The introduction of admission charges at Irish National road races is an achievable proposition if the will exists to ‘take the bull by the horns’, it has been claimed.
Alan Drysdale, Chair of the 2&4 Wheel Motorsport Steering Group Ltd, has previously examined the viability of seeking a legislative change to give race promoters the power to charge an entry fee at road races. However, he has questioned the desire of clubs within the MCUI Ulster Centre to seriously push the issue forward.
In an exclusive interview with the News Letter, Drysdale says the challenge of securing a change in current laws is not insurmountable, although he admits it may not provide the answer to the current financial challenges stacked against race organisers in the face of rising insurance costs and snowballing claims.
As revealed by the News Letter in January, insurance premiums for Irish National races in Northern Ireland have risen by as much as £4,000. Excess payments have also soared to £2,500 for each individual claim, up from £1,000 last year.
Clubs have been placed under significant financial strain and leading figures within the sport have predicted the hikes could sound the death knell within three years.
The Mid Antrim 150, Kells and Killalane races have been cancelled this year, leaving a total of six National meetings standing: Tandragee, Cookstown and Armoy in the Province and Skerries, Walderstown and Faugheen in the Republic.
The prospect of changing the legislation to allow admission fees has been mooted as a key solution to easing the burden on clubs - one Drysdale says is, in theory, a workable proposal.
“We have never come up against a brick wall as such and I have to say I am surprised at some of the statements that have been made, because the clubs in the [MCUI] Ulster Centre decided some months ago not to go for this.
“The problem is you can’t charge until the road is actually closed because you’re essentially preventing people’s right of way on the public road – that’s what it amounts to.
“We did sit down and look at it with the Department of Infrastructure to ask if there is a way we can do this and the consensus was that yes, there probably would be a way.
“However, once you go for a change in the legislation, you don’t know what the result of a public consultation is going to be or what sort of feedback is going to come from it,” he added.
“You may well find a lot of anti-road racing feedback comes back and you have to be particularly careful here in Northern Ireland that you are not disrupting people’s right of passage on a public road: that would be the territory we would be venturing into and to be honest, the amount of effort that would be required to see it through would be incredible.
“I recall the effort it took for myself and the 2&4 team to get the contingency arrangements in place at the North West 200; it was unbelievable in terms of the consultation questions that had to be answered, and that was with widespread support.
“Nobody is saying it’s impossible, but the big question will always be: What do you say to someone who argues that they are not going to the races, who says they don’t want to be impeded in any way, that they just want to pass through?” Drysdale said.
“I personally have no confidence that all the clubs would do it. They can all charge spectators into the paddocks or grandstands but some of them choose not to, so if they won’t charge for that, why are they concerned about the ability to charge at road-ends?”
In January, the establishment of a Motorsport Taskforce was announced to help address safety issues and explore how to enhance motorsport events in Northern Ireland.
Drysdale, though, says any potential change in terms of admission charges will prove extremely time consuming.
“If the Motorsport Taskforce gets up and running then ideas will come out of that, but this won’t happen unless someone grabs it by the horns and moves it up the legislative agenda.
“It will not happen until 2019 at the earliest because you need time to work with the Department and agree what the legislation will be.
“I suspect, though, that any change would come with a lot of conditions; not because they want to, but because in any public consultation people will want to have safeguards and I feel it could make it fairly difficult to operate around.
“It’s a non-runner at the North West because there are so many residents around the area that you could never make it work there.
“It works ideally at Dundrod because you can close off the access roads and charge in at the road-ends,” he added.
“If the will is there for change we can certainly get something up and go forward but whether or not that will solve the problems, I don’t honestly know.
“It’s a strange situation when we’re looking at getting more spectators to come to the races and pay, whenever the problem is that some spectators are making claims because they are getting hit by bikes and whatnot.”
Drysdale also has reservations over whether or not entry fees would prove the answer to the current financial squeeze faced by promoters.
“Would it all be worth it? If the spectators don’t want to pay, or a significant number don’t want to pay – and I don’t know how significant that number is – then just because you put legislation in place won’t make them pay.
“As things stand anyway, it is very unlikely the legislation would change when there is no NI Assembly.”
He is also unconvinced by the philosophy that an overall promoter taking control of the Irish National road racing scene is the way forward.
“It’s been suggested that a professional promoter needs to come in but I don’t see how that would work. Look at the effort it takes to run the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix alone, never mind the other National road races. You would need a big organisation to come in and do that and if that one organisation ever ran into financial trouble for whatever reason, then you run the risk of losing the whole lot.
“I actually believe it is more beneficial that each event is individually managed by the clubs. A single promoter would also be looking for a big fee to take it all on.
“I do think the Ulster Centre and the clubs need to join together and look more closely at where people are allowed to stand to try and reduce the amount of incidents that result in people being injured, to try and cut down on the amount of claims.
“And we also need to hope that we can continue to get insurance in the future.”