Up until it was last held in July, 1999, the Temple 100 held the honour of being the oldest and longest-running motorcycle road race in Ulster and Ireland. The first Temple race was held on September 3, 1921.
However, in the year 2000 – 16 years ago – after several serious accidents over the previous decade, the 5.5-mile Saintfield circuit in Co. Down was deemed too dangerous by the Road Race Task Force set up by the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland.
The Temple Motor Cycle Club looked into running their race on an alternative circuit, but objections were raised by people living on the proposed new course, and so the Temple 100 passed into the history books.
With the demise of the Temple 100, the honour of being the oldest road race on the island of Ireland passed to the Cookstown 100, which was first held as a 30-mile event on Thursday, June 15, 1922. This makes the Cookstown race four months older than the Ulster Grand Prix, which was first held on Saturday, October 14, 1922.
The Cookstown and District Motor Cycle Club was formed at a meeting held on the evening of Saturday, February 11, 1922, in the premises of Mr. James Fearon in Cookstown.
Just a couple of months after its formation, the new club announced plans to run three motorcycling events on Thursday, May 4: An Open Handicap Road Race; An Open Consistency Driving Test, and a Hill-Climbing competition.
Heavy rain on the morning of the club’s inaugural venture left the roads in a poor state, forcing the postponement of the road race. However, the other two events were run off as planned.
The postponement of the road race was a great disappointment to the club, and at a subsequent committee meeting it was decided to run it as soon as possible – Thursday, June 15th, being the agreed date. The race was run on the Sherrygroom circuit, near Stewartstown. The race distance was 30 miles – five laps of the six-mile course. Winner was Belfastman Tom Mallon riding a 500 c.c. Sunbeam.
The “Tyrone Courier” newspaper of June 22, 1922, carried a report of the event: “On Thursday evening last, before a moderate attendance, in delightful weather, the Cookstown and District Motor Cycle Club ran their adjourned TT Road Race of 30 miles. The course was in splendid condition. The start was from Low Cross to Sinclair’s Corner, then to Hardy’s Shop, thence to Sherrygroom Orange Hall and Creighton’s Crossroads down to Ardpatrick turn, then to Donaghendry Crossroads to Shankey Crossroads, thence up to the starting point, a distance of roughly six miles. Mr. Uprichard, Hon. Secretary of the Ulster Centre (MCUI), and Mr. Kissock, Magherafelt, acted as starters and judges. Mr. J. W. Fleming, chairman, and Mr. Arthur Gourley, Hon. Secretary of the Cookstown Club, had all arrangements in perfect order.”
No Cookstown race was held in 1923 due to the refusal of Tyrone County Council to grant a road closing order, but when next run in 1924 the distance was increased to 70 miles and so it remained until 1930 when it was again increased, this time to 100 miles, and the now familiar Cookstown 100 title was instituted.
During the 1920s the race was held on Thursday afternoons with a 2.30 p.m. start. However, in 1930, the event was moved to Wednesday and it continued to be held on Wednesdays up to 1974.
As early as 1927, the winner of the overall handicap at Cookstown was awarded the President’s Cup and £10. That particular year, the prize-fund for the race totalled £23. We may scoff at such a small sum today, but it was quite good money back then.
Through the 1920s and 1930s most of Ireland’s top riders raced at Cookstown.
In 1924, Stanley Woods rode an 8 h.p. New Imperial into second place in the overall handicap behind Belfast’s Herbie Chambers (350 c.c. AJS). Woods was already an Isle of Man TT winner when he rode at Cookstown, having won the 1923 Junior 350 c.c. Race on a Cotton machine. He would go on to win a further nine TTs before his road race career ended with the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.
Another Cookstown star of the 1920s was George Brockerton from Coleraine. Brockerton was a regular competitor in all the Irish road races of those years, and was one of the best-known characters of that time. He was a great supporter of the Cookstown race. Once he toured around the crowds assembled at the international North-West 200 with a van covered with posters declaring: “If you want to see a real motor cycle race, come to the Cookstown 100 next Wednesday.”
Ulster’s legendary “Blond Bombshell” Walter Rusk left his mark at Cookstown, finishing 6th in 1933 and 2nd in 1934 on a 493 c.c. Sunbeam. After the 1934 race he was asked by a newspaper reporter what he thought of the Cookstown-Kildress-Orritor circuit. “It’s a sporty wee course” he responded.
