, safe and successful competitor on both short circuit and road courses, riding Italian Aermacchi and Japanese Yamaha machines.
After stints in the family steel erection business and working as a diesel fitter, truck driver and roofer, Dunlop bought and ran the Railway Tavern pub in Ballymoney, renaming it ‘Joey’s Bar’. Each job allowed him to focus on building and racing motorbikes. He excelled at engine management, being a self-taught mechanic who brought his encyclopaedic knowledge to bear on his bikes. In 1977 Dunlop adopted a yellow helmet dissected by a central black stripe, which became a lucky talisman; similarly, he always put on his left glove first at the start of a race. He was indifferent towards fame or wealth and travelled to races in his works van, where he often happily slept during competitions. A shy yet determined character, his approachability in the race paddock contributed to his immense popularity among racing fans.
Dunlop’s first major victory came in July 1975, when he won the 500cc class at the Temple 100. In 1976 he made his debut at the Isle of Man TT, finishing sixteenth in the Junior (350cc) and eighteenth in the Senior (500cc) races. The following year (1977) he had his first victory on the daunting 37.73-mile (60.7km) TT Mountain Circuit, winning the four-lap (150.92-mile; 243km) Jubilee Classic TT at an average speed of 108.86mph (175.2kph) on his 750cc Yamaha. He also had the fastest lap in the race at 110.93mph (178.5kph). Success followed success, and towards the end of the 1980 season he was signed by the Suzuki (Great Britain) team as a back-up for their rider, New Zealander Graeme Crosby, in the remaining rounds of that year’s World and British Formula One Road Racing Championships. His stay with Suzuki was a short one. In 1981 he signed a contract to ride for the Honda Britain Racing Team.
In his first year as a Honda team rider (1981), Dunlop finished third in the Formula One World Championship behind winner Graeme Crosby (Suzuki) and his Honda teammate Ron Haslam. The Dunlop–Honda union proved very successful, as Dunlop went on to win the Formula One World Championship for five consecutive years (1982–6). In the 1987 championship Dunlop finished second to Italian Virginio Ferrari (Bimota–Yamaha), and in 1988 he was second to English rider Carl Fogarty (Honda). Due to injuries sustained in a race accident at Brands Hatch at Easter 1989, he did not contest that year’s championship. The Formula One World Championship was dropped from the international calendar after 1989; a replacement Formula One World Cup, run for just one year (1990), was won by Carl Fogarty (Honda), with Dunlop taking second place.
It was on the Isle of Man, where he was particularly adept at plotting the fastest line, that he really tore up the record books. From his Isle of Man debut (1976) to his final appearance there (2000), he won a total of twenty-six TTs – an all-time record as of 2022. Dunlop was also one of just a handful of riders who have won three TT races in one week. This he achieved three times, in 1985, 1988 and 2000. His TT wins are as follows: 1977, Jubilee TT; 1980, Classic TT; 1983, Formula One; 1984, Formula One; 1985, Formula One, Junior, Senior; 1986, Formula One; 1987, Formula One, Senior; 1988, Formula One, Junior, Senior; 1992, 125cc; 1993, 125cc; 1994, 125cc, Junior; 1995, Lightweight, Senior; 1996, 125cc, 250cc; 1997, 250cc; 1998, 250cc; 2000, Formula One, 250cc, 125cc. Dunlop’s sensational victory in the 2000 Formula One TT race was built on his unrivalled knowledge of the Manx course. Coming twelve years after his last win there in that class, Dunlop, aged forty-eight, took pole position with almost a minute to spare, in his twenty-fifth year of racing at the TT.
Dunlop’s success brought many accolades. In 1984 readers of the top-selling British weekly Motor Cycle News voted him their Man of the Year – the first time an Irish rider was so honoured. That same year, the sports editors of the Irish national newspapers (north and south) nominated him Texaco Motorsport Star of the Year, a title he again received in 1985. In 1986 he was awarded the MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to motorcycle sport. A decade later he received another royal award – the OBE (officer of the Order of the British Empire) – for his outstanding work in bringing aid to the destitute children in Romanian orphanages. During the off-season period, when he was not busy with racing commitments, Dunlop raised money for the children, purchasing supplies of food, clothing and medicines. He would then load his race transporter and drive single-handed across Europe to deliver the goods to their destination. On one of these trips Dunlop detoured to the Imola racetrack in Italy to pay his respects to Ayrton Senna, who had died there in a tragic crash. Dunlop also assisted in fundraising for Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin. At the annual autumn congress of the Fédération Internationale Motocycliste (FIM; the world governing body of motorcycle sport), which was held in Dublin in October 1993, Dunlop was awarded the prestigious FIM silver medal for his career achievements.
Renouncing cigarettes in his early forties, Dunlop worked hard to improve his physical fitness later in his career, essential in wrestling larger bikes around circuits. Indeed, his fastest-ever lap of the TT Mountain Circuit – 123.87mph (199.3kph) – was set on Saturday 10 June 2000, in what was his final race in the Isle of Man. Other records set by Dunlop include 24 wins in the Ulster Grand Prix, 31 wins in the Southern 100 (Castletown circuit, Isle of Man) and 117 wins in Irish national road races. He won the prestigious Hutchinson Trophy – premier award at the Leinster 200 (Mondello Park) – five times (1975, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1984). While he was most closely associated with Honda, Dunlop also rode other makes of machine – Triumph, Suzuki, Aermacchi, Yamaha and Benelli.
A cautious racer who knew his limits, he survived two serious accidents during his thirty-one-year career. At the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, England, during the Eurolantic Motor Cycle Challenge meeting on Good Friday, 24 March 1989, he was involved in a crash with Belgian rider Stephane Mertens at Paddock Bend, suffering multiple injuries, breaking a leg, a wrist and his ribs. He never raced again on short, enclosed circuits, regarding them as leaving him vulnerable to the mistakes of others, unlike road racing. After four months of recuperation, he returned to racing in mid-July, though still far from fully fit. A second serious crash happened during the 125cc race at the 1998 Tandragee 100 meeting in Co. Armagh. In the tumble, which happened at high speed, Dunlop lost the tip of his left-hand ring finger, as well as suffering a cracked pelvis, broken collarbone and a broken bone in his right hand.
Joey Dunlop lost his life in a crash during a 125cc race at an international meeting at Tallinn, Estonia, on Sunday 2 July 2000. In wet conditions, his Honda machine ran off the road and crashed into trees, killing him instantly. His death resulted in a great outpouring of grief in Ireland and overseas. Over 50,000 people attended his funeral at Garryduff presbyterian church, near Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
His younger brother Robert (qv) was killed in a crash at the North West 200 in 2008. One of Robert’s sons, William, died in 2018 in a crash at the Skerries 100; in June 2022 another son, Michael, won his twenty-first Isle of Man TT title, placing him third behind his uncle Joey in the all-time list.
Statues of Joey Dunlop were erected in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, and at the ‘Bungalow’ bend, Snaefell, on the Isle of Man. The Joey Dunlop Cup is awarded annually to the most successful rider at the Isle of Man TT. He married (22 September 1972) Linda Patterson from Ballymoney. They had five children: Donna, Gary, Joanne, Julie, and Richard.