One of the most acclaimed motorcycle racers of all time, Joey Dunlop became an icon of the sport before his tragic passing away at only 48 years old during a race. You’ll find more info here about his life and why he was so beloved by many.
The Early Life of Joey
Born William Joseph Dunlop in the small village of Armoy in Northern Ireland in 1952, the future “King of the Road” was the second of seven children. His father was a motor mechanic which may have played a part in Joey’s later interest in the sports area of racing.
He followed classes at the Ballymoney High School and was preparing for a life in the military before he bought his first motorcycle at the age of 16. Joey became interested in the domain of motorcycle racing and the jobs he soon took were only to help him finance his newfound passion.
He took several jobs in this period of time, some related to his area of interest, such as diesel fitter and lorry driver, but he also worked as a roofer and was at one time a pub-owner.
Racing in Ireland
While across continental Europe and in England, motorcycle racing competitions are usually held on race tracks built especially for this activity, having safety measures always put into place and improved, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, they are usually held on common public roads which are closed to the public for the event, making them rather dangerous.
Joey would go on and compete on both types of arenas. The first race he ever took part in was a short circuit one in Ireland in 1969 but he proved to be much better at road racing. Because the terrain would allow for higher levels of speed (often above 100 mph) these too proved to be dangerous with some racers losing their lives.
The first closed-road race that Joey took part in was the 1970 Temple 100 which took place in County Down. He has named Mervyn Robinson as an influence on him. Mervyn was a local racer whom Joey met as he was the brother of his girlfriend, Linda. Joey and Linda would get married in 1972.
Joey, alongside Mervyn and Frank Kennedy (another racer from the North Antrim area), would go on to be nicknamed “The Armoy Armada”. All three would go on to die while racing, with Frank passing away in 1979 and Mervyn in 1980 – both of them at the North-West 200 races. Joey would pass away in 2000 in a 125cc race in Estonia.
Although Joey didn’t have a meteoric rise to fame when he finally did start winning he left a remarkable legacy.
The Isle of Man TT Legacy
The Isle of Man TT is one of the oldest courses in the world and is internationally famous especially due to its danger, the Snaefell Mountain Course being one of the riskiest for any rider, with its twisted streets, narrow roads and rural lanes which are surrounded by various buildings and stone walls.
Here he would go on to win 26 races during his career. As of today the racer with the second-most wins, John McGuinness, has 23. John is still active but his career has slowed down since 2017 when he suffered serious injuries while racing, meaning Joey’s record will probably stay for a long period of time.
The third most successful racer in the Isle of Man TT race is Michael Dunlop, Joey’s very own nephew who has 19 wins.
Winning in Ireland and Internationally
Joey became a legend in Ireland as he often took part in races there. The North-West 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix are considered to be the most prestigious road races in Ireland and Joey has left his mark there as well. At the North-West 200 race, he had won 13 times, while at the latter he raced to victory an impressively 24 times.
He also took part in the Formula One TT World Championship where he placed third in 1980 when he made his debut. The following year he also placed third, but between 1982 and 1986 he would go on to win the championship, while between 1987 and 1989 he placed second.
Joey had also gone to compete in various similar events across Europe, most notably in England, Germany, and France. Overall he had won more than 160 titles during his career.
The world champion has races using various motorcycles which he usually liked to service and maintain by himself showing his appreciation for the art of racing. Among the models he raced with we can name the Yamaha 250, 350, 500 and 750, the Suzuki 200, 500 and 1000 and the Honda which he used most often (this meant 11 models between 125 and 1023).
Joey’s Many Awards and Titles
With such a prolific career, Joey was bestowed with various awards, titles, and honors over the course of his career. He was the recipient of the Enkalon Rider of the Year seven times and won the Road Racing Ireland Rider of the Year title five times. Manx honored Joey in 2000 with a replica of the Sword of State and nicknamed him “King of the Mountain”.
Also in 2000, he received post-mortem the Médaille de Bronze of the Fédération Internationale Motocycliste. Joey was appointed MBE as early as 1985 thanks to his services to motorcycling, while he was named OBE in 1995 for his humanitarian activities and TT racing success.
Joey, the Quiet Philantropist
When during the 1990s Joey heard about the horrible situation that many orphanages in Eastern Europe were in (most notably the Romanian ones, but also the ones in Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina), he took his van, filled it with necessities and drove by himself to the Balkans.
On these trips, he would offer children various much-needed items from food and clothes to toys and baby wipes. Joey didn’t like to make a spectacle of his charitable work and often he didn’t even tell his wife about his trips. While the situation was more stable in Romania, the Bosnian war was in full swing when Joey made these trips.
Joey was completely lacking any sort of interest in his fame and success often refusing to fly in first class or to stay at five-star hotels. He was described by many as being rather shy and preferring his own company to others. Even while in tournaments he ate common food like cold soup and beans and slept in his van.
There were instances in which it is known that after Joey won a competition he wouldn’t take the money home; instead, he would notice a person with children and offer them the sum of money.
Everybody knows that motorcycle racing is very dangerous with many great names perishing in such accidents. Joey had three serious accidents with the last one proving to be fatal.
In March 1989 while taking part in the Eurolantic Motor Cycle Challenge meeting, Joey crashed with Stephane Mertens, a Belgian rider. Joey had a broken leg and wrist and fractured his ribs which led to months of recuperation in order to be able to compete again.
Less than ten years later, at the 1998 Tandragee 100 meeting, Joey was involved in a high-speed crash which resulted in him cracking his pelvis, breaking a bone in his right hand plus his collarbone while also losing the tip of one of his fingers of his left hand.
Joey was in a competition in Tallinn, Estonia, in July 2000. He had already won the first two races, but, while leading the third one, his motorcycle was led off the track by the wet road and crashed. Joey died instantly.
Death Runs in the Family
Joey had a brother named Robert who also made a name for himself in the racing world with five TT wins. Like the other two members of the “Armoy Armada” before him, the North-West 200 also took his life as in 2008 he crashed during practice and died at only 47 years of age.
Robert had two sons who also became racers, William and Michael. William also secured several podium places but passed away in July of 2018 during practice for the Skerries 100 in County Dublin at only 32 years old.
Michael is currently in his early 30s and has achieved a significant amount of success as well, most notably at the extremely dangerous Isle of Man races with 19 wins. None of Joey’s five children have gone into racing … so far.