Former 500cc Grand Prix and Formula One World Champion Sir John Surtees takes a fast trip
If attending the Isle of Man TT is not on your “bucket list,” then it damn well ought to be! I can say that after attending the 100th anniversary of the Mountain Course in 2011 and witnessing some of the most astounding feats of bravery (its detractors will say foolishness) that I can recall.
My history with the TT goes back to when I was a 14-year-old boy with my ear glued to the “wireless” speaker. Graham Walker described the super-human battles of my heroes, John Surtees and Bob McIntyre, flying down from Kate’s Cottage to Craig ny Baa aboard the mythical, fire-breathing Gilera and MV Agusta.
Four-cylinder racing motorcycles were a rarity in 1957, and generally only seen at a Grand Prix. And back in those days, the TT was a world-championship event that ran for two weeks—one for practice and one for the races. It was an honor to ride at “The Island,” and the Senior TT was the most prestigious event on the motorcycling calendar.
What is a trip around the 37.73-mile Mountain Course like? Imagine a two-lane, narrow, twisty English country road with all of the adverse cambers, undulations, manhole covers and potential obstacles. This is real road racing. As American competitor Mark Miller said, “I came to the Island because I was attracted to racing on public roads as opposed to racetracks, and this is simply the ultimate challenge.”
King of the Mountain: The late, great Joey Dunlop is remembered with this Memorial statue
My own first experience of the course came as a passenger in a 3.5-liter Rover driven by the late, great Mike Hailwood. My second trip was onboard a BMW R1200R complete with luggage at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I was cruising and exploring, naming off the parts of the course in my head that I had heard Hailwood describe in my movie, Take It To The Limit. “Flat out down Bray Hill ...160 mph, mind the bump; the first-gear right-hander at Quarter Bridge; first the left, then the right at Bradden Bridge; past the church; faster and faster until you flash by the brick wall at Union Mills; then on to Ballacraine” … where we changed the film cassette in the onboard camera bolted to Hailwood’s bike back in 1977. This was like visiting hallowed ground where I had a lot of existential knowledge but very little practical experience.
Then, suddenly, not far after Laurel Bank, a group of three riders passed me going about 100 mph faster than I was—and I was doing 60! This is what the locals call “Mad Sunday,” when almost anything goes and there is no speed limit.
These days there are more races than there were in the ’50s—eight including the two sidecar races and the TT Zero for electric bikes. Races are still run based on the weather, and it is rare that a race will be cancelled but not unusual for them to be delayed or postponed. Given the length of the course, there are plenty of vantage points from which to spectate, but plan carefully since the roads close one hour before any event.
While racers come from all over the world, the vast majority are from the UK—especially Ireland, where public-road races are a way of life. There is talk of organizing a TT Races World Championship Series, which may be growing momentum since the Isle of Man government recently invited “expressions of interest” from individuals or businesses to carry out a feasibility study.
On the other hand, every year someone gets killed at the TT (in 2011 there were three fatalities), and there is the inevitable hue and cry from the milksop politicians and others who want to ban the races because they are too dangerous.
Be that as it may, TT Week is an adventure with much to experience. It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that qualify for any motorcyclist’s bucket list.