Northern Ireland has produced its fair share of champions on the World and UK stages of short circuits in recent years – but it also hosts a long-running race meeting of which it can be proud.
The Sunflower Trophy was first held in 1977 and a look at the list of winners and competitors looks like a ‘who’s who’ of UK motorcycle racing.
Joey Dunlop won the inaugural race and other names inscribed on the coveted silverware include six-time World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea and former 500cc Grand Prix riders Rob McElnea and Ron Haslam.
The event has been canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic but returns to the calendar this Friday 21 and Saturday 22 October after a two-year break.
Ahead of the weekend’s action at Bishopscourt, we reflect on some of the highlights from more than four decades of racing and consider the outlook for this year.
Local heroes and big British stars
The Sunflower Trophy, traditionally held in October at the end of the British short circuit season, has attracted some of the biggest names and teams from British racing.
As well as winners Dunlop, Rea, Haslam and McElnea, those who have graced the paddock include former multiple Superbike World Champion Carl Fogarty, as well as former British champions such as Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, James Whitham, Brian Morrison and Trevor Nation.
The event gave riders from Northern Ireland the opportunity to showcase their skills against some of the best in the business, with regular Irish short-circuit privateers Michael Swann and Rodney McCurdy regularly mixing it up with the visiting contingent for many years .
More recently, local talent, like Rea, Michael Laverty, who has won the event a record six times, and two-time winner Glenn Irwin, have tasted success on factory-supported machines.
NI riders dominated the event’s first decade, with the legendary Joey Dunlop, best known for his road racing exploits, showing he could transfer his ability from public road courses to short circuits by triumphing in 1977 and 1978.
Noel Hudson, Alan Irwin (2), Sam McClements, Johnny Rea, Steven Cull and Mark Farmer also took the top step of the podium, ahead of a string of successes from riders from England and Scotland.
Ray Swann, Whitham (2), Haslam, McElnea, Morrison with three straight wins from 1991-93, Jim Moodie, Steve Hislop (2), Matt Llewellyn and Michael Rutter ensured the trophy stayed on the British mainland from 1987 to 2000 during a period when the race enjoyed regular live local TV coverage.
Castlerock runner Marty Nutt broke the grip of visiting runners with his victory in 2001, ushering in an era where NI runners were once again in the ascendant, with Laverty winning six times, Ian Lowry twice and Rea once . Only the victory of Michael Rutter in 2008 interrupted this decade of NI hegemony until 2011.
Racing didn’t take place in 2012 and 2013, but on his return Essex BSB rider Danny Buchan had back-to-back success on his Kawasakis in 2014 and 2015, with Glenn Irwin doing the same aboard Ducatis supported by PBM in 2016 and 2017.
Hawk Racing mounted on Suzuki Richard Cooper and Tyco BMW by TAS Racing rider Christian Idonthe current lap record holder at Bishopscourt, were the most recent additions to the Distinguished Honor Roll in 2018 and 2019.
Exotic bikes, great races and different tracks
The race, financially supported throughout by Jim Finlay of Finlay’s Food, was held at Aghadowey Circuit in County Londonderry from 1977 to 1986, then at Kirkistown in County Down from 1988 to 1993 and again from 1999 to 2001.
Bishopscourt, near Downpatrick, hosted the race for four years in the mid-1990s and from 2002 to the present day.
Among the exotic bikes to have taken to the grid are 500cc World Grand Prix bikes ridden by Irishmen Eddie Laycock and Michael Laverty and perhaps most famously a factory Suzuki 500 in the hands of Ron Haslam in 1989.
Haslam was involved in a thrilling battle with Northern Irishman Gary Cowan on a DocShop 250cc machine at Kirkistown in one of the most memorable races in ‘The Sunflower’ history.
The race pitted the straight-line speed of Haslam’s Suzuki against Cowan’s cornering technique on his less powerful machine, the latter pushing his rival to the finish line.
Unfortunately, just five months later, the very talented Cowan would be paralyzed from the chest following an accident on the Daytona circuit in Florida.
The most successful team in BSB history, PBM Motorsport, fielded a variety of top-level Superbikes, including the Ducati and Honda that carried Laverty to victory and the Panigale which Irwin rode with success in consecutive years.
What about this year’s meeting?
This year’s Sunflower meeting will take place over two days and will be the final round of the Ulster Superbike and Supersport Championships, which have already been won by record 27-time North West 200 winner Alastair Seeley.
The meeting includes races for Superbikes, Supersports, Supertwins, Lightweight Supersport, Moto One/Supersport 300 and sidecars.
The featured race will take place over 12 laps.
Among the top entries are Cooper, Seeley and Richard Kerr from Donegal, a recent winner of the Superstock 1000cc class at Donington.
Derek Sheils and Eunan McGlinchey will ride McAdoo Racing Kawasakis, Jeremy McWilliams rides a Honda Wilson Craig Racing Supersport and Ian Hutchinson joins Cooper on a Yamaha for the 600cc outings.
Irish riders Korie McGreevy, Mike Browne, Jason Lynn, Adam McLean, Simon Reid and teenager Cameron Dawson are also expected to compete for honours, while Cooper will ride a Kawasaki prepared by Ryan Farquhar in the Supertwins.
Iddon withdrew late from the encounter, indicating Thursday evening on his Twitter account that he would not participate in the competition. He was to join Cooper on a Suzuki Buildbase.