By Kyle White:- Belfast Newsletter
Gary Dunlop has had a late change of heart and will run Cork man Mike Browne on the Joey’s Bar Honda Moto3 machine at the Armoy and Cookstown 100 road races this year.Dunlop, who retired in 2019 after winning the Moto3/125GP Irish Championship, had initially decided not to field the team this year as the road racing calendar was decimated once again by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the Ballymoney man – who has recently taken up a new job as a delivery driver with renowned Northern Ireland ice cream producers Morelli’s – changed his mind after fiancée Melissa Kennedy decided to race at Armoy and Cookstown.
Dunlop had done a deal with southern Irishman Browne last year but that was put on the backburner as the coronavirus crisis took hold.
Now, the Joey’s Bar Moto3 machine will be wheeled out at the Neil and Donny Robinson Memorial short circuit meeting at Bishopscourt (July 17-18), where Browne will have the opportunity to get some track time under his belt before the Armoy meeting at the end of the month (July 30-31), followed by a possible swansong for the Joey’s Bar team at the Cookstown 100 in September.
Dunlop told the News Letter: “Mike was lined up to ride for me last year but then with everything that happened, we never got the chance. We talked about going to Cookstown but then we decided in the end that there was no point in just doing one meeting.
“Mike had never rode the wee bike before and I didn’t want him going out there without having had the chance to get some time on it beforehand.
“Having Mike as our sole rider will make life a bit easier in terms of the workload. To be fair, we made an announcement earlier in the year that we were going to sit this year out because I didn’t really see much point with only two road races looking like going ahead, and no championship to go for.
“But then Melissa decided she was going to race, so once she made that decision then I changed my mind because I’d be going with Melissa anyway, so I might as well go ahead and put a bike out,” he added.
“I also felt bad for Mike because he never got the chance to ride the wee bike last year, but at least he will now after the change of plan.”
Looking ahead to Armoy, Dunlop said the team would use this month’s short circuit meeting at Bishopscourt as a two-day test for Browne.
“We’re actually going to do the Mid Antrim Club’s short circuit meeting, which will be Mike’s first time on the bike. It’s a two-day meeting so that will allow him the chance for plenty of track time before Armoy. He’s obviously had a lot more time on the bigger bikes so this will be a good chance for him to get some decent time on the Moto3 at Bishopscourt.
“It looks like being our final year this year with the team. I packed the racing in myself when I won the championship in 2019 and as soon as the Ulster Grand Prix fell by the wayside that was really it for me, because I absolutely love Dundrod.”
Dunlop says he has ‘no expectations’ in terms of results for Browne, who will compete in the Superbike and Supersport classes at Armoy on the Burrows Engineering/RK Racing machines, as long as he ‘stays safe and enjoys himself’.
“Mike actually reminds me on Derek McGee a bit because he’s a natural talent and seems to be a fast learner,” he said.
“I’ve no expectations for Mike whatsoever – I don’t care what he does, just as long as he enjoys himself and gets back safe and sound.
“A lot of folk don’t realise that these boys haven’t been out road racing for a long time and we can’t forget how dangerous this sport is, especially when you haven’t been out for a long time, and I think people need to understand that it’s not a short circuit meeting.
“Everyone will be chomping at the bit but I just hope it goes according to plan and everyone reins it in a bit after being away for so long.
“People’s lives are at stake and I hope everyone gets home safe first and foremost, and if the racing is good, then that’s a bonus.”
Last year, the Cookstown 100 was the only Irish road race that went ahead and Dunlop says the organisers deserve huge credit for producing a ‘template for road racing’ against the backdrop of coronavirus restrictions.
“Cookstown deserve some credit for what they did last year because some people were making things very hard for them, but they knew that this virus was probably going to hang about and therefore some kind of template was needed to allow road racing to go ahead,” he said.
“Fair play to them and they are the reason why we can have racing in these times. There’s a massive emphasis from clubs on the financial side but crowd numbers were down even before the pandemic and it’s just been tough times for road racing.
“It’s easy to point the finger and say that people don’t want to pay, and some of them maybe don’t, but that’s not the only problem for road racing. Whenever entry was free the decline in numbers was ongoing and sometimes it’s not anyone’s fault, there are just ups and downs with road racing and it’s always been like that.”