Once a staunch critic of road racing, former Grand Prix winner Jeremy McWilliams is preparing to make his competitive debut at the Relentless International North West 200 this week.

The highly experienced veteran racer joined former Isle of Man TT great Steve Hislop by calling for road racing to be banned following the high-profile deaths of Ulster bike legend Joey Dunlop and top competitors Gary Dynes and Andrew McLean during a bleak period in 2000.

At the time both McWilliams and Hislop were adamant road racing should be consigned to the history books to prevent further loss of life, with the Northern Ireland ace saying he was 'never interested in road racing and the risks that go with it', before adding: 'I would never go near one of these road race tracks... not the North West 200, not the TT or any of the country races'.

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Twelve years on and McWilliams is set to compete at the famous international North West 200 for the first time in the newly introduced Supertwin 650 class, which will be held as part of a revamped schedule on Thursday evening along with the first Superstock race.

It won't be his first taste of road racing, with the 48-year-old a previous winner at Macau in the Far East in the past.

But given McWilliams' previous opposition to road racing, confirmation that he would take on the challenges of the 8.9-mile 'Triangle' circuit on the North Coast for the first time this year was met with surprise in some quarters.

However, McWilliams says a greater emphasis on safety within the sport plus a genuine desire to experience the event has led to his change of heart.

"There is no underlying reason why I decided to race at the North West 200 other than I really want to sample it and see what it's like," he said.

"I've been going there since I was 12 or 13. I'm like a lot of riders in that I wear my heart on my sleeve and when you lose a couple of mates and it's pretty raw, then you do tend to criticise in frustration.

"Each of the times it happened [fatal crash], it happened on circuits I would never really consider riding on anyway.

"There are some road races that will always be on our calendar I hope for the good of the sport and the North West 200 is at the top of that tradition as are the Ulster Grand Prix and the TT.

"I've said that in the past [road racing should be banned] and I've told you why," added McWilliams.

"People who criticise you for saying that probably haven't been in that position themselves. Certainly in the past it's been pretty hard to take when it's ongoing [fatal accidents] and we've lost so many of our great riders, but unfortunately it seems to be part of the sport and it nearly seems to be an acceptable part of it, but it doesn't make it any easier.

"I've spoken to quite a few people who have walked away from the sport because of it and I mean people who have been particularly close to those people who are no longer with us."

It seems apparent, though, that McWilliams' viewpoint has softened somewhat over the past decade.

"I suppose in time wounds heal and more and more safety measures have been put into place - that's been the biggest change," he said.

"Certainly over the last couple of years there seems to have been more of an emphasis on safety measures within the sport.

"I'm sure in the future we'll go through dark patches again but hopefully not as bad as we've had before, because there were some bad years."

McWilliams will ride for Ulster road racing star Ryan Farquhar's KMR Kawasaki team in the Supertwin class and is regarded as a podium contender despite his rookie status at the event.