A few weeks later in the Isle of Man, riding Velocettes, he finished 7th in the Junior TT and a superb 3rd in the Senior; the benefits of learning your race-craft on “sporty wee courses” was obvious.
Those early Cookstown Road Races attracted healthy entries from Southern Ireland.
As well as Stanley Woods, other Southerners who performed with distinction at Cookstown include Dubliner Gordon Burney (son of John P. Burney, who won Ulster’s very first road race way back in 1904). Gordon won at Cookstown in 1927 on a 350 c.c. Royal Enfield.
Charlie Manders was another Dubliner who rode at Cookstown, and of course Ernie Lyons – the gentle giant from Co. Kildare – who was one of Ireland’s top road race stars in the immediate post-war years.
The Cookstown 100 of 1938 was the last of the pre-war events on the Co. Tyrone circuit. Excessively high insurance forced the club to cancel the 1939 race, and the outbreak of war on September 3rd of the same year meant the sport came to a halt for six long years.
Though motorcycle sport resumed in Ulster just two months after the end of the war in May 1945, it was to be the autumn of 1946 before the Cookstown 100 returned to the MCUI calendar. Wednesday, September 11th, was the date chosen for the 1946 race. Winner was local rider George Reid on a 348 c.c. Velocette at 60.70 m.p.h.
A report of the 1946 events in the popular weekly publication “The Motor Cycle” opened as follows . . . “To an English visitor, the smaller Irish road races are a never-failing source of wonder. If, for instance, you can imagine a small town some 25 miles from London barring all traffic from its streets once a year and holding a road race through them, starting in the wide Main Street itself, you will have some idea of the setting for the Cookstown 100. The inhabitants, having shut up their shops, ascend to the windows above and settle down to enjoy an afternoon’s real road racing.”
By 1948, the total prize-fund had been increased to £94, and one of the competitors in that year’s race was 75-years-old Thomas Greer, a founder-member of the Cookstown Club. Mr. Greer had the distinction of being the first Ulster rider to take part in the Isle of Man TT in 1909, finishing 17th on a Rex machine. He had ridden regularly in Irish events up to the outbreak of the war in 1939, and came out of retirement for the 1948 race. With a generous handicap allowance, Greer led the race for a time on his two-stroke Scott, but a broken chain led to his retirement. Malcolm Templeton from Ballymena won the handicap on his 348 c.c. Norton, but the day’s fastest lap went to Reg Armstrong (Triumph) at 74.79 m.p.h. Over the following years, Armstrong would go on the ride works machines for AJS, MV Agusta, Norton, Gilera and NSU in the World Championships.
1949 was a sad year for the Cookstown Club. The road race itself ran very successfully on May 4th in front of the usual huge crowd, but on July 25th, Thomas Greer, the long-time stalwart of the club, was fatally injured in a road accident involving his motorcycle and a lorry in Cookstown. An era had ended.
The 1950s dawned with the Coosktown 100 as popular as ever.
In 1954 a young Belfast lad, Sammy Miller, making his road race debut, won the 100 miles handicap on a 350 c.c. AJS at 73.97 m.p.h. It was a very impressive performance indeed, as he took second in the scratch class behind the much more experienced Bob Ferguson. Though Miller was a superb road racer, it was as a trials rider that he would become one of the greatest stars in world motorcycle sport during the 1960s and 1970s, winning almost 1,200 trials.
Another young man made his road race debut at Cookstown in 1954 – Patsy McGarrity. Riding a 500 c.c. Triumph, McGarrity was one of those flagged off at the finish. Better results would follow in later years.
1955 saw another young star of the future make his road race debut at Cookstown – Tommy Robb. The following year (1956), riding a HJH Special, the 22-year-old won the 200 c.c. event at 61.41 m.p.h. It was the start of a career which would see Robb become one of Ulster’s top international road racers of the 1960s and 1970s, riding factory machinery for the Honda, Yamaha and Bultaco teams.
The original date for the 1958 Cookstown 100 was May 21st, but because of local elections taking place on that day, the race was moved back a week to May 14th. Noel Orr (Matchless) won the 500 c.c. class; Ralph Rensen (Norton) the 350 c.c.; Sam Hodgins (Velocette) the 250 c.c., while Gordon Coulter (New Imperial) took the overall handicap.
