Written By Natalie Ferris
I started writing for the website last year and spoke to many interesting people involved in behind the scenes. I learnt so much in the process. This year is a little different and I am looking at the history of the event. Initially I was overwhelmed by the task however soon into my research I began to relish the nostalgia. In turn the knowledge I was gaining and my ever growing respect for the legendary riders and volunteers involved in the event was a complete bonus.
I am going to go back to the very start, where it all began – 1922. To a time when people thought nothing of walking 20 miles or so to spectate in a sport that was at the cutting edge of its time. When safety equipment was practically non- existent. Not a great time to launch a major sporting event in Northern Ireland, however at a meeting in Belfast in February 1922 the late Harry Ferguson persuaded the Irish Motor Trade Association that the best way to help boost interest in the business was to promote it with international racing in Ireland. Thankfully they agreed and Ferguson formed a sports committee to take the initiative forward. Initially Ferguson had intended on having both cars and motorcycles race on the same day however these plans were abandoned later in the year.
Harry’s biggest challenge was the lack of legislation permitting such an event. The circuit of Clady had already been confirmed, so Ferguson and his team contacted the Antrim council who immediately agreed to approach the newly formed Northern Irish government for the relevant authority to close public roads. With the help of Thomas Moles MP and then editor of the Belfast Telegraph they successfully achieved the Road Races Act reaching the Statute Book in May 1922. Harry Ferguson had decided to depart for America so it was left to the passionate group of Billy Chambers, Robert Condell, Billy Simms and Alex Waddell to continue with the courageous task of planning for the first Ulster Grand Prix race.
On the 14th October 1922 the first handicap race took place, with 75 entries in four classes; 250cc, 350cc, 600cc and over 600cc. Only 7 laps to complete and a total of 143.5 miles to be covered it was a relatively short distance compared to the Isle of Man TT or the French and Belgian classics. Back then there were no official practise periods so few riders got to experience the flat out sections of the course of the notoriously bumpy 7 mile straight. The challenge of finishing the race lay ahead of them and needless to say not all of the riders achieved it.
For its first event the race attracted a good turn-out of riders ready to take on the circuit. The majority of entries were in the 350cc and 600cc class. Around 30 various makes of motorcycle were represented at the time with some familiar names such as Norton, A.J.S, Cotton and Harley Davidson lined up on the grid along with some lesser known makes like Pax, Sirrah and Mohawk.
Hubert Hassall, Graham Walker and Jimmy Shaw made up the Norton team that year. They travelled to Belfast prior to the race, in an attempt to learn the circuit as best they could. During this time I believe they were concerned about the weather and its impact on the course. But on the day the weather cleared and a strong wind helped dry the road, providing decent conditions for racing. Even then weather hampered race conditions and to be fair if you’re competing or spectating always be prepared for rain in Northern Ireland. That’s one thing I’ve learnt in my years as a fan. Results from the day were Wal Handley winning the 250 class, Fred Andrews in the 350 class and Norman Metcalfe in the over 600 class. With Hubert Hassall winning the 600cc and speaking after the race he confirmed he had a trouble free run but did find the 7 mile straight quite rough yet still able to go full throttle. Other riders were surprised at the size of the crowds around the circuit especially at Clady corner. With thousands of people spread all over nobody seemed in the slightest bit concerned about the danger of being on the road feet away from speeding motorcycles.
None the less, the entire event was a complete success and the future of the Ulster Grand Prix was assured.