The ultimate price of passion
Sixteen months after the tragic death of 29-year-old biker Martin Finnegan in the Tandragee 100, the shock and grief over the loss has not left his widow Brenda. She tells JOHNNY WATTERSONabout coping with the pain and bringing up their daughter Rachel alone
MARTIN Finnegan’s life came to an end on a perfect summer’s day at Tandragee. His motorbike hit a bank and he died on the road on May 3rd of last year. He was 29 years old and the most talented road racer of his generation, a diamond in the sport, a son, a brother, a father and a husband. Four days after his death, an estimated 10,000 attended his funeral in Lusk.
The moments before he crashed, Martin realised there was something wrong with his 600cc Yahmaha. The front brakes had catastrophically failed and he wrestled to slow the bike down coming to a T-junction. He did everything. All of his talent, his renowned style, his natural instinct and the hair-trigger courage that had brought him to the top of road racing wasn’t enough. Speed took control and the brilliance of one of the princes of the sport fell short.
Martin died instantly, hitting a bank as he plunged into Marlacoo Corner at 150mph. While he intuitively hammered down through down the gears and the bike skidded 130 metres, the impact was inescapably fatal.
“Before the race, I was sitting on this chair that swivelled around,” says Martin’s widow Brenda. “Martin stepped outside the motor home and he swung it around. He said ‘I love you so much’ and kissed me. I thought he was getting soft, you know fellas . . . his dad was there. Ten minutes later, he was dead.
“I remember the doctors coming over and saying ‘we did everything’. I was standing there holding Martin’s father’s hand. They said ‘we couldn’t save him’. Now I live every day without Martin and it’s torture.”
From that moment in May of last year, Brenda’s life unravelled, and in a sense she went to battle for her own preservation. A life as it was was no longer, and the weight of profound grief and the sense of loss threatened to crush her. She said to herself ‘no alcohol, no drugs’ and stuck with it.
She was buoyed up by the tight community of road racers and as Martin was one of the cutting-edge talents, they rallied as they have always done. Road racing’s dubious strength is that, of any sport in Ireland, they are the most skilled, the most practiced at managing death.
May 3rd, 2009, the first anniversary of Martin’s death, was a difficult day. When it arrived after an unimaginable year in which Brenda thought she had finally come around to accommodating the changes in her life, she was again staggered by the intrusion of Tandragee.
“The anniversary was the worst,” she says before painting a most painful image of grief and isolation. “I watched the sun rise sitting on his grave.”
BRENDA FINNEGAN is too smart to be maudlin, too self- sufficient to fall prey to a life of self-pity, too devoted to her four-year-old daughter Rachael to filter or diminish their lives through catastrophe. She knows her time with Martin was as part of a club, a lifestyle that revolved around machines, speed and danger.
She chose to never get close to the sport. She was never attracted to the engine capacities or the mechanics or the perceived glamour. She never saw thrills in tipping around country lanes at 180mph inches from dry stone walls and post boxes. But the man she loved did.
In her head was always the thought that if his mind was on her concerns, then she too, unacceptably, became part of his risk. She didn’t want him exiting airborne from a humpback bridge with her anxieties competing with the right line on the next bend. She saw herself as a contributor to his well-being and played just about any role that could help him stay safe.
“I didn’t go to much racing. I just went to support Martin,” she says. “When I met him first, I felt the motorbike racing was a tick on the negative side for him. It was not my world.
“People in the racing scene are excellent. They text me and call me and support me and Rachael. His whole family are involved. I can’t say enough. There is a loyalty, and although I’ve always said that road racing has nothing to do with me, it has. It’s the very fibre of who I am. But my involvement in it stopped when Martin lost his life.
“The thing about him was that he truly believed in his own ability. It wasn’t like I’m willing to take a chance. That never came into it. He truly believed it was never going to be him.
“I’d say, ‘Martin, I know you are great. I know you are an amazing rider, but there’s things you cannot control.’ I said ‘you can’t move walls or telegraph poles’. It was a way of life. He believed it would never happen to him, I hoped it would never happen to him. That’s where we were different. ”
Living with fear. Living with an addict. Brenda carried the fear, Martin the addiction.
Although she supported him and rallied and took pride in his stylish talent, although she occasionally basked in his light and, close to him, could understand and feel the allure of being an heroic figure in the sport, there were constant reminders that brought her back to ground.
In 2004, she went to an industry dinner dance with Martin. It was the usual. He knew everyone. They all knew him. At their table, they sat with other well-known racers. Richard Britton, a regular visitor to their home, was there with his wife Maria, as was Darren Lindsay and his partner Kerry. The three couples posed for a photograph. She remembers the occasion, the carefree night.
“The three of us are now all widowed. The three of them are dead. That’s four years later. I know Louise Dunlop as well (her husband Robert and his brother Joey both died racing). I knew John Donnan too. He died at Tandragee the year before Martin. I know so many widows in their late 20s, early 30s.
“Every time someone died, it would remind me. And I did argue with Martin. I’d say why are you doing this? He’d be going ‘I know . . . I know.’ Time would go by and before you knew, you’d be back in the racing paddock. It had a certain buzz about it. They’d make you tea, mind your child. You trusted people. Martin needed that feeling. Friends, family all made him feel secure. I look back and think maybe, maybe I should have dome something differently.”
Martin, usually, didn’t crash. Riders are always breaking their arms, skidding into walls, going to hospital. Martin, the class act, didn’t. In the years she’d known him, he’d fallen off perhaps twice. He didn’t take risks. He was not a young man living on the edge but each passing month a more devoted father.
On the day they travelled to Tandragee, Rachael believed they were going on summer holidays. Martin’s father Jim was watering the mobile home. His brother Sean called over to wish them luck. His sister Elizabeth came down the drive to help. Margaret, his mother, was in the shops getting messages.
The day before, Martin had spoken of winding down. They had wistfully considered a future in Australia. But even still, he used to say that he was addicted to road racing. Brenda believes he might have been.
“He’d get off the bike after a race and couldn’t hold a pen for autographs,” she says. “He’d be shaking with the adrenalin rush. When he came home he couldn’t sleep. It was a huge anti-climax for Martin to come home to normal family life.
“The day we left, I was completely happy. We were a little family heading off. Tandragee was our first race meeting as a married couple. We were only six months married.”
Brenda Finnegan is not hardened or beaten down by her misfortune, but rather has an extraordinary sense of clarity about life in the death zone, about how genuine her love of Martin was, how painful the loss has been and how she needs to move on with Rachael. She has no alternative.
“My opinion of road racing has never changed,” she says. “I’ve always thought it was too dangerous. And look at me, I’m living proof. How can I say it is not dangerous, how can I? I’m here, a widow at 29 with a young daughter.”
Brenda has Martin’s Arai racing helmets stacked up in the front room running up the left side of the fireplace, including the one in which he died. She will not turn away. Part of the comforting process is that things central to Martin’s life still live with her day to day. Like road racing always will. Like Tandragee too.
The Flying Finnexhibition, by Stephen Davison, from which these images are taken, takes place today in St MacCullins Round Tower Church, Lusk, Co Dublin from 11am to 5pm. Finnegan’s race bikes will also be on display. A similar event will be held on October 11th from 1pm at the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre, Ballymoney, Co Antrim.