Flag marshals help to save lives at North West 200

By Keith BurnsideBBC NI News
A spectator was airlifted to hospital after a serious crash at last year's North West 200
A spectator was airlifted to hospital after a serious crash at last year's North West 200

The 2015 North West 200 was marred by a potentially life-threatening horror crash in which two riders were injured, one seriously, and a spectator airlifted to hospital.

But thanks to the skill of the Motor Cycle of Union medical team, ably assisted by some of the dedicated 800-strong team of highly-trained volunteers, loss of life was averted.

Austrian rider Horst Saiger has recovered from his injuries and will compete again at this year's event, but Crumlin's Stephen Thompson continues his long rehabilitation, which has included having a prosthetic arm fitted.

Violet McAfee, the spectator involved in the incident, which occurred between York Corner and Mill Road roundabout during the Superstock race, plans to return to watch this year's event.

Flag marshals provide vital function

When it comes to aiding safety at high-risk sports such as motorcycle road racing, flag marshals are among those on the front line, performing an essential function.

They are based track-side at the North West, 63 of them, and are strategically placed around the 8.9-mile circuit.

That's roughly a flag marshal every 200 metres, and all are in line of sight of each other.

The 'flagger' performs an essential function as the eyes and ears of the riders, warning them of conditions up ahead.

Their flags range from yellow which means 'slow down and prepare to stop', to red which means 'stop immediately'.

A flag with red and yellow stripes warns of a lack of adhesion on the surface of the track.

Volunteers involved in team effort

During racing the flag marshals work in conjunction with over 230 road marshals, 120 first aid personnel, a minimum of 10 doctors and nearly 40 amateur radio medical emergency communication (Raynet) operators, to provide the safest possible racing conditions for riders, spectators and residents alike.

The human interest stories surrounding the international event this year include a mother and daughter flagging together for the first time in the history of the North West 200.

In the past, families have been represented by fathers and sons and even grandfathers, but there has never been an all-woman team.

Florence Burns, a nursing auxiliary at Craigavon Area Hospital, and her daughter Naomi have volunteered for this year's event.

North West debut

They have both flagged before, but never at the North West 200, and they will be based be at the entrance to the start-finish area at the paddock.

Naomi is a student who hopes to become a drama teacher and she is planning to take an HND in Performing Arts at the South-Eastern Regional College in Bangor in September.

In the past she has been handed the responsibility of taking charge of the start-finish flag at the Mid-Antrim 150, Tandragee 100 and Cookstown 100 races and has also performed lap scoring duties.

Florence has been involved in road racing in Ireland for over 15 years.

Florence Burns with Chief Flag Marshal Keith Edgar and her daughter Naomi at the North West 200
Florence Burns with Chief Flag Marshal Keith Edgar and her daughter Naomi at the North West 200

The "buzz and atmosphere" excites her, but also being part of what she describes as the "large family" of racing. She also maintains a keen interest in the welfare of the riders and their families.

They are two of the hard-working individuals who work under the supervision of Keith Edgar, the Chief Flag Marshal at the North West 200.

This is his second year in the post, but the taxi driver been attending the speed spectacular on the north coast for over 25 years.

Keith looks forward to the five road races and more than 20 short-circuit races he attends every year.

He does it for the "enjoyment and craic", and would encourage more people to sign up and help out.

Chief Marshal Cathal Cunning echoed Keith's appeal.

"In the past it's been very much a generational thing, with grandfathers, fathers and sons all helping out," he said.

"With just three years to the 90th North West 200 and 13 to the centenary, we're trying to encourage younger volunteers."