But it was the four-lap 200 c.c. race of 1958 which stands in the records books as one of the most significant in the history of the Cookstown 100. Winner, at 70.75 m.p.h., was an 18-year-old from Oxford named Mike Hailwood. It was his one and only appearance at Cookstown. The following decade would see Hailwood reach the very pinnacle of world motorcycle sport. His record speaks for itself – nine World Championships, 76 Grand Prix wins and 14 Isle of Man TT victories. “Mike the Bike”, as he was popularly known, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest riders of all time.
Into the 1960s and a new generation of road racers had arrived on the scene, among them Len Ireland, Billy McCosh, Ray Spence, Ralph Bryans and Dick Creith.
20-years-old Bryans won the open handicap and 350 c.c. class in 1962, returning to win the 500 c.c. scratch race in 1963, before heading off to Grand Prix glory on factory Hondas. Victory in the 1965 World 50 c.c. Championship made him Ireland’s first ever motorcycle world title winner.
Sammy Miller made a comeback to road racing in 1965, after an absence of several years, to win the 250 c.c. race at Cookstown on a Bultaco, just four days after finishing 6th in the same class at the North-West 200.
Patsy McGarrity – a native of the Cookstown district – achieved a long-standing ambition when he won the 250 c.c. race in 1966 on an Aermacchi. Third place in that race was taken by Bill Boyd (Yamaha) from San Francisco, California. Bill, who died some years ago, was father of Wade Boyd, who was a regular competitor in the Isle of Man TT Races in the 1990s.
Ray McCullough, riding a Bultaco, won the 250 c.c. race in 1967 – the first of 14 wins the popular Dromara rider scored at Cookstown.
1968 saw a new name on the list of Cookstown winners – Brian Steenson. At just 21 years old, he won the 250 c.c. and 350 c.c. races. He was back the following year (1969) to take another double – 350 c.c. and 500 c.c. Tragically, the talented Killyleagh, Co. Down, rider lost his life in an accident during the Senior TT of 1970.
Fourth place in the 1969 250 c.c. race went to Czechoslovakian Grand Prix star Franta Stastny (Jawa). Stastny had stayed over from the previous Saturday’s North-West 200, and his fourth place finish came after a race-long battle with Strabane’s Albert Miller (Aermacchi). The Czech rider was the centre of attraction – a large gathering of fans surrounding the popular Stastny on Cookstown’s Main Street. Stastny and his Jawa factory mechanic were reported to have enjoyed the local hospitality, particularly the Bushmills whiskey!
Tom Herron put his name on the Cookstown winners list in 1970 when he won the 350 c.c. race after a tough battle with Glenavy’s Cecil Crawford. On the previous Saturday Herron had won the 350 c.c. race at the North-West 200 beating many top international riders in the process.
Civil unrest and a difficult security situation resulted in the 1972 meeting being cancelled, in common with several other Ulster road races that year. The cancellations were advised by the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland (Ulster Centre) to take pressure off the police.
Back on the calendar in 1973, the race was moved from Cookstown back to the original Stewartstown circuit. The race would remain on this course up to 1998.
And so to 1974, and the last Cookstown 100 to be held on a Wednesday. Tom Herron – on his final appearance at Cookstown – took a 350/500 c.c. double, sharing the day’s fastest lap with Ian McGregor at 94.04 m.p.h.
Over the following few years the dominant riders at Cookstown were Ray McCullough, Courtney Junk, Joey Dunlop, Steven Cull, Noel Hudson and local man Paul Cranston.
Ray McCullough – the legendary “Dromara Destroyer” – put himself into the record books at the 1977 meeting by setting the first 100 m.p.h. lap of the Sherrygroom circuit on his 350 c.c. Yamaha.
The weather was generally unkind to the Cookstown 100 during the 1980s.
In 1981, heavy rain caused flooding during the races. Similar problems occurred in 1982, and again in 1983 and 1985.
The Club, most likely, would wish to forget about the 1986 meeting! Torrential rain falling from early morning resulted in the paddock being turned into a quagmire, with the circuit flooded in places. After several course inspections, the organisers were left with no alternative but to cancel the meeting. Ironically, just after the decision was made, the rain stopped and half-an-hour later the sun came out!
