The Ulster Grand Prix is a motorcycling road racing event held each August in Northern Ireland. The current course at Dundrod is a thrilling ride for competitors. The action on the roads attracts crowds from across the world.
The birth of the Ulster Grand Prix
The first Ulster Grand Prix event took place on 14th October 1922. The Ulster Motorcycle Club promoted the event. Road racing was enabled by the first Road Races Act in 1922. The act was helped through parliament by MP, journalist, and motorcycle enthusiast Thomas Moles. That debut race featured 75 competitors in 250cc, 350cc, 600cc, and over 600cc classes.
Several other notable Northern Irish men got road racing off the ground in the fledgling state. These included the legendary inventor Harry Ferguson, journalist Billy McMaster, and Malcolm Wilson.
A stalwart of the 1920s was the former Belfast Telegraph editor Tom Moles who was a member of the original organising committee.
Throughout the 1930s, the legendary Stanley Woods on his Norton machinery dominated proceedings. Other notable riders included Jimmie Guthrie and Jimmy Simpson. By 1935, the event was awarded the title Grand Prix d’Europe by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme.
The fastest road circuit in the world.
George Printamp, President of the Commission Internationale de Tourisme Motorcycliste.
A new breed of rider would come to the fore after the Second World War. Artie Bell and Les Graham became regular victors in the late 1940s.
World War Two halts racing
Road racing across Northern Ireland came to a halt after 1939 due to the outbreak of World War Two. With the war on the horizon, numbers of registered riders decreased with many joining the forces. The 1939 Grand Prix itself was almost called off.
A field of only 60 racers took to the Co. Antrim track. It was thought that cancelling the event would have bankrupted the organisers. The organising committee split in their decision to hold the race as Europe went to war. Several members resigned as a result.
There was no racing at all during the Second World War. A race took place in 1946, not an international or Grand Prix race but one to test returning to the Clady circuit.
Remembering the riders
On the start line, organisers wheeled a bike draped in a flag in tribute to those racers killed during the war. One such rider was Walter Rusk known for his remarkable pre-war achievements on the track. He died of pneumonia on 8th October 1940 while training with the Royal Air Force.
Grand Prix racing returned to the Clady Circuit in 1947. The altered track ran to only 16.5 miles. Among those to return was Leslie Graham who served as an RAF pilot during World War Two. As a Flight Lieutenant, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in December 1944.
In 1949, the Ulster Grand Prix was chosen as a round of the new World Championship series. This competition would evolve into today’s MotoGP series. The UGP would hold this position until 1971.
As motorcycle racing grew in popularity and bikes became more powerful, the track needed to change. In 1953, racing moved to a new 7.4 mile circuit at Dundrod. The inaugural Dundrod race victor was German racer Werner Haas on an NSU.
The Clady Circuit
The first races ran on a 20.5 mile route known as the Clady Circuit. These roads are only a few miles from today’s Dundrod Circuit in Co. Antrim with Clady coming from the Irish Clóidigh meaning Washing river. Between 1922 and 1939, this first circuit was known for thght. The start and finish line and pits were part way down the B39 straight where Loanends Primary School stands. Crowds would line the straight within touching distance of the bikes as they passed. At one stage, the track left the tarmac roads behind to cross the grass runways of RAF Aldergrove.
The lap record on the long circuit is 12 minutes 18 seconds, an average speed of 100.03 miles per hour. This was set in 1939 by Dorino Serafini on a 500cc Gilera.
A new Clady Circuit saw use in the post-war years between 1947 and 1952. With changes to road layouts in the area, the course was amended to a shorter 16.5 mile circuit. Part of the shortening was to avoid crossing the property of RAF Aldergrove which saw heavy use during World War Two.
The lap record on the short circuit is 9 minutes 21 seconds, an average speed of 105.94 miles per hour. This was set by Les Graham in 1952 on a 500cc MV Agusta.
Today’s Ulster Grand Prix
During the 1940s, up to 100,000 spectators would attend the Ulster Grand Prix. It was one of the biggest sporting events in Ireland. Today, its popularity has not waned. The event is as competitive as ever with the world’s greatest riders making their way to Dundrod.[ssba]