BY MARTIN WALSH
THERE can be few better examples of concentration than competing in the Isle of Man TT races where top speeds are in excess of 180 miles per hour over the 37.73-mile course that has 264 corners.
It’s not for the faint-hearted and sometimes it’s difficult to understand the psyche of motorcycle racers.
There is often the need to be born into it, just like Derek Wilson (48), whose grandfather Alan was born and reared in Rosscarbery. While Derek grew up in Douglas, he now lives in Ratharoon near Bandon. Ironically, his birthplace was only a stone’s throw away from Vernon Mount, off the Kinsale Road – the spiritual home of motorcycling racing.
Wilson was a diligent pupil at school, but there was an incentive.
‘Once I came home from school and got my homework finished, I would push the bike across the road to Slattery’s Garage and head to Vernon Mount where I would drive it around the place. That was my typical school day,’ he recalled, and in reality he was following the family tradition.
‘My dad (Alan) was quite prominent in the Irish Motocross circles in the 1970s and early 80s. I used to go with him to watch him racing. Actually, I had a little bike that I used to drive around the paddock.’
But those early days also gave Wilson a stark insight into the dangers of the sport.
‘I can remember going to hospital in the ambulance with my dad after he was injured in a race,’ he said.
‘I saw him crash a few times. I have six brothers and sisters but at the races it was just the two of us, so I had to go (to hospital) with him. Thank God, the injuries were never serious.
‘I remember one race in Clonmel when he landed so high off a jump that the bike actually split in two. We went to Portlaoise Hospital and thankfully he recovered from the back injury.’
The after-school Vernon Mount experiences paved the way and in 1992 Wilson went to Mondello on a road bike for the very first time. A year later he won the Race of the Year on a Suzuki RGV 250, and that success saw him win the Alan O’Mahony Perpetual Trophy.
Few riders are content with circuit racing and for Wilson the transition to road racing was inevitable. In between, and even still, hillclimbs at Twohig’s Hill in Clonakilty, Farnanes and Dunderrow are tasty appetisers.
‘I was racing in Bishopscourt one Saturday in 1995 and the late Joey Dunlop was in the paddock,’ Wilson recalled.
‘I was pushing the bike as it wouldn’t start and Joey came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said something. I didn’t understand his accent and I asked my mechanic what he said and he told me that he wanted me to bring the bike up to his roller.
‘When the bike started on the roller Joey just listened to the engine for about three or four minutes. We went out racing and Joey came sixth and I was seventh. It was one of those things you never forget.’
Wilson went on to win the Irish Clubman’s (750cc) championship that year and was second in the 250cc series with other races in Aghadowey, Mondello, Kirkistown and Nutts Corner.
‘The speed up north was higher; for instance, in Bishopscourt you would be reaching 180mph. It is total concentration, you don’t think about the speed, you are doing a job, it’s like someone else doing another job really.’
He added: ‘Bishopscourt was probably my first experience of high speed. You feel the leathers ripple, at those speeds the leathers seem to get a lot thinner and they ripple from your shoulders all down your back. That sensation is something you will only get at a top-speed track.’
All the time his interest in road racing was increasing.
‘It’s the pinnacle, it’s exciting. For example, in Skerries there is a section of a road that you have to straight line with a ditch on your left and another on your right and when you come out of that there is a jump and if you are not in the right position for that jump, you are basically in the dyke. To get it right is a sense of achievement and excitement,’ Wilson explained, but there are times when things can go wrong.
‘The most important thing is not to react. Obviously, you are braking and you try to slow the bike down. There have been times where I’ve had close shaves and afterwards I thought had I reacted it could have been a lot worse. There’s also a bit of luck involved. The first thing that comes into your mind after crashing is your helmet as they are so expensive, you always try and keep your head up.’
The Isle of Man is the zenith of road racing, but before Wilson could compete there, he spent many years just watching the event. Before he made his racing debut there, his racing friends gave him a close up of what was required.
‘I was lucky to have the likes of Derek Shiels (a Dubliner that has a great fondness for Cork) bring me over to the Isle of Man. Along with Brian McCormack, they explained things to me as I was over-thinking and becoming confused. They simplified the whole thing and advised me to just concentrate on the key points,’ he said.
‘While fitness is also key, what’s equally as important is your homework, you need to know where you are going as otherwise you lose your momentum. It’s the best place in the world.’
Wilson took to the Manx roads with style, winning the Newcomer’s Race in 2017. A lead of 18 seconds was quickly erased.
‘As I entered the pit for refuelling, a race official noticed the rear light wasn’t working. My team – that included Gary Keohane, Mark Gash and Shiels – sorted the problem.’
But that lead was erased due to the addition of a 30-second penalty for breaking the pit-lane speed limit, however his homework paid dividends and he went on to take the chequered flag.
Wilson also has a great interest in vintage cars, and that’s also inherited from his father and grandfather.
‘The basement of my grandfather’s house in South Terrace was used for motor meetings. In the 1960s, Donal ‘Doc’ O’Callaghan and my grandfather bought Vernon Mount and then the Munster Motor Cycle and Car Club purchased it from them,’ he explained, before adding that his 1910 Wolseley-Siddeley is important to him. He said: ‘Driving the car is an achievement.’
Wilson is focussing on the Isle of Man Classic TT races in 2021 (a decision is set to be made in March, on Monday last the IOM TT Races scheduled for May 29th/June 11th were cancelled due to Covid-19) where he will ride a 750cc Kawasaki in the Classic Superbikes.
No doubt, he will be in his zone throughout the circuit.
‘You are doing a job. If you are not able or don’t want to, then you shouldn’t be doing it,’ he said.