A Classic race was added to the programme for 1987, giving younger fans a chance to see and hear the great machines of yesteryear in action.
The 75th anniversary of the Cookstown Road Race was marked in 1997. The following year (1998) the event was held for the last time on the Sherrygroom course.
Recognising the need to find a shorter, more manageable circuit, the Club decided during the winter of 1998/1999 to revert to a 3.2-mile segment of the old Orritor course which was used in the 1950s. This proved a great move and was enthusiastically welcomed by riders and fans.
In 2000, a shorter 2.1-mile configuration was used, with the start/finish in front of the popular Braeside Bar and Restaurant.
Due to foot and mouth disease precautions, the Cookstown 100 was not held in 2001.
Back on the calendar in 2002, the event was unfortunately marred by persistent rain. However, despite the conditions, the full programme of 12 races ran off without a hitch.
This year (2016) marked the 16th meeting to be held on the current 2.1-mile Orritor circuit.
To list all the great riders who have competed in the Cookstown 100 over the years would take many pages. Suffice to say that all the top Irish road racers and many from England, Scotland, Wales and further afield have stood on the winners’ rostrum at Cookstown.
For many years the Cookstown 100 had a traditional date in the week following the North-West 200 – either on the Wednesday or Saturday. However, in recent times, the event was always the opening road race of the Ulster and Irish road racing season.
This year (2016) the Cookstown 100 was the third meeting of the Ulster season. This situation was brought about because the Mid-Antrim Club requested an early season date for their Mid-Antrim 150 which was back on the calendar after an absence of a few years, and the Tandragee 100 had to be moved back into April from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May due to its proximity to the North-West 200 on Saturday, May 14.
Much work has been carried out by the Cookstown Club on the Orritor circuit to make the race a more enjoyable and safer experience for riders and fans. The local council has done great work in improving the roads.
This is confirmed by the fact that the fastest lap set during the first event held on this circuit in April 2000 was 77.396 m.p.h. by Adrian Archibald on a Honda. The current lap record stands at 91.480 m.p.h. – set in 2013 by Michael Dunlop, also on a Honda.
Over the last few years, Michael Dunlop has provided us with great racing here at Cookstown, particularly in his battles with the ever-popular Guy Martin, who has said on more than one occasion that the Orritor circuit is one of his favourites.
Riders such as Martin Finnegan, Cameron Donald, Ian Lougher, Ian Hutchinson and Bruce Anstey have all graced the Cookstown 100
The costs of promoting the Cookstown 100 – and, indeed, all road races – have escalated greatly in recent years. The erection of grandstands has helped hugely in keeping spectators off the course between races.
Many years ago, there was only one 100 miles handicap race, with in-built scratch classes. From the mid-1960s that changed to separate 200 c.c., 250 c.c., 350 c.c. and 500 c.c. scratch races with an overall handicap. Nowadays, there can be as many as 18 races on the Cookstown programme. Making it all come together and run smoothly in a mammoth task.
The Cookstown Road Race has a tremendous safety record. In the 94 years of its existence there has been just one fatality. That occurred in 1989 when 26-years-old Belfast rider Joe Magee crashed on the opening lap of the second 250/350 c.c. race. The 1989 Cookstown 100 was his first road race.
MOST WINS AT COOKSTOWN:
Ryan Farquhar – 26 wins (1996-2012)
Ray McCullough – 14 wins (1967-1979)
Joey Dunlop – 11 wins (1977-1998)
Robert Dunlop – 11 wins (1985-2008)
Phillip McCallen – 10 wins (1987-1996)
CIRCUITS USED FOR THE COOKSTOWN ROAD RACE:
1922 – Sherrygroom
1923 – Race not held (road closing refused by Tyrone County Council)
1924/25 – Sherrygroom
1926/27 – Ardcumber/Tullyhogue
1930-36 – Orritor (7.1 miles)
1937 – Race not held (bridge on course under repair at the time)
1938 – Orritor
1939 – Race not held (insurance problem)
1940-45 – World War Two
1946-1963 – Orritor
1964-1970 – Grange
1971 – Orritor
1972 – Race not held (security situation)
1973-1998 – Sherrygroom
1999 – Orritor (3.2 miles)
2000 to date – Orritor (2.1 miles)
2001 – No race held – due to foot and mouth disease precautions