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 Trip To Tallinn - Part 1

I am very much aware that there is a growing feeling, even amongst bike fans, that it is perhaps time that the tributes to Joey Dunlop were drawn to a close and that we should all start to look forward. I do have a certain amount of sympathy with this opinion, and certainly agree that we should start looking to the future.

This article, however, makes no apologies for wallowing in Joey Dunlop nostalgia, memories and tributes, and describes my time spent with a number of people who knew and raced with him, so I would advise anyone who feels they don't want to read any more material of this nature to click off this page immediately. My decision to travel to Tallinn for this year's race meeting was very much a personal one. It was borne of my admiration for Joey Dunlop, and the sense of shock and disbelief which I still feel that he is no longer with us. I wanted to see the place where Joey enjoyed racing so much, and to meet some of the people with whom he enjoyed such good times in Eastern Europe over the later years of his career. I also wanted to see for myself the scene of his tragic accident and to try to understand what went wrong. Joey Dunlop was, and will always remain, my greatest hero.

I find it hard, now, to believe that I actually used to admire professional footballers, a breed which I now largely despise. Joey was everything the average professional footballer is not - he had no interest in money, fame or publicity of any kind. He was just one of the lads who was in racing, certainly over recent years, purely for the love of the sport. I would imagine he could relate to, and feel more at ease with, say, Joe Bloggs at number 62 in the Lightweight than with the supposed 'stars' - yet he was the greatest star of them all. Joey was the greatest sportsman I have ever seen, and his performance in winning the 2000 Formula One TT at the age of 48 was unquestionably the greatest sporting achievement I have ever witnessed - and I follow a number of sports. I couldn't believe how emotional I felt as he went round on his final lap when it was obvious he was going to win - a quite extraordinary feeling. We'll never see Joey again - I can just about accept that now - but the memories of him will live on forever.

The corner that ended the life of the greatest Road Racer ever.

I arrived at Tallinn Airport (from the Isle of Man via Manchester and Copenhagen) at around 9.30pm on a gloriously sunny, balmy evening. My hotel, the Pirita, is right on the seafront overlooking Tallinn Bay, a long curving sweep of a bay with a marina, and the scene of the watersports events at the 1980 Olympics when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union (it became independent in 1991). The Pirita area of Tallinn is approximately 3 miles north of the medieval walled city centre, which I hope to visit at some stage of my trip. Having checked in and dumped my bags in my room (very comfortable, en-suite with a balcony overlooking the bay) I decided to have a wander up to the start/finish area of the circuit (it was still quite light at 10.30pm) to see if there was any sign of activity. I realised this would involve going past the spot where Joey crashed, but felt that I may as well get this ordeal out of the way right at the start, after which I could relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend. It is, to all appearances, a comparatively innocuous left-hand curve, but obviously this is deceptive. This whole section of the course has been newly and superbly resurfaced, and the exit from the corner now has a 4-foot high angled grass bank which has only just been constructed, indeed it hasn't fully grassed over yet. This now affords a degree of protection from the roadside trees, which was so sadly absent last year. It is a very fast corner, slightly uphill and with a favourable camber, which leads onto the start/finish straight. Chillingly, the scars on the trees which Joey's bike hit are still starkly evident. This grass banking is the site of a brand new memorial plaque to Joey - this features a Celtic cross on the road side and the inscription 'Joey Dunlop 1952-2000' on the other side. I wandered up to the start/finish area and immediately recognised the green wooden officials' hut from last year's TV pictures. The paddock area lies behind the hut, but only one truck is parked there yet - this was John Caffrey's. As it was now around 11pm I decided against knocking on his door, preferring to meet up with the competitors tomorrow. I called at an off-licence on the way back to the hotel and bought a bottle of the local firewater 'Vana Tallinn' - this is a very sweet and very potent (45%) liqueur. To give some idea of how cheap things are in Estonia, this cost me 100 Kroons, which is about £4 - I'm going to like this place!

