By Dermot James
Early in 1963 the Ulster Grand Prix stood on the brink of extinction due to acute financial problems because the Northern Ireland Tourist Board had just announced the withdrawal of their customary grant towards the staging of the race, and the outlook was bleak.
It was at this point that a small band of enthusiasts got together and decided to do something about the situation. Thus was born the Ulster Grand Prix Supporters’ Club.
Difficult times still lay ahead, especially in the early 1970`s during the worst of the civil unrest in the province. The event was cancelled in 1972 because of the political situation in Northern Ireland and the U.G.P. lost its World Championship status in 1973.
With the lobby against the dangers of pure road-racing gaining momentum all the time, championship status was destined never to return.
This in particular, was a severe blow to morale and it took several years for the club to recover from the effects of the FIM decision.
Nevertheless, along with the Isle of Man T.T. Races and the North-West 200, the Ulster Grand Prix is still considered to be one of the three greatest road races still in existence.
In 2001, during the Foot-and-mouth crisis, when the North-West 200 and Isle of Man TT were cancelled, the race was held.
Unfortunately, the level of commercial sponsorship which the event attracted is nowhere near sufficient to safeguard its future, so the organizers are still heavily dependent on the supporters club.
In 2002 the race was almost cancelled. In 2007 the Grand Prix attracted an entry of 162 riders, including 38 new riders, and took place on 18 August.
There was good racing, but the day had to be stopped early because of excessive rainfall. This was a prelude to the following year's trouble.
That trouble in August 2008 forced the race to be called off for the first time in its history due to heavy rain and flooding.
It left the organisers with a huge deficit and the future of the long-standing meeting in jeopardy.
The Ulster Grand Prix has survived on many occasions, some a lot worse than happened on that particular Saturday. We only have to go back to August 1969 when the race was run with the country virtually ablaze as the Troubles erupted.
If the race had to be stopped, that was the day to do it because everybody felt at that time that they were in personal danger. Despite efforts by the then Government to ask the promoters to call it off, they stood firm and the race was held despite an air of gloom about the proceedings.
Then we had 1971 which was the last Ulster Grand Prix of a World Championship dimension and the following year in 1972 the race was moved to Bishopscourt for one year.
That would have been the opportunity to cancel any future link with the Dundrod road circuit but the promoters at the time decided to push on and restore the race to the Dundrod course in 1973.
There have been other ups and downs and there have been many occasions when the weather has almost wrecked the show, so much so that there are many who would say: "This is typical of Dundrod’s weather." Like the race's hardcore supporters, he concluded that this is not the time to throw the head up and give-in.
Now it is time to reflect on this the Golden Jubilee Year of the Ulster Grand Prix Supporters Club and the famous Co Antrim road races which owe a debt of gratitude to the unsung heroes of this bold body.
By any stretch of the imagination 50-years is a life-time in business and since 1963 the ‘Prix’ has benefitted to the tune of almost £1m.
There’s no denying the fact that but for these annual hand-outs the UGP would have vanished without trace.
But the thought of part of Ulster’s rich heritage going under inspired concerned followers of this great sport to do something practical.
Since the initial race was staged back in 1922 the organisers were faced with many hurdles, mainly financial ones.
The early months of 1963 were an anxious period for fans of the UGP because the Northern Ireland Tourist Board dropped a bombshell by indicating that it would cease to support the race.
In 1962 the amount of NITB support was reputed to amount to £5,000.
The promoters, the Ulster Motor Cycle Club, said that they could not undertake the race promotion without Tourist Board backing. There were further complications by the Tourist Board’s wish to have the UGP on the N-W 200 circuit at Portstewart at a different time of the year.
This negative news stirred bikers worldwide and that included the legendary Geoff Duke, now 90-years old, who penned the following letter which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 23 March 1963.
“I am deeply concerned by the news that the Ulster Grand Prix may not be held this year and I know that all other factory riders who have competed in the Ulster will agree with me.”
“I know that the TT in the Isle of Man and the Ulster GP hold the unique position in the world championship series of races in that they are pure road races.”
