THIS LAST MONTH has probably been the hardest time in my career for losing friends and fellow competitors. And if it’s this hard for us to accept, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the families. Many years ago, I spoke out about whether road racing should continue after I lost some close friends. Obviously, I got a lot of stick for it when I decided to race the NW200 in 2012. I met Mark Farmer at Macau in 1993; we got on like a house on fire and started hanging out together. We then went on to Indonesia for a week. I looked up to Mark; he was cool, knew all the best clubs and was great fun to be around. Then, the next year, he was killed on the Britten at the TT. Then, Simon Beck, who always stayed with us when he came to race the Ulster GP was also killed at the TT. We used to go up to the track at night and race around it in one (or usually both) of our cars. Yeah, crazy, but that’s the way it was. I didn’t give it a second thought and I thought he’d be around forever as he was always so positive.
Jezza got to know Mark Farmer well after the pair met at the Macau GP
Back then, I didn’t realise road racers need to race to earn a living. I ignorantly thought they could quit and do something else, but they can’t and they wouldn’t, even if they had other options. It is only since I raced the NW200 in 2012 that I realise road racing is something only competitors and pure road race fans fully understand and accept unconditionally. Family and friends of the riders accept the risks; to us, the odds of something going wrong always seem to be minimal. When I started racing 500 GPs, myself, Neil Hodgson, Sean Emmett, Leon Haslam, John Reynolds and David Jefferies hung out together. We hadn’t a care in the world, we all thought we’d made it, but little did we know how difficult making a living at this game was going to be. We’d walk the track together then go for ice creams and coffees, then have beers and laughs at one of our motorhomes, then head on to a club on the Sunday evening. DJ was full of life; nothing fazed him and he always ordered the biggest tub of ice cream.
He knew David Jefferies from his days in the GP paddock
Then he left the GP circus and cut out an incredibly successful racing career on the roads. He was killed when he crashed on someone’s oil at the TT, he didn’t stand a chance. But he lived for road racing, he was immensely talented and I remember thinking what a waste. I knew his mum and dad, Pauline and Tony, never got over losing DJ, but racers are selfish and have short memories; we continue regardless. Recent tragic events have made me question myself. William Dunlop, Dan Kneen and James Cowton’s deaths on the roads have made me ask if the whole road racing thing is worth risking everything for. I was lucky enough to race with them. James crashed right in front of me during practice at the NW200 in 2015 at the same spot where Malachi Mitchell-Thomas lost his life in 2016. He came along with his arm in a sling to ask what I thought went wrong and I told him he just went through there flat-out with too much lean angle and the wee road chassis wasn’t up to it; he was lucky to walk away
McWilliams considers himself lucky to have raced with the likes of James Cowton
I stood in for Dan on his Mar-Train bikes (Supersport, Superstock and the Superbike) when he was injured in 2016. He was really gutted not to be racing but was still smiling and genuinely interested in how I was getting on and what I thought of the bikes. He had tested and set some impressive times on them just before he’d got injured. William seemed very calm and collected, like he was always in control. I got to know him when I went road racing; you couldn’t have met a nicer, more down-to-earth guy and he always had time for a chat. What is heart-breaking to me is the fact that he didn’t make a mistake, and in my eyes that is cruel. He lost his life through no fault of his own but, like a lot of riders these days, he needed to ride to make ends meet. It’s hard right now. But deep down I know I will probably return when time heals and I miss the buzz...
The road racing fraternity has seen more than its fair share of life-threatening injuries or deaths. This year, it lost the talents of William Dunlop (bottom left) and Dan Kneen (top centre)