Dave with Paul Hunt and Chris Hayes at the memorial for Joey

I went down to breakfast at around 9.30am, and sitting at one of the tables on his own was a familiar-looking figure. I was 99% sure it was Sam Graham (Joey's long-time mechanic) and then 100% sure when I spotted the Joey tattoo on his arm. I asked him if I could share his table, and then introduced myself. He seemed genuinely delighted that someone had wanted to travel to Tallinn out of respect for Joey, and then stunned me by telling me that Robert and Jim Dunlop, along with Stephen Watson and camera crew from BBC Northern Ireland, were here and also staying in the hotel - I had had absolutely no idea about this. He also told me that there is a ceremony at 1pm today to unveil the memorial plaque at the site of Joey's accident, which again I hadn't known about. Apparently the rest of the group had had a very late and very convivial night out in Tallinn, and were unlikely to make the 10am 'cut-off' for breakfast! Sam is a genuinely nice guy, really friendly and approachable, and who obviously idolised Joey - he would have been happy to talk about him all day. He was quoted on TV following Joey's death last year saying that Joey was actively contemplating his retirement from racing when he went to Tallinn, but he told me today that he now doesn't believe this was the case - he definitely thinks Joey would have gone on and on. While the rest of the group were out on the town last night, he went for a quiet walk round the circuit, and commented on the obvious dangers.

At just before 10 o'clock, Jim Dunlop and one of the cameramen struggled in to breakfast, looking decidedly second-best! Robert, Jim and Sam are going back home straight after today's ceremony as Robert is racing at Dundalk on Sunday, but Stephen Watson is staying to cover the racing tomorrow. Apparently the Estonian Government had invited Robert, Jim and their father Willie to come over for the ceremony but Willie didn't want to come, so Sam came in his place. As I had a couple of hours to put in before the ceremony I decided to go for a walk round the circuit, and to take photos of every section.

The Tallinn races are held on the 'Pirita-Kose-Kloostrimetsa' circuit which is 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) in length. Roughly two-thirds of the circuit runs through pine-forests, the remainder is along one lane of the dual carriageway which runs along the coast road. It is what I would describe as a real 'racers' circuit with lots of fast sweeping bends more typical of a short-circuit that your average road course. Most of the bends have favourable cambers and much of the circuit has been resurfaced since last year. The close proximity of the trees to the road is obvious, but I honestly don't think it's as dangerous as many other road circuits - certainly nowhere near as dangerous as the TT Course.

A map of the circuit can be found at

The opening ceromony of Joey's tribute

Having completed my on-foot lap I made my way back to the paddock, which was much busier than it had been last night, and introduced myself to a number of the British riders. John Caffrey was worried that I was a policeman at first (!) but immediately befriended me when I promised to bring some beers up tonight! I also met Dave Woolams and Dave Kerby - like John they are long-time campaigners on the Eastern European circuit and are now well known to millions following their appearances on the 'Joey' video. Dave Kerby was most amused that I recognised him as being the man who 'Joey lapped more than anyone else', and was quite happy to admit that this is probably true! He also told me how old he is - I wouldn't dream of revealing this of course, except to say that he'll soon be able to save himself a considerable amount of money by using the bus! I was told that the Manxies (Paul Hunt and his crew) are staying at the riders' camp a couple of miles away but will be attending the ceremony at 1pm.

We then made our way up the road to be in good time for the ceremony. Despite the great sadness which we all still feel at the loss of Joey, it was a really dignified and fitting tribute to him. In attendance were Robert, Jim and the BBC N Ireland crew, Estonian television, competitors, club officials and government representatives including the British Ambassador. A number of short speeches were made in both English and Estonian, including John Caffrey speaking of Joey's love of Eastern Europe and his desire to have come back again this year. Robert and Jim then unveiled the plaque, and several floral tributes were formally laid, including one from Linda, the five children and baby granddaughter. All in all it was a very moving ceremony, and very tastefully done.

After the formalities were over individuals were given the chance to lay their own tributes. A Manx flag (supplied by David Cretney I believe) was laid by Paul Hunt's crew, and Robbie Black laid a Queen's Hotel (Laxey) t-shirt which was supplied by the landlord - this was featured in the local paper the next day. My own tribute was a photo of Joey on his way to winning the 2000 Formula One TT, marked with the words 'Joey Dunlop - King of the Roads Forever. Sadly missed in the Isle of Man.'