“The loss of this famous race, with all its prestige, would be a tragic blow.”
“We should do everything in our power to persuade the North Ireland Tourist Board to reverse this decision and give some financial support to this event.”
“If there is anything that I can do to help, please let me know.”
This letter proved to be a catalyst and it encouraged concerned fan Des Jardin to mobilise support for the Dundrod races.
At the time Jardin commented, “I needed to know who to attack or who to blame for the threat to the race.”
“That prompted me to knock on the door of Bobby Hewitt, secretary of the MCUI and Irish delegate to the world governing body of the sport, the FIM.”
“Perhaps he didn’t like my approach but his response to my inquiry was, if you think such a lot of the Grand Prix, why not form a Supporters’ Club?”
Replying in double quick time, Jardin added, “Perhaps I will if only my close friend from Glenavy, Herbert Ingram, agrees to help.”
“A quick trip to Glenavy secured Herbert’s promise of support and from that moment all my thoughts were directed towards something which both excited and frightened me.”
A preliminary meeting at Jardin’s home attended by Hewitt and Ingram along with Kevin Martin, Tommy Robb, Roy Kenny and of course Jardin decided that a public meeting should be held in Glenavy, a centre of staunch support for the race, on 11th April.
Robb who was then a member of the official Honda team was a great asset to this fledgling club. He undertook to get leading riders to sign a declaration in support of maintaining the UGP as a World Championship event at Dundrod.
Among the 300 people to cram into the Glenavy hall were Dublin heavyweights like Reg Armstrong, Stanley Wood and Ernie Lyons along with his brother Alan while home grown armchair enthusiasts like Cecil Calvert and Andy Pinkerton also made it to Glenavy.
“I’ve been a lifetime member,” enthused Calvert. “I walked from Derriaghy to make sure that I got a good vantage point for the races.”
Like Calvert, Pinkerton was a farmer and for the past eight years he has been the club President.
The newspapers helped with generous coverage but the euphoria and excitement of that meeting seemed to evaporate when the proceeds amounted to a meagre £65.
Jardin was somewhat depressed realising for the first time that raising substantial money would not be easy.
At the first committee meeting on 23rd April the decision was taken to order 2,500 metal lapel badges inscribed ‘UGP 1963’ and their subsequent arrival when mentioned in the press led to a demand which astonished Jardin and his fellow officials. To satisfy the demand the badge order was increased to 15,000.
Throughout 1963 and 1964 the main pre-occupation of the committee was badge sales and member recruitment.
For 1964 the badge order was increased to 20,000 but the membership slumped from 1,300 to 900 during critical days which indicated a shortage of workers.
That initial badge, the insignia of a true supporter, cost just five shillings (5/-) which was the minimum membership subscription at the time.
The new club needed to improve considerably and during the winter of 1964/65 there was inspiration from new blood and fresh ideas, one of which came from that never-to-be forgotten all-rounder Bertie Mann who was an administrator as well as a competitor.
He suggested the introduction of car stickers for members and this innovation saw the membership double in 1965 and increased further over a period of time to 6,000.
RH Ingram undertook the job of registrar and also dealt with a deluge of postal applications for badges and membership each year up until 1972.
Few people were even aware of the magnitude of his task but his contribution to the club’s growth was immense. The start of 1965 also brought about new blood to the committee including Tommy Price whose hard work and devotion has been so vital to the club’s survival.
Despite the effects of civil unrest and the loss world championship status the club continued to flourish. The club subscribed £1,000 to the 1963 race but that figure steadily grew to £20,000.
Prominent pillars of this unique club included Roy Kenny and Jim Ewing along with WH Spence, Alfie Wise and Dan Jordan plus Billy Middleton, Tom Best, Norman Windrum and Norman Morrow who was chairman for eight years while Windrum was in the hot seat for nine years.
All of these diehards made sure that the successful work of their predecessors was maintained.
When the club celebrated its 1988 Silver Jubilee Year it was recalled that £270,000 had been raised by public subscription much to the delight of organisers such as the Ulster MCC and Ulster Centre Promotions.
