For William Dunlop, motorcycle racing is a family business. If it wasn’t, the 28-year-old from Ballymoney, Northern Ireland might have more family. Dunlop’s legendary uncle Joey died on the Pirita-Kose-Kloostrimetsa Circuit in Estonia in 2000 and his father, Robert, lost his life after being thrown over the handlebars while going 160 mph during a trial run before the 2008 North West 200 in Northern Ireland. Now, Dunlop is preparing to ride in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race, which has claimed over 200 lives since 1907, against his younger brother Michael.
The Dunlop boys know precisely what they’re getting into. The TT is the crown jewel of motorcycle racing and you have to be willing to risk everything, accelerating to 200 mph on a notoriously narrow course bordered by rabid fans and rock walls, to even have a shot at the podium their father and uncle summited a combined 31 times. Men’s Journal recently caught up with William to talk about the race, sibling rivalry, his new Bell helmet, and why he still gives so much to a sport that has taken so much away from his family.
For people unfamiliar with the Isle of Man TT, how important is the event to the motorcycle racing community?
The TT is the main one for us. Our whole season builds around it. This is the one that everyone wants to win and it’s such a big event worldwide. The challenge, the endurance side of it: It’s not just a test of the man, it’s the machine as well. It’s a massive thing now.
What are the most dangerous parts of the race?
That’s one thing about this course – it’s all so fast because you’re doing 130-mph average laps. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can say you’re 100-percent safe…. I’ve seen it where the bikes are basically scraping people. I’ve watched it as well, being close, and it’s scarier watching it than it is riding. There’s more of a festival type thing about it.
With what happened to your dad and your uncle, how hard was it for you keep racing?
It never, ever was a problem. Myself and Michael raced two days [after our father died]. It’s just something you’re born into. The easiest thing for you to do is to continue what you’re doing more than thinking about it. When you’re involved in it and you see the good you can get from it, that definitely outweighs it. People don’t see that side of it. It’s an exciting lifestyle.
If you ever have kids, would you want them to get into the sport?
I would never say go against it. It’s been good to me, it’s been good to the rest of the family. When we were young, that’s what we were doing. There was no going out drinking and carrying on. It’s actually a good sport to teach discipline. I’d never go against it.
Your brother is also one of the top competitors. What’s the rivalry like between you guys?
I keep getting that question. It’s weird, but I always say, me and Michael, it’s not like one of us is winning and the other is 15th. We’re actually quite close on the race track at times, so it’s not just a brotherly thing. I hope that if I’m not going to win the race, Michael is. At the end of the day, we are worried about how each other’s doing for that reason, but outside of racing, it’s never a problem.
How do you stay in control and stay safe?
There’s so much of it that’s mental. If you’re mentally in the right place and you’re leaving your problems at home, I think that’s the safest thing to be. Also your protective gear, your helmets and leathers, that’s the most important part. When you know you’re wearing good stuff, mentally you’re better prepared, so that’s the biggest thing for safety, knowing you’re safe.
I’ve had massive crashes and gotten out OK, but never too bad. I’ve actually broken a lot of bones, but just like collarbones, dislocations, but never anything that put me out for a serious amount of time, so I’ve been quite lucky.
What do you do to prepare for racing this season?
Physically, you’ve got to be bigger for road racing. You need a bit more weight. When you’re high-speed changing direction and it’s bumpy, you need to be a bit heavier. This year I’ve been doing lots of weights instead of what the usual boys have been doing, which is a lot of cycling and cardio work. I’m hoping that’s going to be a big advantage.