Well-known photographer Stephen Davison (author of the excellent photographic tribute book) then introduced himself to me and asked if he could take some photos of me next to the plaque - I was wearing a 'Joey Dunlop - Road Racing Legend' t-shirt. I then had a chat with Robert Dunlop and asked him what he thought of the circuit. He too commented on the obvious dangers, but said he could fully understand why Joey loved it - it was very much his type of circuit and his type of race meeting. He said he could visualise what line Joey would have been on all the way round the circuit. He and Jim then agreed to pose for a photo for me - they looked like the mafia in their shades!

Robert had earlier been talking to the young Estonian rider who had been close behind Joey on the lap before his crash, and he had said that the back end of the bike had been sliding about badly. I then spoke to Stephen Watson, who was still feeling a little the worse for wear after last night's festivities! He asked me if he could do an interview with me sometime during the racing tomorrow, which I somewhat nervously agreed to!

I wandered back down to the paddock area and had a chat with Dave Kerby - mainly about his memories of Joey on the Eastern European circuits. He is clearly still shaken by the events of last year, especially as he was with Joey at the start of the fateful 125 race, and held the bike up for him while he changed tyres on the line. He was adamant that the accident was totally due to the weather conditions. It has been well documented that Joey had a full wet tyre on the front and an intermediate on the back, which Dave felt was a good choice for the conditions at the start of the race when the track was drying.

On the second lap of the race, though, there was suddenly a torrential downpour with the rain literally bouncing off the road. As the road surface on the fateful corner was quite rutted last year a lot of water was lying in the grooves, the intermediate rear tyre just wasn't able to cope with it. By this time Paul Hunt, Kevin Cringle, Robbie Black and Chris Heyes were back in the paddock area and told me about the travel problems they had had en route to Estonia. Apparently they did not quite have the correct paperwork - I think they were missing the log-book of the van - and this had caused them to have to drive several hundred extra miles in a bid to find people in authority to allow them through. They'll learn for next time! They're out partying tonight and tomorrow and invited me to join them, so will hopefully catch up with them at some stage, along with two more guys from the Isle of Man, Ronnie Russell and Ed Jury who are flying out today.

Dave and the view from his hotel room

It was then time for the competitors to 'sign-on' for the racing at the riders' camp a couple of miles up the road, and Dave Kerby gave me a lift in his van along with John Caffrey, Roy Jeffreys and Martin Konig. The camp consists of about 30 wooden igloo huts with two beds in each, toilet and shower facilities in a separate building, but most importantly a couple of bars! The signing-on was in the basement of the roadside bar which doubles as the headquarters for the organising club. This room has been turned into something of a shrine to Joey with posters and newspaper articles everywhere, and many of the tributes which had been laid at the site of the monument today had been brought up here for safekeeping.

We then returned to the paddock, and I walked back to the hotel for a couple hours. Having had a bite to eat and visited the off-licence (again!) to get a few nice cool beers I then went back up to the paddock to meet up with the gang there and have a few drinks. These guys (John Caffrey, Dave Woolams, Roy Jeffreys, Dave Kerby, Martin Konig etc) have been doing the Eastern European road races for years and just love the whole, laid-back lifestyle surrounding them. John Caffrey was highly amused at the problems Big H and party had had with their paperwork - 'amateurs' he called them! John and some of the others did the Riga races in Latvia last weekend and are off to the island of Saaremaa next week. He's then off to race in Moscow. He was saying that he first raced at Tallinn in 1989 when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, which he described as seriously scary - such a contrast to the present day when they now receive such a warm welcome.

It was great to be among them listening to all the stories of their previous campaigns - although it was noticeable that they didn't talk too much about Joey, even when I tried to steer the conversation in that direction. I had the feeling that last year was so traumatic that they didn't want to think about it that much, and I can't blame them. One thing I noticed was that, despite being surrounded by trees and close to a river on a warm night, there were hardly any flies - on this sort of a night at home you'd get eaten alive! Apparently they do get 'mozzies' here, but on this particular night there didn't seem to be any about, and not even any midges.

I headed back to the hotel at around 10 o'clock, and had a huge 2-course meal with a couple of beers for the equivalent of about £7.50! By this time I had already decided that if I come back to Tallinn I'll definitely stay at the camp rather than in a hotel - excellent though the hotel is. It had proved quite difficult to get much information about the meeting beforehand, even via the internet, and I felt that for a first visit a hotel was the safest option. Having been starved of road-racing all summer,

I was really looking forward to the following days racing, which I will describe in the second part of this journal.

by David Griffiths

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