Through thick and thin the club had a daunting task particularly during the winter of 1971 when Grand Prix House, built by voluntary labour with materials provided by Gallaghers, was the target of a terrorist attack.
A bomb was planted in the first-aid room but the bomb disposal squad exploded the device because it was deemed to be too dangerous to handle. Two-thirds of the building was destroyed.
August 14th 1971 was to mark the end of an era so far as the ‘Ulster’ was concerned for that was the date on which Dundrod last hosted a round of the world championships.
That finale turned to be arguably a fitting climax and in particular the 250 cc race which erupted into a needle match between the favourite Phil Read and home hero Ray McCullough.
It was mighty ‘Mac’ who stole the show beating Finland’s Yarno Saarinen by one minute and 25 seconds with Dieter Braun third.
Due to the political unrest the promoters were unable to stage the I972 UGP.
However, a substitute meeting was held at Bishopscourt Airfield near Downpatrick.
This event was run under a ‘national’ permit only.
During the early 1970s the ‘troubles’ had an adverse effect on the quality of the entries but the introduction of the Formula-One World Championship in 1978 and held at the UGP for the first time in 1982 was regarded as a blessing in disguise.
However, by 1990 the Formula-One series was ailing and three years on the UGP was again struggling financially and on this occasion the Supporters’ Club refused to bail out Ulster Centre Promotions.
That body went into liquidation leaving many bills including a signification proportion of the prize fund unpaid. Needless to say the future of the race was again under threat once more.
For 1994 the Coleraine club, under the guidance of Billy Nutt, stepped-in to salvage a worrying financial situation. For seven years the Coleraine club took control.
Another serious warning was brewing in the ranks of the Supporters’ club in 1998 when their membership was down, programme sales were only 3,000 and they had only maintained their £35,000 donation of previous years by dipping into their reserves---not a healthy situation.
Thankfully, membership increased by 400 to break the 4,000 mark for the first time in the 1990s.
This was maintained in 2000 and despite the early season races in 2001 being cancelled because of the foot and mouth disease the club was able to maintain their donation of £35,000 to the organisers.
The race was plunged into crisis once again at the end of October 2001 when Billy Nutt announced that he was stepping down from running the Prix in order to concentrate on the North-West 200.
“I cannot heap enough praise on Jardin and his fellow officials,” said Nutt. “Had it not been for continued assistance from the Supporters’ Club there simply wouldn’t be an Ulster Grand Prix.”
At that time it was suggested that a consortium of clubs would promote the UGP but in the end the Dundrod club stepped-in to fill the breach.
Just before Christmas 2002 the ‘Ulster’ was again at the crossroads! The Supporters’ Club announced that they would withhold their financial contribution for 2003 if two leading lights within the Dundrod club remained in office.
This situation arose from a financial dispute after the 2002 event with the Supporters’ Club claiming that they had been vindicated, required an apology and could not work with the two individuals concerned.
Neither side would back down over the issue and soon a new Supporters’ Club was formed.
The Dundrod Ulster Grand Prix Supporters’ Club was launched on the 30 January 2003 at a meeting in the Ballymac Hotel, Stoneyford.
The situation was only calmed, if not resolved, when the leading officers of the original club resigned at the annual general meeting of the club in April 2003.
The first and only President of that splinter group was the Co Down based Ian Lougher from Wales.
Normality was restored in 2003 when Andy Pinkerton became President a year after Desmond Stewart became Chairman, Chris McDonald was Secretary and Paul McGovern treasurer.
Pinkerton, Stewart and McGovern are still the backbone of the club which contributed directly to a Superbike race in 2003 when Lougher was the winner by a short head over Bruce Anstey.
Lougher won the corresponding race in 2005 while Guy Martin was the 2006 winner, a feat he repeated in 2011.
“To celebrate this milestone we have commissioned a 50th anniversary metal badge,” explained Stewart. “We also have sew-on woven badges and our merchandise trailer which is effectively our shop-window has been updated.”
“The Prix has made giant strides over the past five years, our bank balance is healthy and thanks to a hard core of members we are still very much in business.”
“That said we are always looking for new committee members.”
“For 2012 we had 1383 members and by Easter this year we had 720 members, I’m confident that we can reach 1500!”
For the record the winners back in 1963 when the UGP Supporters’ Club was conceived were: 500 cc Mike Hailwood (MV); 350 cc Jim Redman (Honda); 250 cc Jim Redman (Honda) and 125 cc Hugh Anderson (Suzuki).
Now that the Golden Jubilee of this unique club has arrived it’s time for a liberal lashing of self-praise.
Since those worrying times in the early 1960s this club has surpassed all expectations by donating almost a £1m and that’s why the world’s fastest road race is still alive.
People power played a constructive role but had there been no proper Supporters’ Club we would not be returning to Dundrod year after year to lap up what is one of the world’s greatest road races.
The men and women behind that public meeting in 1963 can hold their heads high as they grace the history pages of the Ulster Grand Prix which had auspicious beginnings back in 1922.
One of those men was indeed Des Jardin who for almost 40-years was secretary and the general driving force behind this unique club.
Incidentally, this is the 60th year for Dundrod to host the Prix. It was previously staged at the Clady circuit.
Robert Graham who is Chairman of the Dundrod club has also paid tribute to Des Stewart and his fellow committee members for their on-going donations which have kept this famous race ticking over.
The club’s Vice-Presidents include Ralph Bryans, James Courtney, Ryan Farquhar, Brian Gardiner, Ian Hutchinson, Phillip McCallen and Brian Reid.
Club Presidents were Tommy Robb, Billy McMaster, Toby Hurst, Norman Morrow and Andy Pinkerton who stills holds office.
The first Chairman was Herbert Ingram followed by Dr Smythe-Wood, Dan Jordan, Randall Stewart, Norman Morrow, Norman Windrum and Des Stewart who moved into the hot seat in 2004 and is still leading the way.
Norman Windrum recalls the badge boost:
When the Ulster Grand Prix Supporters’ Club was formed away back in 1963, one of the methods used to encourage people to part with 5/= (25p) - which was the minimum membership subscription at the time- was to provide them with a metal lapel badge.
Down through the years other items such as ties, cloth patches, caps, pens, photographs, and key-rings were added to the range of goods for sale, but the humble lapel badge has unquestionably stood the test of time better than them all.
From that first year right through to 1970 badges were sold on the same basis, (i.e. a single design being available). Then in 1971 a new innovation was introduced. As an added incentive, any member who recruited 5 new members received a special badge free of charge.
This was the same shape and design as the ordinary badge sold to members, but was a different colour and had a much better finish. This special badge was not for sale; being given only to those who “qualified” for it, and the scheme initially proved so successful that the same procedure was adopted for 1972 and 1973.
I can well remember coaxing and cajoling some of my work colleagues in those years to join the Supporters’ Club so that I could get my hands on the “specials” – a task that actually proved to be extremely difficult as none of them had the remotest interest in motorcycle racing.”
“I did succeed though, mainly through threatening to withhold my co-operation when they required my assistance in the office. The things people do!
Then in 1974 came another new idea – a badge bearing the inscription “Supporters Club Member” available to members only, along with a badge without the inscription on sale to anyone. The two badges each year (with one or two exceptions) were of an entirely different design, and this formula was to last right through to 1987.
Silver Jubilee year of the Supporters’ Club, 1988, saw the clock turned full-circle with a single badge situation once more, and again, with a few exceptions; this has been the pattern right up to the present day.
A special badge was produced by the Supporters’ Club in 2012 to mark the 90th anniversary of the UGP, and another one this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supporters’ Club itself.
When one looks back over the complete 50 years collection of badges, one is immediately struck by the enormous improvement in the finished quality since those early days.
Whether or not the badge designs have similarly improved is a debatable point. Design is a very subjective matter, and what one person may find attractive, another will quite likely turn their nose up.
What is not in doubt, though, is the surprising variety of designs achieved. As well as racing bikes and riders, the badges have featured among other things, laurel-wreaths, chequered-flags, wheels, helmets, the Dundrod circuit outline, and a clipboard. We have had a red-hand, and (just to show we aren’t biased) a shamrock.
Sure, there have been mistakes made – there were for example the largely experimental screen-printed insert type badges produced for 1975 and 1976 which developed a nasty habit of falling apart; an experiment needless to say which was never repeated.
Then there was the bright idea in 1979 of having the ordinary non-members badge available in four different colours – blue, green, red, and yellow. Again, this was most definitely not a success.
It goes without saying that some of the early badges have become much sought after as collector’s items, and from time to time I see them fetch astronomical amounts on EBay. Perhaps not surprisingly, since they were only produced in limited numbers, the special badges of 1971, 1972, and 1973 fetch a lot more than even the original badge of 1963.
Although my direct involvement with the Supporters’ Club ended in 2002, I am even yet on occasions unexpectedly reminded of my time trudging around race-circuits recruiting members and selling badges.
The most recent example occurred during my visit to the TT races this year. One evening I was walking along Strand Street in Douglas when a total stranger hailed me and said, “Hey, you, I don’t know your name but I know who you are!”
“Who am I”, I said in reply in a rather soft voice, just in case other passers-by may not have heard what had come before. “You’re the man I used to buy the badges from at the Skerries every year”.
After having a chat with the gentleman I walked off thinking to myself how much better it is to be remembered for things you have done, rather than what your name is.
Anyway, the main thing is in this the Golden Jubilee year of the Supporters’ Club, make sure you don’t miss out on an attractive souvenir badge of what, is after all, a unique occasion. More than that, a souvenir that will undoubtedly grow in value over the years.
From the first year right through to 1970 badges were sold on the same basis---a single design which was available each year to members and non-members alike.
Then in 1971a new innovation was introduced. As an added incentive any member who recruited five new members received, free of charge, a special badge.
This was the same shape and design as the ordinary badge sold to the public for three shillings (3/-) but was a different colour and had a much better finish.
The special badge was not for sale, instead it was given to those who ‘qualified’ for it. The scheme proved so successful that the same procedure was adopted for 1972 and 1973.
Des Stewart, the current Chairman, reflected:
“As a member of the UGPSC the annual Membership renewal arrived one year, and in the Secretary’s report they were calling for volunteers. I was drawn to a meeting in the Community Centre, Railway Street, Lisburn and from that I became involved.”
“During the 2003 AGM the Committee resigned on block and I found myself being proposed for Chairman, with Chris McDonald as Secretary, Paul McGovern Treasurer and Andy Pinkerton President.”
“Leading up to that meeting, Chris had been working tirelessly on a computer based system for membership generation and records and after that the new Committee implemented these changes for annual renewals.”
“Sadly one of our faithful Club members Sam Glass died and left the UGPSC a substantial legacy. After long deliberation it was agreed to purchase a Club trailer---a design and build project handled by Chris through ‘Donnelly Easy Load.
“This also gave the Club an opportunity to establish a base at the Grand Prix, somewhere members can call and exchange the craic. In addition we were able to establish the Sam Glass Memorial Trophy for the Best Newcomer in the second UGP Superbike Race. This has been running since 2004 and we have a Winners’ shield in the trailer for all to see.”
“As we now prepare for the 2013 race, where would the Ulster Grand Prix be without the vision of Des Jardin?”
“Des was the brainchild behind the UGP Supporters Club, and we pay tribute to the way he galvanised his Committee and loyal Supporters over the years. We are proud to be associated with their tremendous efforts, as we strive to ensure that the Ulster Grand Prix remains at the Dundrod Circuit.”
“This year the total donations from the UGP Supporters Club will reach the £1 million mark and that speaks volumes for the volunteers behind the club.”
In the immediate past racing at the UGP has been top-drawer, let’s hope that there’s more of the same this week when you can safeguard the future of what is often referred to as an institution by becoming a member of UGP Supporters’ Club.
By the way here’s to the next 50-years!